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A style still shaping our world

June 06, 2003|Holly Myers | Special to The Times

When it comes to certain types of contemporary abstract painting -- particularly of the young and stylish variety -- one frequent question is whether they might be better suited to the surface of a handbag, a duvet cover or a line of tableware. Not so with the work of Lorser Feitelson (1898-1978), the L.A.-based abstractionist whose influence, though vastly underacknowledged, is prominent in the fine art and design of today.

Feitelson's mature, large-scale paintings, several dozen of which are assembled in a marvelous exhibition at Louis Stern Fine Arts, underscore the shallowness of so much contemporary abstraction. They also illuminate the possibilities neglected by painters with an overweening taste for fashion.

The earliest paintings in the show, which date from the late 1940s and fall under the rubric of Post-Surrealism (a movement Feitelson co-founded with his student and future wife, Helen Lundeberg, in the mid-1930s), feature loose, energetic forms clearly derived from nature and reminiscent of a number of early 20th-century styles. In the works from the early 1950s, however, the contours of these forms begin to straighten, their shading flattens into solid color, and any suggestion of spatial depth collapses as the images resolve into a single, two-dimensional plane of interlocking shapes. The transition is swift and profound.

Although many of these hard-edge works bear the same general title as their Post-Surrealist predecessors -- "Magical Forms" -- they reveal an entirely new kind of energy. It's produced by the tension between forms, between plane and edge, between adjacent colors.

Feitelson maintains this tension with increasing mastery. By the early 1960s, his broad, blunt, stone-like forms achieve a rapt harmony. Then, as if by some magical process of refinement, they begin to grow thinner and thinner, eventually transforming entirely into slender, graceful lines. There is an element of genuine transcendence to this late work.

Through years of rigorous labor, Feitelson seems to have not merely simplified his forms but actually concentrated them. They stretch across his canvases like tense cords of pure energy -- not academic or analytical but human. Here they seem sensual, there cool and standoffish; here flirty or catty, there breathtakingly elegant.

The best of these works -- such as an untitled 1963 painting depicting two vivid orange lines that nearly kiss against a gorgeous periwinkle background -- are perfectly simple yet capable of engaging the eye for hours.

Louis Stern Fine Arts, 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 276-0147, through July 12. Closed Sunday and Monday.


Mingling mystery with the everyday

The seven large photographs in Deborah Mesa-Pelly's current show at Sandroni Rey lead viewers through the shadowy corridors of a house that seems filled with ghosts. There is a faded quality throughout. The carpets and wallpaper are clean but dull with age; the sparse furniture is vaguely antique but lusterless. The air feels stagnant and the atmosphere profoundly hushed, so that not even the blue daylight from the windows seems to penetrate very deeply into the murky interiors.

The work assumes a subjective perspective that feels much like that of a child solitarily exploring the home of an aging relative she has been instructed not to disturb. Each image lingers on a fantastical occurrence of some sort -- the product of an excited imagination, perhaps, or evidence of a fissure between this world and some mysterious other dimension.

In one picture, "Cowboys and Indians," a small pile of white plastic toys seems to be oozing out of a corner molding, led like an army of tiny guerrilla fighters by a little barking dog. In another, a sheet of white-paper garlands drapes across the top of a staircase, leaving a small opening that is brilliantly illuminated from behind, suggesting birth and death simultaneously.

Several images, in keeping with Mesa-Pelly's previous work, involve a female figure but to largely disappointing effect. Were these models of a more interesting variety than that of the young, attractive art-school student, their presence might have been more compelling. As it is, they introduce an element of stylishness that effaces the mystery so charmingly evoked elsewhere with common craft-store materials.

The one possible exception is a delightfully strange image in which a woman on a chaise longue is wrapped almost entirely in gauzy piles of tulle.

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