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A game of show and tell

November 21, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

"Painting by Letters," rather than by numbers, is the appealing theme of a curious group show at Cirrus Gallery. The title is actually a bit misleading, since photographs, videos, installations, sculptures and drawings together far outnumber paintings here. But guest curator Eve Wood, who is an artist and a writer, has assembled an easygoing selection of work by 11 artists for whom the visual and the literary overlap.

The show makes quiet fun of the emphasis on art theory in the last two decades, by using "show and tell" as a witty metaphor. Two fine drawings by Julie Zemel depict demonstrations of making abstract images, taken from descriptions in a 1960s "How To" book. "Pour a Few Blobs of," shows a hand holding a jar of paint and doing just that, while another hand holds the paper in place. "Let the Paint Run or," shows a hand with a small roller smudging pigment around a surface. Both "demonstration drawings" are little halls of mirrors, which oscillate in your mind between depiction and abstraction.

Show-and-tell is also the format for two videos. Tyler Stallings records the popular hobby of reenactment common at heritage festivals (think of Renaissance fairs or re-created Civil War battles), while dubiously suggesting that painting follow suit. In "Psychology for Living," Andros Sturgeon reedits 1950s high school instructional films, intercutting them with snippets of period pornography in a manner that makes squeaky-clean social mores seem downright obscene.

Words are physical materials for three other artists. Alexandra Grant's large, rather conventional abstract painting "Pink Palimpsest" layers writing with brushy color. Todd Feldman applies press type to clear sheets of Mylar suspended from the ceiling and tangles the alphabet with webs of wispy black acrylic. And Buzz Spector's "Freeze Freud" is a large-format, two-panel Polaroid showing books by the Viennese psychologist frozen inside blocks of ice, like Paleolithic dinosaur bones.

In a funny, sexually shaded drawing by JonMarc Edwards, clear acrylic mixed with dust, grime and floor sweepings is poured on paper to spell out the words "dirty love," which neatly (or not so neatly) describes the activity of making art.

Appealing ink drawings evocative of landscape mounds by Mark Strand and small schematic sculptures that split the difference between architecture and furniture by Rachelle Rojany seem only tenuously linked to the show's admittedly loose theme. The same goes for two colorful digital prints by Mary Anna Pommonis, which show the insides of homemade kaleidoscopes. (A gallery handout explains that they were assembled by friends.) The show-and-tell quality here gets stretched pretty thin.

The most compelling works in "Painting by Letters" are two little oil paintings and two lovely drawings (on found sheets of paper) by Steve Roden. He's made numerous works based on spoken words and alphabets in the past, and one of the paintings here -- "The Silent World" -- derives from Jacques Cousteau's book of that title about undersea exploring. Roden's abstractions, made from marks and patterns that seem like mysterious yet decipherable codes, manage to exert an imaginative pull where meaning is yet to be discovered.

Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda St., Los Angeles, (213) 680-3473, through Jan. 10. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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A sumptuous take on painting noir

"Nightfall," a savvy group of 14 figurative paintings by Mark Stock, constitutes a tone poem on themes of anticipation and ennui, rendered with subtle wit. Nominal outtakes in a noir cinematic narrative, the paintings in fact tell a story of the seductions of art.

A female protagonist, variously dressed in luxurious satin, velvet and brocade, is shown in scenes carefully imbued with mystery. She sits alone in an immense Victorian lobby. She waits at the top of a stair, glimpsed through a curtain. She peers over a window's sill at the nighttime carpet of lights spreading out in the L.A. Basin below, as if expecting an unidentified visitor. She spies through a knothole in the floor or hides a letter in the glowing alabaster bowl of a chandelier.

These scenes of anxiety and suspense are interrupted by three small still lifes, each rendered in the manner of a trompe l'oeil painting by John Haberle or John F. Peto. Innocuous notes taped to wooden panels announce "Be ready by 8" and "Took the dogs for a walk." The third features a sealed envelope in robin's egg blue.

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