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Surrealist stranger in a strange land

August 15, 2003|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

The surrealism of Dutch artist Teun Hocks is as concise as a good joke and warmly humanistic. In the eight large painted photographs that make up his exhibition at Fahey/Klein Gallery, he posits himself -- usually dressed in a paper pusher's coat and tie -- as a lone wanderer in an absurd world, confronting a succession of Sisyphean dilemmas with weary perseverance.

In one, he's standing in a forest holding a kayak paddle and staring down at a fallen tree trunk, presumably contemplating how to transform it -- without tools, materials or instructions -- into a boat. In another, he's on a piece of ice, adrift in an endless sea, watching helplessly as his hat, briefcase and umbrella float away from him in three directions.

Evenly suspended between the naturalism of photography and the fabrication of painting, the works have a visual ambiguity that suggests the realm of a fable. The landscapes are archetypal to the point of being fantastic -- much like early cinematic backdrops -- and the composition of each scenario is shrewdly economical, with no one element feeling extraneous or capricious.

The real delight of the work lies in the fact that all of these scenarios, however ambiguous in their particulars, are rooted in familiar emotions. One -- which depicts Hocks contemplating a placid river while painting, on the canvas that sits beside him, the image of a tempestuous ocean -- touches on the bewilderment we all must feel at one time or another contemplating the disconnect between our inner selves and the outside world.

Another -- which finds the artist on a ramshackle treadmill in the middle of a sweltering desert, his steps simultaneously raising his body temperature and driving the feeble operation of a tiny fan propped up ostensibly to cool him -- describes the ironic futility prevalent in gyms and corporate workplaces throughout the contemporary world.

The photographs of Rodney Smith, on view alongside Hocks', also deal in the absurd, with appealing if somewhat less profound results.

Shot in a crisp, skillful black and white, these images present handsome landscapes strewn with stylish idiosyncrasies. A woman's shoulders and smart black hat form the tip of a tall, cone-shaped rock formation that emerges from a pool of swirling surf. A dapper man in garden-party white stands on stilts in the middle of a misty country road. A couple perches coolly on a pair of A-shaped ladders above the geometric lines of a vineyard, the woman's voluminous skirt forming a perfect black triangle beneath her, and the man raising a wineglass.

Smith's characters -- with their vaguely historical attire and droll, aristocratic attitudes -- are an amusingly chic lot, something like the cast of an E.M. Forster novel run through the mill of Vogue magazine. The men tend toward that most endearing of literary archetypes, the eccentric English gentleman (one leaps down a path waving a butterfly net; another stands at a wall with his head fully inserted into its curtain of ivy, bowler held casually behind his back), while the women evince a sort of continental glamour, slinking through the countryside in off-the-shoulder dresses and dramatically contoured hats.

Substance is most definitely in thrall to style here: There's little indication that we should read these setups as anything but quirky gestures of the artist's imagination. It's quite possible, furthermore, that the pictures would strike a deeper chord -- something more keenly poetic -- were Smith to reduce his reliance on glamour, particularly insofar as his women are concerned.

Taken on their own level, however, as products of their own particular logic, the pictures are strewn with memorable glimpses -- a top-hatted man staring down at another from high in an enormous old tree; a beautiful woman standing alone in a canoe in a swamp, fake butterflies bobbing from her hat; ballerinas perching on tall stone columns like birds -- and remain eminently enjoyable.

Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 934-2250, through Aug. 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


An appreciation of the day-to-day

The charms of Billy Sullivan's current exhibition at Regen Projects are akin to those of a long, lazy summer afternoon.

His handling of paint is loose and casual, his compositions are breezy and his palette is irresistibly cheerful. His choice of subjects -- still lifes and portraits derived from his own snapshots -- is merrily quotidian and reflects an appreciation of life's simpler pleasures: a walk on the beach, a jar of flowers, an affectionate dog.

Given how sweltering our own recent afternoons have been, this joie de vivre is refreshing. Particularly pleasant are two floral still lifes in which the subtle but keen intelligence of Sullivan's color play, well honed over the course of a 30-year career, really comes to the fore.

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