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Abstract shapes balanced and quirky

June 29, 2007|David Pagel | Special to The Times

The derring-do that viewers often associate with avant-garde art is nowhere to be found in Helen Lundeberg's handsomely composed pictures. They flirt with abstraction but never give themselves over to its uncertainties, preferring, instead, to stick to depicting the visible world. Such have-it-both-ways balance is usually a recipe for blandness. But Lundeberg (1908-99) made it engaging -- not quite exciting, but filled with enough quirky kicks that her tasteful, often serene paintings still deliver the lasting satisfactions they set out to.

At Louis Stern Fine Arts, "Infinite Distance: Architectural Compositions by Helen Lundeberg" includes a substantial percentage of highlights among its 21 works as it deftly surveys the L.A. painter's career. The earliest works, from 1943 and 1946, are note-card-size landscapes with a whisper of Surrealism drifting though their simple setups, which resemble open-air stage sets. Think Giorgio de Chirico goes to the beach and is enchanted by the expansiveness.

Lundeberg's next paintings feature split compositions, the simplest divided right down the middle, with a schematic still life or interior on the left and a landscape or exterior on the right. Some of these, such as "Silent Interior" from 1952 and its larger, 4-by-5-foot reworking from 1959, are among Lundeberg's boldest.

In the 1960s, Lundeberg settled on the format she would explore for the rest of her career: the permeable boundary between interior and exterior, as it often takes shape in the architecture of Southern California. Windows, doorways, porches, colonnades, arches and corridors, as well as picture frames, mirrors and bridges, appear in nearly all of her stylized compositions.

The basic shapes in Lundeberg's paintings recall early 20th century Modernist photography, particularly the strand that focused on the abstract configurations of the urban environment. "Interior With Table," "Interior With Mirror," "Shadow of the Bridge I" and "Evening View" appear to be simple arrangements of straight and curved lines until you read their titles and see the objects and spaces Lundeberg's shapes describe.

The best paintings create spaces that cannot be so easily tracked back to the visible world. Nearly 8 feet long, "Arches 5" is the largest work in the show, the most rhythmic and the most dynamic. Its visual ambiguities give rise to pleasurably jarring shifts. Other paintings appear to depict upside-down archways that Lundeberg has superimposed atop one another, playing up the subtle color shifts that are her specialty.

Two 5-foot-square paintings, "Untitled (Looking Through Series)" and "Kurigalzu's Arch," stand out for their bilateral symmetry. More iconic than Lundeberg's signature works, their blunt forms contrast dramatically with the delicacy of her other images, whose muted tertiary tints soften their hard-edge compositions to reveal that they are as much about atmosphere as about architecture.

Louis Stern Fine Arts, 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 276-0147, through Aug. 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

From broken bits of surfboards

Jesse Simon's low-relief sculptures take viewers back to the 1960s, when the sleek shapes, synthetic materials and glossy finishes of surfboards inspired a generation of L.A. artists to make works both laid-back and flashy. This trip down memory lane is just the beginning. At once primitive and futuristic, Simon's savvy works travel far beyond the Finish Fetish precedents they respectfully acknowledge.

Made from surfboards snapped in half or smashed to bits by the sea's pounding waves, Simon's nine cobbled-together, multipart wall sculptures at the Patricia Faure Gallery are DIY hybrids that mix and mangle metaphors with the freewheeling precision of Beat poetry. Think of this L.A. artist as a beach Beat, a connoisseur of surf detritus and, more important, of the far-flung stories that such cast-off stuff suggests.

Long, lazy afternoons spent combing the shore are evoked by Simon's sculptures. Their smooth surfaces and irregularly faceted segments recall shells and bits of broken glass that have been rendered smooth and opaque by the churning surf. The smallest two, "Last Can of Urgent Care" and "Tempted by the Mini," look like volleyball-size chunks of rose- and turquoise-tinted coral. "Pharmassist" is a boogie-board-size slab of purple, an abstract landscape suffused with a hint of mystery -- and more than a hint of damage.

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