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Sculpture's stillness, captured in paint

January 17, 2003|David Pagel | Special to The Times

For every hot new artist who captures the headlines with a buzz-fueled solo debut, there must be an old cold one who has fallen off the radar screen. For the past 10 years, veteran Los Angeles painter Michael Roberts has been flying so close to the ground that his work hasn't shown up on anyone's radar.

Holed up in his Hacienda Heights studio, Roberts has been working on a series of multi-panel abstractions that is at once exceptionally focused and generously open-ended. At Patricia Faure Gallery, these furiously sophisticated works are the most exciting gray paintings I've ever seen.

To viewers whose TV-trained eyes see only images, Roberts' monochromes probably look like throwbacks to an era when abstract painting was supposed to be about its own formal properties: color, texture and edge. But these quietly ravishing abstractions are too worldly to fall for such separate-but-equal fantasies of painterly purity. With seemingly effortless ease, they give sculpture and photography a run for their money, stealing aspects of each to pack all the more punch into the experiences they deliver to viewers.

All of Roberts' canvases consist of four vertical panels bolted together and covered with a layer of thick paint so roughly textured it makes stucco look smooth. Vigorously applied brushstrokes -- some as wide as your wrist, others as thin as your pinkie -- collide, overlap and swirl around one another. His wildly activated surfaces resemble stop-action photographs of what you'd see if you stood on the stern of a ship and looked down at the water churning in its wake.

Imagine a crystal-clear photograph of the sea's tumultuous surface. Roberts' paintings embody a deep, utter stillness. Their three-dimensionality intensifies this impression, transforming a frozen slice of time into a space that is accessible to anyone interested in such perceptual wonders.

Roberts' art gives stunning form to the stillness of things carved in stone, because he makes his own paint out of a cement-like mixture of marble dust and bonding medium. Beginning with a huge bucket of a fairly runny mixture, he adds more pulverized marble with each additional coat. By the final application, he's not painting so much as he's carving and molding -- creating sculptures in low relief.

The big paintings weigh well over 300 pounds. But not a trace of heavy-handed grandiosity is to be found on their supple surfaces, where innumerable nooks and crannies capture the ever-changing interplay between light and shadow. Using a few simple tools, an intuitive vision, lots of dust and even more muscle, Roberts transforms inert matter into paintings so dynamic and serene they seem to come alive. Raw power and lyrical refinement never looked better together.

Patricia Faure Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 449-1479, through Feb. 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


A video exhibit that mocks video

Evan Holloway's new exhibition at Marc Foxx Gallery makes fun of hoary cliches about primitivism. It also ridicules the art world's fascination with projected videos. Best of all, it mocks the artist himself -- not to mention viewers who think they're above it all.

Titled "A White Hunter," Holloway's first video installation is an ingenious trap that's more fun to fall into than to escape. As bait, the Los Angeles sculptor has projected a smoothly edited sequence of film clips onto the back wall of a small, darkened gallery. The looped DVD features close-ups of Michael Douglas driving or riding in a car.

Taken from such movies as "Wall Street," "Fatal Attraction" and "Don't Say a Word," the scenes trace the star's expression as it changes from anxious to frustrated, from perturbed to incensed at the injustice of it all. No matter the backdrop, the costume, the car or the 20 years over which the movies were made, Douglas always appears to be struggling to contain the rage seething beneath the surface of his civilized veneer.

Holloway's silent montage accentuates the tension conveyed by an exemplary white guy battling through a seemingly endless session of anger management. Today it's not uncommon to visit contemporary art exhibitions and see similar imagery projected onto walls. For Holloway, however, such run-of-the-mill mediocrity is only the beginning.

When you turn to leave, a twisted menagerie of fanciful beasts comes into view, hanging from the rafters by their feet. Like bats in a cave, Holloway's papier-mache sculptures seem to be resting, hiding out overhead until the time comes when they can fly freely.

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