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Wesley's World: Intimate, Ambiguous

May 19, 2000|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Wesley's exhibition at Daniel Weinberg Gallery is a compact two-act drama. Only seven paintings (in even fewer colors) are displayed, but enough high-voltage energy crackles throughout the modestly scaled galleries to leave viewers with heads spinning, minds reeling and pulses racing.

The show opens with a tease. Hanging on the far wall of an otherwise empty front room, "Two French Girls Eating a Flower" is a masterpiece of Pop subtlety. In this crisp close-up of two flirtatious women (who are too caught up in the excitement of the moment to care about the opinions of others), Wesley lays out the whole story in solid colors and bold forms while leaving even juicier details to the imagination.

Nearly symmetrical in its mirror-image duplicity, his 5-foot-long acrylic-on-canvas combines the eye-grabbing impact of a billboard with the long-lasting satisfactions of traditional abstractions. The longer you look at Wesley's seemingly simple picture, the more abstract--and the more comical--it becomes.

Eventually the jet-black expanse that forms the women's hair appears to be a starless night sky, which recedes far beyond the horizon line formed by their foreheads. Likewise, the bright orange flower they pull apart with their teeth (as if it were a wishbone) looks as gooey and sticky as a Popsicle on a hot summer day. Together, black and orange call to mind Halloween, whose ghoulish palette gently clashes with the delicate shades of pink and blue Wesley uses to cover the rest of his sweetly sexy canvas.

Hinting at unrepresentable pleasures is one thing, delivering them quite another, and the 71-year-old painter shows himself to be a master of both. To enter the main gallery is to feel as if you have stepped simultaneously into six different bedrooms, where four larger-than-lifesize couples are engaged in passionate embraces and two solitary women sleep--one peacefully and the other even more deeply, lost in a saucy dream.

Measuring between 3 and 5 feet on a side, Wesley's paintings pack so much emotional punch into facial expressions and hand gestures that they rarely depict any body parts below sinuous necks and snuggled shoulders. The sole exception is "Black Suit," in which a nude woman's breasts form symmetrical targets whose contours break the bottom edge of the picture-plane, charging the image with just the right touch of don't-mess-with-me assertiveness and how-dare-you privacy.

With great economy of means, the L.A-born, New York-based painter thrusts viewers into a tumultuous world whose two-dimensional figures evoke bodily responses that are anything but skin-deep. As abstract and formally resolved as they are intimate and psychologically ambiguous, Wesley's worldly paintings mix sophistication and vulgarity in a stimulating blend of embarrassing richness.

* Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 6148 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 954-8425, through July 1. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

*

Latest Line: In a sharply focused show that brings together inkjet prints, screen-size paintings and a self-published book titled "Hand to Mouse," Sally Elesby presents a thoughtful meditation on the question: When is a line not a line?

A provisional answer takes shape in eight modestly scaled computer drawings that line the left wall of Susanne Vielmetter Gallery. Across the surface of each abstract image, hundreds of horizontal lines (and nearly as many vertical ones) form wavy, thread-like segments that simultaneously recall the lines on a TV and those of a woven fabric. Abuzz with visual energy both stimulating and soothing, Elesby's prints suggest that lines are not lines when they join up with others to make patterned planes that viewers can't help but see as spaces.

On the opposite wall, seven odd monochromes flesh out this answer by giving it the warp and weft of three-dimensional reality. Roughly half the size of Elesby's works on paper, each of her quirky paintings consists of a wire grid whose meandering, loosely woven strands have had so many coats of glue and oil paint slathered over them that they seem to be made of nothing but drips.

Elesby affixes these works to the wall by bending the bare ends of four or five vertical wires and pushing them directly into the wall, like homemade pushpins. This makes her paintings appear to float, an effect that is accentuated by the shadows they cast, their soft, flocking-like texture and the fact that their surfaces consist of more space than substance. Here, lines are not lines when they stop defining boundaries and begin to behave like animated objects.

Each of the 16 thumb-size images in Elesby's book gives further form to this idea by transforming the word "line" into nonsensical configurations. In the artist's hands, a printed bit of text becomes a playful parade of cartoonish insects. To thumb through her book is to see that loopy associations carry more weight than clear messages.

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