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Sensual, sophisticated and just a little bit dangerous

May 23, 2003|Holly Myers | Special to the Times

The new paintings in Kelly McLane's exhibition at Angles Gallery are very pale and look from a distance like creamy, amorphous cloudscapes scattered with strands of soft color. Upon closer inspection, they reveal traces of earthly terrain scattered with evidence of human and animal life. A tractor lies half-buried in desert sand; a small fleet of helicopters looms; a swarm of locusts circles; a fishing boat lingers in a quiet bay; planes wait on a deserted airfield.

These references, though impeccably rendered (primarily in sharp-point graphite), are patchy and fragmentary. They float freely across each canvas, emerging and receding from the cloudy fields of paint like fragments of memory from nebulous pools of consciousness. This topographical dislocation, along with the frequent allusions to transportation and mobility, gives the work the feeling of an impressionistic travelogue -- a subjective representation of place wherein observation, contemplation and fantasy become indistinguishable.

Several motifs repeat throughout the work, suggesting symbolic associations. Perhaps the most prominent is a roller coaster, which implies recklessness and danger in some cases--as in "World's Longest Roller Coaster," where it snakes madly at an impossible distance on shaky, disintegrating stilts -- and excitement and promise in others -- as in "Check Your Baggage," where it is stable and sleek.

Goats are another motif. They navigate rocky shores or, in several cases, fall from a cliff into the sea. The reference here is to the controversial Catalina Island goat, a nonnative and over-populous species periodically targeted for elimination (occasionally by gunfire from a helicopter). In McLane's account, the creatures assume a mournful presence that can be quite haunting. Take "Sink or Swim 4," a small painting that portrays a single goat floundering underwater, gazing directly at the viewer with a fearful expression, while several of his companions climb to shore behind him.

McLane's exhibition at Angles last year garnered a considerable flurry of critical attention and, judging from this work, she's more than lived up to the praise. These are sophisticated paintings, combining a complex yet sensual handling of paint, exquisite drawing and an inventive sense of composition that is as compelling at 7 by 10 feet as it is at 10 by 11 inches. They are the sort of paintings one can hardly imagine getting tired of looking at.

Angles Gallery, 2230 and 2222 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 396-5019, through June 14. Closed Sunday and Monday.


Shooting stars invite wishes

There's a striking, somewhat puzzling simplicity to Gary Simmons' new work at Margo Leavin Gallery. Throughout the eight paintings and 12 drawings, Simmons uses only two formats (white oil on gray slate paint and black charcoal on white vellum) and two motifs (a five-pointed star and a three word phrase -- "I wish forever"), each of which are subject to the artist's trademark smudging or smearing, a technique meant to imply an attempted erasure. The degree of variation achieved among these components is considerable but limited.

The stars are large or small, few or many; they appear to shoot upward, downward, or in circles. The phrase appears whole or fragmented, blurry or clear; it stands alone or in repetition.

Whether this frugality of means should be viewed as refinement or complacency is debatable. On the one hand, it affords the show aesthetic clarity and gives the conceptual nature of the motifs space to expand and develop in the mind -- and they are indeed rich in associations. The stars imply good behavior and patriotism. With their comet-like trails, they refer to a near-universal symbol of good luck and trigger "When You Wish Upon a Star" in your mind's ear, which in turn might provoke memories of Disneyland and passing consideration of that megalithic institution's effect on our cultural aspirations.

The phrase is similarly loaded. Who, one might ask, is the "I"? What is the "wish"? What does it mean to wish? And what does it mean to extend this wish as far in time as "forever"?

On the other hand, these are extremely general issues and there's nothing especially challenging about Simmons' presentation of them. Indeed, there's something remarkably un-daring about the approach -- recycling a previously honed technique in the service of concepts so broad as to be essentially risk-free, all without connecting any dots or articulating any new questions. One can't help but wonder whether, in his shift away from the overtly political imagery that characterized his work in the early 1990s, Simmons has sacrificed too great a degree of conceptual vigor.

Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 273-0603, through May 31. Closed Sunday and Monday.


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