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Off into the world with a playful guide

October 21, 2005|David Pagel | Special to The Times

It's rare for an artist to have two solo shows at the same gallery in the same year, but Ken Price pulls this off with so much panache that you leave L.A. Louver fully convinced that the 70-year-old artist should try for three in 2006.

Part of the pleasure of the 39 small watercolors in this knockout exhibition involves their relationship to the 10 ceramic sculptures Price showed eight months ago. His compact landscapes have nothing -- and everything -- to do with his abstract sculptures.

None of the works on paper is a study. In fact, eight depict finished sculptures. Price's biomorphic blobs appear as polka-dotted cartoon characters that have set off on treks through Southwestern landscapes.

The journeys include carefree walks in the park ("Peace in the Valley") and long slogs in the sun ("Twenty First Century Southwestern Art") as well as vivid instances of willful striving ("The Highest"), hangdog exhaustion ("Outdoor Sculpture") and forlorn isolation ("The Trouble With Beauty"). "Hot Bottoms" suggests the joy of being a fish out of water and finding one's soul mate.

All of Price's images stand on their own. Most depict volcanoes burbling over with molten lava or belching dense plumes of smoke into skies of liquid light. They could be windows onto prehistory or glimpses of a post-apocalyptic future. The rest feature mobile homes set in landscapes whose beauty is fierce -- so far beyond inhospitable that whoever lives there must be good at going it alone and even better at getting the most out of every scrap of culture.

That's what Price does in his page-size pictures. Each is a concise essay on mutability, a condensed exploration of the ways matter changes from solid to liquid to gas. Volumetric blocks of color play off fluid, wet-on-wet washes and vaporous atmospheres.

In this sense, Price's watercolors are a lot like his three-dimensional works, which are brilliant fusions of sculpture and painting in clay. Likewise, the watercolors combine the instantaneousness of stop-action photography with the textural richness of abstract painting.

They also fuse the graphic clarity of comic strips with the color-saturation of animated cartoons and the sophisticated stylization of 19th century Japanese woodblock prints. It's hard to believe how fresh and easy Price makes it all look.

L.A. Louver Gallery, 45 N. Venice Blvd. Venice, (310) 822-4955, through Nov. 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Treasures stuffed among the castoffs

Kai Althoff's eagerly anticipated exhibition initially appears to be pretty standard stuff: a roomful of mementos scavenged from secondhand stores and crammed into a dimly lighted gallery. The overcrowded installation, with a narrow path between two messy mounds of abandoned leftovers, evokes a dead aunt's dusty attic or the musty cellar of a defunct mom and pop shop.

Forty-year-old installations by Edward Kienholz come to mind, as do similarly revered assemblages by Bruce Conner and Joseph Cornell, and less successful installations by Althoff's contemporary countryman, German Gregor Schneider.

But once your eyes adjust to the darkness, you start to pick out paintings and drawings. They are almost lost in the jumble of mismatched furniture, swaths of antique fabric, damaged dolls, a broken cradle, a worn gynecological examination table and all sorts of smaller items, including perfume bottles, bracelets, books and endless rolls of ribbon. Many of Althoff's wildly scrawled drawings are in battered frames behind dirty panes of glass. Some hang on the walls, but most are propped against other objects or resting flat on the floor.

Some of the canvases are stretched, but others hang slackly on the walls. One is even crisscrossed by strips of bright yellow tape, as if it got mixed up with the packaging materials and nearly ended up in the rubbish.

It's not easy to see these works, and it's impossible to get close to many of them. But they're all worth the effort. Most are ferocious, sensitive and profoundly original, as raw as exposed nerves and as fearless as if they were made by someone with nothing to lose.

Althoff's paintings and drawings are animated by the sexual nervousness that pulses through John Altoon's curiously perverse abstractions. Voraciously sampling techniques, materials and genres, they make Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke look like old maids, the elder statesmen's use of various styles suddenly appearing tasteful and safe.

Rather than the neatly packaged, easily consumed souvenirs typical of rising art stars, Althoff gives visitors a glimpse of the future, when his works are no longer eagerly collected but gathering dust in cluttered storerooms or secondhand shops. It's a grim, fascinating vision.

ACME, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-5942, through Nov. 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


Moments captured -- and combined

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