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Art | AROUND THE GALLERIES

Plain Pop packs an emotional punch

September 24, 2004|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Efficiency has always been John Wesley's strong suit. No extraneous lines or unnecessary colors clutter his crisp Pop pictures of people and beasts.

For more than 40 years, the L.A.-born, New York-based painter has been refining his knack for packing loads of emotional resonance into images as simple and direct -- and sometimes as strange -- as the Sunday comics. At Daniel Weinberg Gallery, five new paintings continue in this vein, adding more tenderness and vulnerability than has ever been seen in Wesley's work.

Each of his big acrylics on canvas depicts a man and woman in close-up. Only heads and shoulders are visible. The backdrops, which account for small percentages of each painting's surface, are flat expanses of baby blue, except for one on which Wesley has painted scalloped waves.

The figures occupy the extreme foreground. This allows Wesley to dedicate the largest part of each painting to flesh. He paints faces, necks, shoulders and hands in his trademark palette of delicious pinks. Lips and fingernails provide sexy accents. Sometimes loose locks of hair extend beyond the edges of the carefully cropped images, intensifying their effect.

When Willem De Kooning said that painting was invented to capture the look, feel and presence of human flesh, this isn't what he meant. For the Abstract Expressionist, flesh and painting were all about animal vitality. For Wesley, painted flesh is a vessel for human consciousness, where memories and daydreams add layers of complexity to the simplest of experiences.

The plain people in Wesley's pictures either touch each other or are close enough to do so. They all seem to be sharing intimate experiences -- a kiss, a caress, a snuggle or something more.

Discontent also enters the picture. "Slap" depicts the moment after a woman's palm has made loud contact with a man's cheek. Taken by surprise, he has not yet had a chance to react. The anger that must have led to the slap can still be seen in the woman's eyes. But satisfaction is also visible around her mouth as its edges sneak toward a smile, which she may try to hide (or not).

Things happen less swiftly in Wesley's other paintings, which are all the more potent for their slow-brewed delivery.

Pleasure radiates from the smiling faces of a white-smocked doctor and a bare-shouldered patient in "Herbalist," suggesting an experience of reciprocal bliss. But a second look reveals that each figure's mind could be a million miles away, completely occupied by its own fantasies.

The same goes for shared friendship, mutual affection and earnest duty in "Open Boat," "The Man Who Loves Lipstick" and "Dr. Interrupted." As a group, Wesley's works recall the opening of Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy," in which the narrator recounts his parents' inattentiveness to their intimate actions the night he was conceived.

Like Sterne, Wesley is amused, not outraged, by the distractions that keep people from being fully present to one another. His paintings are too wise in the ways of the world to insist that human intimacy and connection must occur simultaneously to be meaningful.

Fifteen small pencil studies from 1962 to 1971 give visitors a thumbnail sketch of his development.

Most are simple line drawings of solitary icons: Napoleon Bonaparte, Calvin Coolidge and Rud- yard Kipling, as well as a bear, a seagull and a dog. Some depict groups of dancing girls or gymnasts. A few feature pairs: wrestlers, suffragettes, a dentist working on a patient. But none has the electricity that runs through Wesley's new paintings, which rank among the most sophisticated Pop paintings being made today.

Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 6148 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 954-8425, through Oct. 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Solidarity in rock throwing

In his 10th solo show in Los Angeles since 1992, Sam Durant strips his art down to the basics: anger and desperation spiked with enough intelligence to prevent the volatile mix from exploding into senseless violence or going stale with hopeless despair. At Blum & Poe Gallery, the three-room installation taps into the righteous rage that has always been a part of American political discourse and recently seems to have reached the boiling point.

Being an artist, Durant begins with art history. He chooses his heroes wisely and never rests on precedent. Paying homage to Robert Smithson, Bruce Nauman, Jimmie Durham and Cady Noland, he uses their formal vocabularies to ensnare viewers in situations that are hard to get out of without coming to tough conclusions about art's place in life and the ways powerlessness poisons both.

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