Five large paintings by Matt Lifson all show virtually the same enigmatic subject -- what appears to be a makeshift tent in the woods at night. But slight differences in tonality, lighting and paint-handling among the five generate unexpected responses.
Serial imagery, given its origins in Claude Monet's repeated studies of grain stacks and an imposing cathedral facade under different conditions of light and weather, tends to have a rather sunnier disposition than what turns up in Lifson's solo debut at Angles Gallery. Grim, even inexplicably creepy, his blue-black “Tent” paintings get you to scrutinize them like a detective at a crime scene.
As a cop would do, you try to create a narrative from pictorial fragments. Is that romantic moonlight illuminating the tent or a police helicopter's piercing searchlight? Does the tent belong to a vacationing camper or, given what appears to be its improvised nature, a homeless person? Is it shelter from an impending storm?
What's that jagged, sharp-edged but indecipherable whitish object just beneath the fallen tree limb? And speaking of the limb, why do its branches appear to have been stripped?
Going from canvas to canvas (each is around 6 feet by 7 feet), distinctions that at first seem slight steadily grow more stark -- and inexplicably ominous. Spots of white light in the deep, dark indigo woods could be anything from fireflies to nocturnal stalkers. Subtitled with fragmentary musical phrases -- “Sleep in heavenly...” “Lay down my bones with the rocks and roots...,” etc. -- the bleak paintings firmly resist disclosure.
That's their strength: Lifson underscores the degree to which, encountering a picture, we project meanings onto it. These paintings are pregnant with possibilities, horrific or benign, which shift in and out of view across a wide range of emotional registers depending on a viewer's drifting thoughts. In today's picture-saturated world, no wonder things seem so daunting.
The show also includes a floor sculpture composed of 217 gilded bricks, each stamped with a cryptic symbol and laid out in a curve, plus three small folding tables with a depiction of a black jacket painted on peeling paper across each top. More compelling is a wall text in clear, nearly invisible vinyl, its Hebraic font style readable only as fleeting light falls across it. A description of a demon lurks in the text -- if not on the wall, then surely in your head.
Angles Gallery, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 396-5019, through Dec. 21. Closed Sun. and Mon. www.anglesgallery.com