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Optimism trumps failure

August 29, 2008|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Wilmington is not the sort of place tourists flock to. Home to more oil refineries than any other city in the United States, and gateway to the world's third-largest port, it helps keep the rest of the country going, transforming billions of barrels of crude into fuels that keep consumers on the move.

What Arnoldo Vargas' Southern California hometown lacks in sightseeing highlights, though, it more than makes up for with its surreal landscape of flaring chimneys, industrial architecture and chemically saturated skies. At Monte Vista, "Welcome Wilmington" presents 26 of Vargas' modestly scaled photographs.

The crisp, documentary-style pictures, selected by guest curator Shizu Saldamando, paint a sensitive picture of a place where individuals are often dwarfed by their surroundings and seem to be incidental to the brutal rhythm of its everyday functioning. Storage tanks, burn-off stacks, security fences, concrete roadways, high-energy cables, streetlights and locomotives are the stars of these smartly composed images, which also leave a little room for joggers, a lone pigeon and a couple of street-side shrines to citizens killed in officer-involved shootings, one in March and one in April.

A big, billowy cloud sits low in the sky in the show's centerpiece, a grid of 16 photographs titled "It's a Beautiful Morning." The layout recalls movie stills. But as you scan the images, you see that Vargas has shot the cloud from four locations, traveling around it like a wary moth around a flame to approach it from as many angles as necessary. That's just what he does with his multi-image portrait of Wilmington -- circle around it as long as it takes to get beyond the obvious and to give us a glimpse of its social complexity and unsettling beauty.

Monte Vista, 5442 Monte Vista St., through Sept. 17. Open Saturdays and Sundays.


Rambunctious group energy

"Sculpture, Part II" is about as boring a title as one could come up with for a group exhibition. Yet it suits the rambunctious energy of the four-artist show at Western Project, which leaves viewers free to make up their own minds about the freewheeling mixed-media pieces jampacked into the modestly sized gallery.

Just inside the front door, three works by Michael Reafsnyder set the tone. "Glossy Goo" is a glistening aqua blob that combines the wonderfully puffy look of cumulus clouds on bright sunny days with the scrappy tangibility of industrial spills swept up and on their way to the trash bin. Almost 2 feet tall, the shape-shifting figurine stands on a pedestal between "Squirt Lion" and "Baroque-a-Doke," a pair of handmade ceramic plates that feature smiley faces and spurts of glaze in a palette too wacky to believe yet too exuberant to take lightly.

The three Reafsnyders in the main gallery -- "Rococo a Go-Go," "Fab Nebula" and "My Glorious Mermaid" -- are even bolder and better. They pair perfectly with Wayne White's five little whittled sculptures and one 8-foot-tall stack of clay letters spelling out its title, "Porkgrease."

Like Reafsnyder's fun-loving works, White's seemingly naive pieces are wickedly sophisticated. They bring such folksy arts and crafts as whittling and wood burning into the urbane language games of Pop and Conceptual art. They also make strange bedfellows of Ed Ruscha and H.C. Westermann, artists whose works are not usually thought of as belonging together.

Michael Dee's trio of 3-D asterisks, each approximately 5 feet tall and built of partially melted plastic cups, makes a great first impression. But it lacks the deep love of funky absurdity that gives the other works their kick.

Two pieces by Heimir Bjorgulfsson, made of taxidermy birds, bone replicas, mirrored tiles, photographs and a beer bottle, strike a fine balance between melancholy and silliness. Like most of the works, they prefer going over the top with generosity to playing it safe or falling short with stinginess.

Western Project, 3830 Main St., Culver City, (310) 838-0609, Closes Saturday.

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