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Review: Albert Contreras comes full circle with thrilling new work

Albert Contreras is making the best paintings of his life. One hundred and eighteen of them, all made over the last few months, fill Peter Mendenhall Gallery with enough luscious color to put a sunset to shame.

Next to the 81-year-old-artist’s glitter-sprinkled paintings, Liberace’s costumes look like outfits your grandmother might wear, when she wasn’t up to anything special.

Screaming pinks, screeching yellows and blazing whites transform the intimately scaled main gallery into an operatic tone poem. No one is better than Contreras at making a thin slice of the spectrum feel as if it were infinite: jam-packed with enough eye-grabbing excitement and slow, simmering satisfaction to last a lifetime — or two.

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The L.A. painter packs everything he’s got into two motifs: Xs and Os. An X is about as blunt a mark a human can make. In Contreras’ hands, it conveys the bare-naked decisiveness of making a stand, right here and right now.

It also embodies a sense of causal, there’s-more-where-that-came-from playfulness. That’s the tick-tack-toe side of Contreras’ humble panels, which comes to the forefront whenever interpretations veer toward heavy-duty existentialism.

Contreras’ circles are even more efficient in the way they convey such sublime ideas as infinity and perfection. His new ones also come with a back story. They take Contreras full circle, back to the early 1970s, when he painted solitary circles on single walls. Those circles were the last works he made before taking a 25-year hiatus from painting.

In 1997, Contreras retired from his job as a heavy equipment operator for the city of Santa Monica and dove, headlong, into painting. Since then he has been making up for lost time, painting like a maniac and pushing each body of work further.

His new circles, which he started last year, glance back at the past but live in the present, thrilling us with the mysteriousness of time’s passage.

Peter Mendenhall Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 936-0061, through Nov. 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.petermendenhallgallery.com  

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