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Gilbert-Rolfe's Art Matches His Words

September 25, 1998|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Winner of this year's Frank Jewett Mather Award for distinction in art criticism, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe has long had a reputation as a prolific, sharp-witted theorist whose paintings never quite measured up to his consistently brilliant essays about contemporary culture and philosophy. At Shoshana Wayne Gallery, his first Los Angeles solo show in seven years goes a long way to dispel this view. Five deeply intelligent and frankly sensuous paintings, accompanied by 15 often dazzling gouaches and watercolors, flaunt so much virtuoso authority that it's impossible not to see this body of work as equaling the level of sophistication maintained by Gilbert-Rolfe's best writing.

The huge main gallery, whose high ceiling and blocky proportions are more suited to sculpture than painting, has never looked better. Every inch of the daunting space feels as if it's suffused with warm energy. Hung high on each wall, as if in an old-fashioned picture gallery, Gilbert-Rolfe's paintings seem to elevate and expand the whole space, taking viewers along with them.

Framed by the entrance, the first painting you see is about as tall and as wide as an adult. Titled "More Than One Thing," its vertical arrangements of chocolaty browns, icy whites and golden yellows appear to slither over and under one another. Although painted with painstaking deliberation, this oil-on-linen slips out of focus when scrutinized. You find yourself blinking to clear your blurry vision.

Setting your eyes in motion with more vigorous energy, two mid-size paintings exploit an autumnal palette. "Space in the Forest" and "Lightness" recall Cezanne's vertiginous images of the material world dissolving into an exhilarating swirl of thin air. Imagine Mont Sainte-Victoire enshrouded in the smoke from a forest fire and you'll have an idea of the dense, flickering light that moves through Gilbert-Rolfe's paintings.

The largest two works rank among his most ambitious and accomplished. Deceptively simple, "Ghost" is a single panel painting that sometimes dissolves into three equal parts and sometimes four. Your eyes are pulled horizontally, then vertically and finally into a rectangular space that spills out of the picture plane.

On the gallery's far wall, the fifth canvas forms the still center around which the entire installation turns. Laid out to accentuate the fact that its composition is out of sync with its edges, "Order, Uncertainty, Movement, Immediacy" seems to unfold in slow motion. Defying time and taking up more space than its literal dimensions imply, this endlessly fascinating painting is part of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

* Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535, through Oct. 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

*

Split Seconds: Larry Fink's engrossing photographs of people at parties should lay to rest the over-used idea that documentary pictures should be examined for evidence of whether the photographer empathized with his subjects or maintained his distance. Simultaneously intimate and dispassionate, the Pennsylvania-based artist's powerfully theatrical pictures at Jan Kesner Gallery demonstrate that the meaning of any work of art has a lot less to do with its maker's feelings than with the often contradictory responses it triggers in viewers.

Loaded with prop-like details or defined by a spare economy of elegance, Fink's beautifully printed black-and-white images rarely lead one to wonder about what kind of guy might have made them. If you do start to speculate about the photographer's character or personality, you soon realize that you're only avoiding your own relationship to his strangely fascinating works.

At once raw and stylish, nearly all of the 52 images on display depict high- and low-profile party-goers, people who have put themselves on public display by attending various formal gatherings. Raucous weddings, staid fund-raisers, gala charity benefits, grungy punk clubs, stuffy museum openings, high-fashion fe^tes, plain town-hall receptions and spectacular debutante balls form the backdrops for the photographer's one-act dramas.

A consummate observer with a talent for capturing fleeting glances and for freezing casual gestures, Fink does away with the stereotype that the rich are soulless robots and the less privileged really know how to have a good time.

Boredom plays a major role at formal occasions across all strata of society. In Fink's art, it links the upper crust and the middle class. Likewise, booze flows freely. Whether it's poured from 1.75 liter jugs or sipped from crystal flutes, it gets some guests to let down their guard while fueling the anger of others.

With an eye for the idiosyncratic, Fink focuses on individuals who stand out from the hubbub swirling around them. His best images depict people whose faces and outfits easily fit into their surroundings, but whose expressions and demeanor somehow suggest that they'd be equally at home on another planet.

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