The colors of Matthew Penkala's paintings are the first things you notice: baby blue, tangerine and cotton-candy pink, alongside creamy green, icy white and screaming yellow. The next thing you notice is that the synthetic rainbow of electric pastels that Penkala has sprayed onto his 4-foot-square canvases gets weirder the longer you look.
And that's when things get even more interesting. The hallucinatory buzz settles into a groove that sets you to thinking.
Unlike so much of what makes up today's visual landscape, Penkala's paintings are slow burns. Combining the instantaneous appeal of eye-grabbing attractions with the lasting satisfactions of time-tested abstractions, his seven new works in "The Day You Crossed a Nova: New Paintings" at Western Project treat viewers to luxuries rarely found in contemporary art: reverie and introspection.
These luxuries are not comforts. Penkala's paintings lure viewers into worlds of great beauty. But they never let you get comfortable — much less lost — in such dreamy expanses. The illusion of infinity is shattered because each canvas is composed as if it were a painting within a painting, or three paintings melted into a conflicted, even tormented, whole.
The internal edges create a sensation of abrupt, violent cutting. Their disruptiveness recalls the torn edges of collages and the overlapping windows on a computer screen — raised to the 10th power. These laser-sharp borders always seem to come too soon, cutting off a view or an experience or an emotion before it has had time to ripen.
In Penkala's poignant pictures of over-the-rainbow gorgeousness, niggling suspicions grow into queasy uncertainties that often give way to profound doubts about the effectiveness of anything and the point of it all. Dreamy disquiet never looked better, or more subtly unsettling.
Western Project, 2762 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 838-0609. Through Feb. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.western-project.com