First impressions of Tom LaDuke's work can be deceiving

Tom LaDuke's paintings at Kohn Gallery can be dark or joyful but are almost always engaging

In 11 new paintings by Tom LaDuke, the surface of the canvas is a broad playground -- a thoughtfully constructed place for the artist and the viewer to enjoy themselves together.

Sometimes that pleasure is dark, sometimes it’s joyful and sometimes it’s ugly or serene. Nearly always it’s engaging.

Most any technique one might think of for getting paint onto a flat surface turns up in his show, LaDuke’s first solo one at Kohn Gallery. Paint is brushed, sprayed, dragged, squeegeed, dribbled, stenciled, squeezed straight from the tube, dusted with glitter, smeared and more.

It hangs off edges. Or the paint is layered so that a hole appears to have been torn into the canvas, revealing a wide-open space behind it.

Closer inspection reveals that, contrary to optical first impressions, that hole is in fact a layer of paint stenciled on top of the background. Deep space is at once flattened and visually pushed up close.

Occasionally an image appears -- at least, the suggestion of one does. A shape might loosely suggest a human profile or a microscopic spore, even though it isn’t really there.

No evident rhyme or reason connects pictures of a communications satellite, a woodland fawn, Bigfoot, a phallic tree-stump and a ceramic cookie jar. Nor are the juxtapositions aggressively anti-rational, like the old Surrealist line about “the encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an ironing board.”

Instead, logic is simply set aside. In the biggest painting, “Chain,” elements are looped together with a long, sinuous line, but they aren’t conceptually destabilizing. Instead, the sequence feels serendipitous, like Internet surfing.

Typically, LaDuke locates his playground far away -- in outer space, the wilderness, a cloudy sky or another remote place. As in “Ocean,” the more compelling of two sculptures also on view, he seems to find inscrutable enigma to be a core artistic value.

“Ocean” is a small pewter bust of a bald man dressed in an elegant lace collar. The head is slammed into a rock, which rests lightly on a shocking-pink bubble. Liquid pewter dribbles out from inside the empty skull.

Reason and understanding are put just beyond our grasp. LaDuke’s oddball paintings tell stories of our playful experience of them.

Kohn Gallery, 1227 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood, (323) 461-3311, through May 16. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.kohngallery.com

Twitter: @KnightLAT

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