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What the Fuss May Be About: 4 From Berlin

An exhibition of mid-career artists is marked by their fascination with the very exercise of painting.


Berlin is one of those places that everyone seems to be talking about these days. The exhibition at Christopher Grimes gallery, titled "Bilder aus Berlin" and composed of four mid-career painters who are based in that city, gives a few hints as to why. Intelligently curated by Boston-based collector Ken Freed, the work is stylistically diverse but distinguished by a common fascination with the practice of painting as well as by a notable attraction to issues of architecture and space.

Achim Kobe's two loosely geometrical wallpaper works, each of which covers the surface of a different wall, address the spatial dynamics of the gallery. While the designs are fairly unexceptional, they have a curiously faded, even dilapidated quality that makes them feel soft and rather pleasant to be around.

Daniela Brahm's large paintings of bland, boxy buildings resemble blown-up architectural drawings. With sharp, impersonal lines, flat colors, thin paint and industrial materials like wood and vinyl adhesive, the works are dry. But they also exude an appealing sense of utilitarian optimism.

Erik Schmidt's paintings, by contrast, are thick and wet, with frank compositions (quotidian cityscapes), electric color and oily globs of paint. If Brahm's works look like diagrams, these are more like frosted cakes. The density can be stifling, especially when the works are crowded into the gallery's small back room, but the light that Schmidt manages to convey through the color is quite striking.

Included alongside these paintings are half a dozen surprisingly delicate ink drawings by the same artist. Here, in the absence of color, Schmidt reveals a sound sense of spatial organization and an elegant manner with line.

Anton Henning is the trickster of the group, painting not in a single, identifiable style, but in a variety of guises. One image--a loud, stylized arrangement of yellow flowers--calls to mind the lobbies of mid-priced hotels. Another--the bare chest of a woman, rendered solely in shades of red--looks like something a talented teenage boy might reproduce from a magazine ad. One senses that each of Henning's canvases is only a fragment of a larger conversation that one needs a few more clues to understand.

The impression is explicit in what is perhaps the most exciting of the works, "Interieur No. 85," which depicts a brash pink, orange and turquoise interior with three paintings on the wall: a Van Gogh, a Matisse and one of Henning's own--a sketchy but weirdly satisfying picture of two nude children and a goat that also hangs, full-sized, alongside "Interieur No. 85" in the gallery.

There is a raw sense of pleasure to these paintings, which makes it tempting to discount them at first glance but difficult, ultimately, to resist them.

Each of the four artists approaches the terms of two-dimensional representation in a markedly different manner. But each appears to do so with gusto, which makes for a very likable show on either side of the Atlantic.

Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Oct. 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Testing the Bounds of Photographic Truth

In the photographs that make up his first solo exhibition, Florian Maier-Aichen seems to be treading carefully around the edges of his medium, testing its boundaries and courting its capacity for illusion. In several works, this exploration involves the incorporation of sculpture and other media.

"Faith and Failure" is a photograph of a three-dimensional replica (constructed by the artist) of a text-based drawing by Mungo Thomson. A clever nod to Thomson, for whom replication and imitation are central themes, the work challenges traditional media divisions and befuddles the viewer's sense of scale.

In other works, Maier-Aichen plays with the possibilities of digital manipulation. One of the most beguiling works in this vein is "Untitled (Freeway Crash)," a roughly 4-by-5-foot aerial photograph of a complicated freeway interchange. The image is entirely believable, even banal--but for a small segment of one overpass that has crumbled into several pieces and fallen to the ground below.

Maier-Aichen, who hails from Germany but recently received his MFA from UCLA (his work appeared in the Hammer Museum's "Snapshot" exhibition last year), is clearly a product of the digital age and employs these tricks with minimal self-consciousness. The malleability of the photographic image is a presumption in this work, not a novelty.

That said, what makes the work feel substantial, rather than just clever, is its respect for the aesthetics of the medium. These pictures are, on the whole, gorgeous photographs.

"Untitled (Mount Wilson)" is perhaps the most striking example. An elevated view of L.A. at night, manipulated in some not-quite-identifiable way to give the city an unsettling preternatural glow, the picture reads like good fiction--as truth without the burden of actuality.

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