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VALLEY WEEKEND | SIGHTS

Abstract Artists Give Space New Definitions

The four represented in the Century Gallery show all approach and interpret the plane differently.

May 16, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Whatever its wavering state of fashionability, abstraction, like improvisation in music, never dies. It's like a primal force in art, there long before 20th century artists officially recognized it, breaking through the representational instinct to find a potent truth below the surface.

No one should be surprised that abstraction has found its way back into the art world after being pushed to the margins during the more narrative era of the '80s. But it's older and, if not wiser, warier.

As hinted at in the title, "Into the Plane, The Drama of Space in Recent Abstract Paintings," the four-artist show at the Century Gallery deals with artists who have specific ideas about what to do with the picture plane, how to deal with--or not deal with--space. No easily detectable stylistic thread connects the artists, but that's the point: The picture plane is wide open to reinterpretation, again.

Of the artists, Richard Berger is the most definitively contemporary, at least in the sense of being plugged in, media-savvy. With his acrylic on canvas works, Berger takes images from TV, distorting and layering them to create ambiguous collages that both tap into media consciousness and deconstruct that imagery, turning once-rational images into a more contextual rubble. But it's a sensuous rubble.

Any modern TV-gazer will recognize the electron-charged colors and the dizzy visuals of scrambled cable stations that we haven't paid for--a suggestion of techno-plums beyond our reach as TV consumers. Our eyes strain to catch a glimpse of recognizable things, a bit of a face here, a figure in motion there, but the effort ultimately leads us back to an essential void of any meaning beyond the manipulation of space and color. In other words, it is art that comments on the abstract nature of TV.

With his "Circle Series," Steven Robert Johns uses layered primary-colored circles as his building blocks, creating quivering energy and rhythms, despite an austerity of design. The paintings relate to the aesthetics of Minimalism, to the idea of stripping away all sense of perspective. But they are also reminiscent of Robert Delaunay's rainbow-colored Orphist paintings.

A paradox is at work in Johns' works, which though precise and squeaky clean contain hints of wild improvisation bubbling up from beneath the orderly exterior.

Exploring the tension between the surface and the image is also important to Jeanne Jo L'Heureux, who guides our interpretations by calling her series of works-on-paper "Aftershocks." Calm on the surface but unsettling on closer examination, her works dwell on the symbolic potential of serrated edges and fissures. Things seem to be coming apart at some imaginary seams.

A sense of intrusion pervades, as goopy washes of black paint creep in like toxic cloud formations over the purity of white paper. Red accents can be read as dripping blood, and the art generally can be read as poetic accounts of personal calamities or natural disasters.

The largest works in the show are also some of the most understated and muted. Grace Short's abstract canvases consist of dark, delicately modulated planes of color, given rhythm by grids imposed over the elegant murk.

"Hidden Rhythms" is a vertical piece divided into horizontal bands and caked in black and blue layers. "In the Rain" is marked by a crackling surface and tidy skeins of lines scraped into the outer layer of paint. Through it all, the drama in her work comes through a sense of things hidden, covered over.

It's no accident that Short's sense of abstraction and use of space looks fresh yet culturally lived-in. As with the other art in the show, her work is informed by art history and yet personalized into a quest for the '90s, in a timeless, fashion-proof idiom.

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Into the Plane, The Drama of Space in Recent Abstract Paintings."

* WHEN: Through May 26.

* WHERE: Century Gallery, 13000 Sayre St. in Sylmar.

* CALL: (818) 362-3220.

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