The visual equivalent of nonsensical rhythms takes physical shape in Joyce Lightbody's collages at ACME Gallery. Titled "Song Maps and Root Laps," the artist's eccentric configurations of cut-up postage stamps, musical notes, fragmented poems, spidery lines and softly tinted colors form wacky cartographies of enchanting lands that are impossible to visit, except in your imagination.
Each of Lightbody's small collages depicts a focused world that seems complete unto itself. Made up of razor-thin lines that echo each other like those on a contour map, these jampacked, labor-intensive works embody the playfulness of Ynez Johnston's fanciful pictographs and the intensity of Bruce Conner's inkblot drawings.
Lightbody's powerful pictures include stamps glued into thick clusters that swell outward, sometimes spilling over the edges of the page. Others juxtapose crisp demarcations and densely interlinked symbols. All suggest the undecipherable vocabularies of secret codes.
Despite this sense of mystery, Lightbody's pieces welcome viewers into their multilayered worlds. Never hermetic or self-absorbed, these user-friendly fusions of abstraction, representation and language are based on the radically democratic idea that art has something to say to everyone, especially when its messages are mixed.
The musical notations that occasionally appear in Lightbody's collages are taken from a populist system known as Shape Note Singing. Enjoyed by Abraham Lincoln, this simple method presumes no specialized knowledge of musical notation. In a sense, it's designed for the musically illiterate. Its goal isn't to match the tone of your voice to a preestablished norm, but to take turns playing off the voices of your counterparts, harmonizing and improvising to make the best of whatever happens to be there.
A similar sort of openness takes shape in Lightbody's loosely systematized art. Each piece is a potential collaboration between image and viewer: What the artist sets in motion is freely available to be taken in many directions by various viewers, depending upon one's proficiency and interests.
* ACME Gallery, 1800-B Berkeley St., Santa Monica, (310) 264-5818, through May 18. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Contradictory Truths: At Jan Kesner Gallery, two series of experimental photographs from the late 1960s by Donald Blumberg anticipate the computer's capacity to manipulate pictures. Long before digitized images became commonplace, the 60-year-old photographer's black-and-white prints messed with photography's seemingly magical capacity to transpose reality to a two-dimensional surface forever frozen in the moment.
In Blumberg's candid shots of people leaving St. Patrick's Cathedral, space appears to warp and time seems to circle back on itself. As unsuspecting, often squinting worshipers stepped from the cavernous church to the bright sunlight outside, Blumberg snapped their pictures, tilting his camera at various angles.
Set against the absolute blackness of the cathedral's dimly lighted interior, the sharply focused people appear to defy gravity's pull, becoming compositional elements aligned on dizzying, diagonal axes. With a click of the shutter, the disorientation they must have felt as their eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight is transferred to the viewer, who must make sense of the off-balanced angles at which they appear to walk.
Blumberg's best prints are made from two or three contiguous negatives. Because the black background hides the line where one negative ends and the next begins, these long, horizontal pictures look like single, wide-angle photos in which impossible events transpire with casual regularity.
In many, the same person appears more than once, sometimes in close-up and sometimes at a distance. In others, it's extremely difficult to determine if the people are alone or in groups. It's even harder to know how they can inhabit the same place yet seem to be standing on discontinuous, steeply tilted grounds.
Another series, shot from Blumberg's television set, similarly fractures sequential reality. Images of politicians, including Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace, look like humorous outtakes from bad acting classes.
Both series toy with the notion that photos tell the truth. Like William Leavitt's recent color pictures, Blumberg's puzzling images demonstrate that good photos tell many, sometimes contradictory truths.
* Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 938-6834, through May 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Pleasure and Pain: About 250 figurines make up Rona Pondick's "Blue," a maddeningly simple sculpture loaded with associations ranging from frightening to funny and riddled with many emotions between these extremes. Most of the laughter elicited by the artist's fetishistic figures is nervous: snickers and giggles that involuntarily erupt when you're uncomfortable and too embarrassed to admit it.