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Art Reviews

Rapturous Light and Color Fill Atmospheric Images

April 12, 2002|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Light overtakes form in Michael Norton's paintings, the same way it does in the exquisite skies of British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. In fact, Norton's paintings evoke not only the appearance of that quasi-abstract space, but the sensation of entering it and immersing oneself in its radiance. Free of context, external subject or narrative framework, what's experienced is color and pure, rapturous light.

Hints of trees and water emerge in Norton's engrossing new paintings at ACME, but less often than in his work from several years ago. The palette too feels bolder, more assertive. These are intimate portraits of atmospheres, luminous temperaments ranging from foggy whispers to fiery pulsations. Painting all along the rounded edges of the panels reinforces the sense that these are extractions from vast, continuous fields.

A bright luminescence at the core of each field acts as a summons, beckoning the eye into deep, amorphous space. Darker or simply more opaque colors (mostly blue, slate, green or gray) loosely frame the intense light.

Norton conjures distance and movement brilliantly, in one painting, by pairing the electric complementary colors of blue and orange, and, throughout all of the works, by the consistent finesse of his brushwork in egg tempera. Crisp, concentrated edges bring diluted passages to a close; shadows accrete into palpable densities.

The passage of the paint mimics organic processes of sedimentation, condensation and evaporation. In places it seems fluid as a veil; in others, like a fine-grain crust. Every surface is a performance of echoes and breaths.

These paintings, untitled and unanchored as they are, evoke the immersive effects of installations by James Turrell or Robert Irwin. They embrace fully, even on their relatively small scale (tondos barely more than 1 foot in diameter, rectangles under 2 feet per side).

Light, space and personal encounter define Norton's work, which is essentially experiential. While the paintings can be read as depictions of clouds or mists, the more interesting dynamic is that between surface and image, revelation and obfuscation. They demand--and well reward--a long, close study.

ACME, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-5942, through April 20. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Dealing With Gravity

in All Its Meanings

What does physical gravity, the tug of the Earth's core, have to do with emotional gravity, a seriousness of import? And what about gravity's opposite--levity? Does lightness in weight equate to frivolity of purpose?

In her thoroughly absorbing new work at Angles Gallery, Kelly McLane mixes and matches meanings and their visual referents. As disjunctive as they are, the scenes in her drawings and paintings, together with their titles, have a dark, punning logic when parsed. In their curious mix of the banal, the comic and the disastrous, they blur the line between nature and our incursions into it.

They provoke us into asking whether anything we do can be considered unnatural, if we ourselves are natural beings. In the stunning triptych "The Nature of Gravity," gravity works both ways, pulling a plane down from the sky to utterly grave consequence. Like all of McLane's work here, whether painted or drawn, these three paintings are so light of touch that one cannot read them in their entirety from a distance.

The canvases must be considered one at a time, from close proximity, which causes their impact to unfurl gradually, as if we are witnessing a cataclysm in the unreal time of slow motion. All three panels are predominantly white, with a low horizon marked by trees. Working in small, linear strokes, and often leaving large areas unarticulated, McLane exercises meticulous control over the variable intensity within her images.

Selectively heightening detail and adding washes of pale color, she guides the eye through each scene with directorial cunning. In the left painting of the triptych, an airplane noses out of the pale, clouded sky. In the right, the fuselage rests with eerie calm on a nest of broken tree trunks, its gray seats spilling out like so many decayed teeth. The plane downed in rural Pennsylvania on Sept. 11 immediately comes to mind, adding credibility to the work's chilling, elegiac beauty.

Leisure and terror--the light and the heavy--mix again and again in McLane's hushed, haunting images. Striped circus tents and spunky carnival booths promise escapist entertainment. A duck flies south with an arrow piercing its breast. Balloons and blimps hover overhead. Every being seems to seek escape of some sort, either from the physical or the psychic gravity of life on earth.

McLane's work affirms, though, that there is ultimately a quirky continuity to it all, and no real possibility for escape. We might try to defy nature, but all we do, in the end, remains part of it.

Angles Gallery, 2230 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 396-5019, through April 25. Closed Sunday and Monday.

A Photographer Who Embraces Transparency

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