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Diminutive paintings, big picture

January 10, 2003|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

Dori and Joseph DeCamillis have been on the art festival circuit for years. No, you wouldn't have seen their work at Documenta or the Venice Biennale or Art Basel. We're talking the Lakefront Festival of Arts in Milwaukee, the Gasparilla Festival in Tampa, Fla., the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver. Across the country at outdoor festivals like these, the DeCamillises have garnered recognition for their work and reassurance that they're doing what they set out to do: make art that appeals to the average American.

Just what does the "average" American aspire to hang over the sofa? Soviet expatriate artists Komar and Melamid made just that inquiry several years ago in a poll, then methodically incorporated the elements and images that people listed as desirable into kitschy paintings (conceptual projects, really) that reeked of condescension. Dori and Joseph DeCamillis, in their sixth show at Frumkin/Duval, make their appeal to the masses in a more earnest -- and far more appealing -- way. Their paintings are clear, precise and precious in scale. They present the utterly familiar, laced with just a touch of mystery and drama.

The artists, who are married and based in Birmingham, Ala., make L.A. their subject here, specifically L.A. as seen by car. Their oil-on-copper paintings are no bigger than the snapshots they're based on: the largest are 4 by 6 inches, and the smallest, 2 by 2 1/2. The DeCamillises' local road trip takes them past big-box stores and fast-food outlets, on congested freeways and through the spreading rash of suburban housing developments.

Most of their views are seen by the romantic light of dusk, sometimes beneath skies dense with moody storm clouds. The sun sets in violet, mauve and peach behind a McDonald's. The taillights of cars on the freeway gleam dully, like the bloodshot eyes of weary travelers. The red letters of a Texaco station burn like embers against a dark sky, while fluorescents cast a lime glow over a car filling up with gas. Sublime natural light meets the artificial extremity of neon and together they illuminate the ugliness of the architecture of everyday commerce. What results are tiny jewels of delicious ambivalence.

The DeCamillises have been collaborating for a dozen years, but this is the first group of works they've painted separately. It matters little, since there isn't a marked variation in their styles, and the works aren't identified by individual hand. Throughout, they combine a Ruscha-like inventorying of experience (think of his photographs of the Sunset Strip) with a Hopper-derived sense of the melancholy of modern urbanism. The images are tenderly realized, even if sometimes conceived in cynicism. They are sweet little icons, and at the same time scary reminders of the way we live, on asphalt and concrete, engines propelling us from one consumer opportunity to another.

Frumkin/Duval Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-1850, through Jan. 18. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Echo the ordinary, create the hollow

The coyness of Josh Blackwell's new work hides nothing -- no deeper wisdom or cleverness, no slow-to-emerge beauty or complex inner meaning. The work appears slight at first, and over time, feels even more so.

In each of the 18 wall pieces at Mary Goldman (most dated 2002, a few 2003), Blackwell began with a piece of fabric, usually a scarf or handkerchief, and attached to it pieces of paper cut and painted with designs related to those beneath. In "Purple Oval Green," for instance, he started with an old Vera scarf bearing rows of purple and green ovals, and pinned to it a paper overlay with ovals cut out of it, so that it looks like an approximate stencil of the pattern beneath. In "DDD Red Squared," he took a small handkerchief with an embroidered letter D in one corner and pinned paper cut-out Ds around the rest of the border, humbly echoing the more formal and elegant sewn-in script.

The relationship between the '50s and '60s fabrics and Blackwell's latter-day visual response is exasperatingly inconsequential. He repeats and fragments and amends the existing geometric and floral patterns, but most were of little interest to begin with, so Blackwell's additions merely amplify the unremarkable.

To say, as the show's news release does, that these works exercise "a study in modernism through nostalgia and reflection" is to credit the artist with tapping into deeper currents of design sensibility than the work evidences, with its hip affectation of the modest, casual and awkward.

Mary Goldman Gallery, 932 Chung King Rd., L.A., (213) 617-8217, through Feb. 8. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.

Moving images of those among us

Of the camera's many uses, its power to validate is the one that Milton Rogovin exercised most effectively. Rogovin's photographs gesture toward correcting an imbalance in status. They give the marginalized and dispossessed a moment in the center, a moment of clear, dignified attention.

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