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Excess is key to its success

A worlds-within-worlds richness in Albert Contreras' paintings is complemented by the lushness of their exhibition at USC Fisher Gallery.

October 07, 2005|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Albert Contreras paints as if he's making up for lost time. In a delicious little survey at USC's Fisher Gallery, the 72-year-old artist jams so much color, texture and juicy freshness into a single room that it's hard not to feel like a kid in a candy shop -- thrilled silly by the possibilities yet still savvy enough to know that such treats are rare and all the sweeter for being infrequent.

Curator Max F. Schulz has packed 96 paintings from 2002 to 2005 into the rectangular gallery, often hanging Contreras' thickly built-up acrylics on linen within inches of one another, sometimes from floor to ceiling and at other times in rows and clusters of four, six or eight.

The excessiveness of the installation echoes the excessiveness of the paintings, many of which resemble elaborate architectural diagrams of imaginary exhibitions -- with scores of gumdrop-size monochromes arranged in neat rows and columns, or laid out on diagonals, like jaunty plaids.

What takes place among the paintings also takes place within them, creating a worlds-within-worlds richness that transforms the immediate, eye-grabbing appeal of "Albert Contreras: Luminous Scapes and Environments" into long-lasting satisfactions.

To the left of the door hangs a grid of 25 approximately 1-foot-square panels over each of which Contreras has slathered, like frosting, a thick layer of bubble-gum pink acrylic. As if that weren't enough, he also has mixed silver-blue glitter into the gel medium, giving the surfaces a reflective elusiveness that changes from trippy intangibility to tacky wackiness as viewers move around the room.

Atop the glittery pink grounds Contreras has applied even thicker rectangles, squares and stripes of translucent and opaque paint. They come in a candy-colored palette of artificially enhanced cherry, lemon, lime, mint, tangerine, orange, raspberry, blueberry, lavender, pearlescent meringue and synthetic silver.

Their edges, which were taped, often define razor-sharp lines. As the acrylic has dried, its exposed surface has shrunk more than its interior, causing Contreras' carefully composed rectangles to become sculpted low reliefs.

Depending upon how Contreras has arranged these components and how much pink he has left between them, they evoke aerial views of fantastic urban plans, circus clown outfits, close-ups of candy canes, mismatched ceramic tiles, dazzling linoleum floors, multitiered piano keyboards, plaids from tertiary-worshiping clans, color-coded checkerboards and old-fashioned key-punch ballots, with embossed chads in a rainbow of tones.

References to art history also pile up. It doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to see Kasimir Malevich's Suprematism, Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" or Theo van Doesburg's Neo-Plasticism behind Contreras' giddy works. The user-friendly side of Minimalism, particularly that of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, is evident, as is the pedestrian playfulness of Op Art, Pop Art, and California Finish Fetish, not to mention Jim Isermann's design-it-yourself utopianism and Linda Besemer's cascading stripe paintings. With deft efficiency, Contreras uses these influences for his own purposes: to make garishness graceful.

To the right of the door, in a space that would ordinarily be left empty, five small stripe paintings on black grounds have been squeezed in. Their inclusion attests to the ethos at the heart of the exhibition: that when talent and art meet, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing.

The three remaining walls deliver even more visual excitement. On one long one hang seven groups of predominantly black-and-white paintings. Without the bright colors Contreras usually favors, they focus on structure: line, shape and weight. Distinct rhythms emanate, and the longer you look the more color you see.

Gray is the most obvious, which opens onto a sensuous range of metallic tints, many of which look like molten lead, silver or any number of specially mixed alloys. Contreras even gets black and white to function like colors, their glistening surfaces and unfathomable depths making them as mysterious as any of his other indescribably sensual shades. (In art, black and white ordinarily belong to drawing, which tends toward the clarity of rationality rather than the intuitive ambiguity of color.)

The opposite wall shows Contreras experimenting with specially designed palette knives, making paintings in which circles merge with squares, gestures celebrate Zen simplicity and colors melt into one another. In four works, bare linen grounds evoke the gritty glee of Russian Constructivism. And a pair of paintings, one on a black ground and the other on white, resembles stained glass windows by Frank Lloyd Wright, only more liquid and hallucinatory.

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