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AROUND THE GALLERIES

Gegam Kacherian paintings at Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Also reviewed: Kevin Appel at ACME; David LaChapelle at David Desanctis Gallery; Hadley Holliday at Solway Jones.

September 18, 2009|Holly Myers

There is something wonderfully peculiar about the paintings of Gegam Kacherian, but it's difficult to pinpoint just what it is. Each of the 15 works in his second solo show at Rosamund Felsen Gallery begins in a reasonable, even orthodox manner with an aerial view of a city skyline, or else the billowing clouds of a turbulent sky-scape. He has a knack for spatial atmospherics and most of these scenes would make for very handsome compositions in their own right. Over these, however, he layers a whirling miscellany of fantastical imagery: animals, figures, flora, architecture, and various totemic objects, all wound in ectoplasmic strands of abstract pigment.

It is a view of the physical world splattered with flashes of mystical consciousness. Horses gallop through the clouds; a man in a bowler hat rides on the back of an owl; snake-like tendrils weave in and out of free floating Modernist buildings. There are elephants, horses, leopards, lions, panda bears, swans, owls, and a rhinoceros. A female dancer in ceremonial dress makes several seemingly auspicious appearances.

The peculiarity lies less in the surrealistic quality of the imagery, however, than in the rather kooky formal and pictorial dynamics. The landscapes are lavishly rendered and highly dimensional, stretching miles, it seems, beyond the surface of the canvas. The overlaid imagery hovers resolutely in the foreground, as if cast across the surface of a window, leaving the middle-ground awkwardly vacant.

The landscapes, moreover, are massive; the surface imagery is quite small and generally all out of scale: a tiny horse, an enormous owl, etc. The clouds are full-bodied and lush; the abstract elements as slight and wispy as feathers. The skies hearken back to 19th century traditions of the sublime -- Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran -- while the foreground imagery suggests contemporary fantasy illustration with a splash of Salvador Dali. The abstract flourishes seem to have no precedent at all.

Given all of this, as well as the highly charged, often downright psychedelic palette, these could -- perhaps should -- have been frightfully ugly paintings: gaudy, awkward, excessively cluttered and chaotic.

But they're not. They're enchanting: visually ravishing, filled with strange and beguiling narratives, and -- a rare quality indeed -- utterly distinctive. Kacherian, who lives in Los Angeles but studied art in the early 1980s in his home country of Armenia, adheres to the idioms of contemporary painting -- this is not "outsider art" -- without conforming to any particular ideology, which leaves the work feeling both relevant and fresh. One could imagine aligning it with various camps of L.A. quasi-Surrealism (Jim Shaw, Sharon Ellis or Nancy Jackson), but ultimately it demands to be read on its own terms.

Which is a pleasure.

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Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., B4, Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through Oct. 10. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Appel explores form and space

In the late 1990s, shortly after emerging from UCLA, Kevin Appel made paintings involving flat, blocky, hyper-stylized representations of domestic interiors. In the early 2000s, he shifted the vantage point to make similarly geometric exterior views -- pale, often ghostly depictions that resembled architectural drawings though tended to dissolve into abstract arrangements of cubes. Both were tasteful, well regarded, and to my mind rather dry.

Around 2003, something strange happened. A cartoonish tree trunk motif entered in, wreaking all kinds of havoc with Appel's geometric order.

Appearing with feverish, clone-like frequency, it threaded in and out of what might have been windows, tossing his tidy Modernist cubes into spinning polyhedra. Planes fractured incoherently. Patterns entered. The forms became buoyant and architecturally reckless -- less Case Study House than crazy hippie tree-house. The lines were still clean and the palette still tasteful, but it looked as if Appel was beginning to have fun.

In a mostly new body of work at ACME, he takes another turn altogether, layering a largely non-architectural series of geometric shapes -- in gouache, pencil and collaged paper -- over images of landscapes and wildlife scanned from nature books from the 1960s and '70s.

The connection between the two elements is ambiguous, and strikes one at a glance as perhaps arbitrary.

Moving through the works, however, one begins to discern an inquisitive -- if inconclusive -- interrogation between the two, and a subtle, gentle sort of rhythm.

They're small works, for the most part, with an intimate, concentrated air that feels well-suited to the climate in which they appear: the cautiously optimistic opening of a new season, following a tumultuous year. A sort of downsized extension of the meteoric tree houses, the works -- which the exhibition refers to as "drawings" -- are a contemplative continuation Appel's ongoing exploration of the relationship between form and space.

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