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Juan Uslé's miniatures make a big impression

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Juan Uslé makes the biggest little paintings around. At the L.A. Louver Gallery, all but one of the Spanish artist's abstractions measure no more than 24 by 18 inches (and some are half that size). Yet each leaves viewers with so much room to maneuver -- so much space to romp around in -- that they reawaken those great moments in life when everyday responsibilities fall away and freedom whooshes in: snow days away from school; watching traffic jams disappear in the rearview mirror as you hit the open road; all-day meetings that suddenly, unexpectedly, end at noon.

The size of Uslé's paintings suggests that he's a miniaturist, an artist with the skill and savvy to pack convincing illusions of the real world into very small spaces. But that's not the experience his deliciously idiosyncratic abstractions deliver. They do not function like keyholes, through which viewers peek into fantastic lands where otherworldly dramas unfold.

Instead, Uslé's paintings stick with the mundane space of everyday reality. Most even seem to meet you halfway -- to float forward from the picture plane to occupy the same space as your body. It is as if they are glad to meet you.

To accomplish this, the 54-year-old artist lays translucent veils of paint atop one another, often loosely weaving together strands and swaths to form shaggy tapestries of airy light: silvery blues, shimmering blacks, untouchable turquoises and a dazzling gamut of sun-bleached whites. Uslé's touch is so delicate, and his hand-mixed paints so unique, that his paintings make a wide range of dirty, earthy browns look ethereal: more like cool breezes than viscous smears of tactile matter.

As he builds his compositions he hides nothing, although he covers up much. This accounts for the sense that his art is at once drop-dead sexy and utterly discreet, its hedonistic abandon balanced against Old World restraint.

It also allows people curious about process -- who wonder why things look the way they do -- to mentally disassemble each canvas, to follow, in reverse, the simple moves Uslé made as each painting took shape. You don't need to be a painter, or even capable of reading the instructions that come with items that require assembly, to follow Uslé's step-by-step decisions -- say, laying down a bright pink ground, interrupting it with a series of purple stripes, overlapping those with fatter yellow ones and then covering just about everything with gauzy washes of white.

The one big painting, at 9 feet tall and nearly 7 feet across, does not stick out like a sore thumb or dwarf the 13 little works. A masterpiece of grays, blacks and browns -- of staccato rhythms, sensuous drifts and unpredictable undercurrents -- it maintains the intimacy and expansiveness that are the heart and soul of Uslé's art.

Uslé is one of the only -- and one of the most talented -- abstract painters who is also a storyteller. Each of his works tells a tale of human willfulness, adaptation and discovery, in which tragedy and comedy share space with absurdity and incomprehension.

This distinguishes his canvases from much New York painting, which is limited by the conviction that there is no place for narrative in abstraction. In L.A., artists are not so uptight about such hidebound rules. That, combined with Uslé's seasoned appreciation of the bodily pleasures and perceptual thrills of Mediterranean light, makes his paintings feel right at home here.

L.A. Louver Gallery, 45 N. Venice Blvd., (310) 822-4955, through July 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.lalouver.com.

Breaking all the rules in bronze

Not so long ago, no artist who wanted to be taken seriously would think of working in bronze. The expensive material and laborious casting process were only part of the problem. Bronze seemed to belong to civic monuments, to god-awful sculptures of old guys on horseback and other pillars of the community. For the last 150 years or so, artists have preferred to break the rules.

At the Patrick Painter Gallery, three wonderfully wacky sculptures by Liz Craft show the L.A. artist to be a rule-breaker all the way through. Defying the unspoken prohibition against bronze, these beautifully cast, exquisitely painted and gorgeously ornamented figurative works not only make the material safe for contemporary artists but also bring Medieval morality plays, Shakespearean drama and folksy whimsy into a medium not known for its sense of humor.

Each of Craft's pieces stands on its own, yet the three form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. "Baby Carriage" is an industrial-strength bird's nest set on "Flintstones"-style wheels. Packed with raffia, the nest contains a dinosaur-size porcelain egg. Craft's comic carriage plays off the friendly Surrealism of Robert Therrien's loopy sculptures, suggesting that humans are simply beasts with peculiar habits.

"Tree Lady" is a naked young woman lying on her back with hands cupped behind her head, her legs spread and pointed heavenward. Utterly content, she stares upward, through the glistening aventurine leaves that hang from the branches of small trees that grow from her ankles. Craft's self-possessed Daphne is the opposite of Charles Ray's mannequin sculptures, whose nastiness plays no part in her supine celebration of the links between people and plants.

In the third and largest piece, three life-size skeletons join hands and dance happily around a convex base made of dozens of golden flowers interlaced with sperm-shaped tendrils and lassoed by a rope. In one fell swoop, Matisse's "Joy of Life" meets Day of the Dead festivities by way of a bewitching modernization of Walpurgis Night and a Goth revision of the Grateful Dead's famous emblem.

Birth, death and regeneration form a resonant continuum in Craft's fascinating exhibition, bringing animal, mineral and vegetable forms into a cycle that is as inclusive, far-reaching and enduring as art can be.

Patrick Painter Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 264-5988, through June 21. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.patrickpainter.com.

Bold color that's only skin deep

Joshua Podoll's L.A. solo debut is chockablock with potential. At the Christopher Grimes Gallery, the San Francisco-based artist handles paint with the best of them, spraying, smearing, slathering and sanding as if there's no tomorrow. He mixes kinky colors -- algae greens, rosy oranges, steely purples and hazy yellows -- with fretless abandon.

But Podoll's attractive, punchy, even fun-loving paintings lack sufficient traction to take their lovely visual appeal beyond lovely visual appeal.

These 14 acrylics on canvas, which range in size from sketchbook-page to more than 6 by 8 feet, suggest that Podoll, born in 1972, has not yet found his subject and that he's spinning his wheels. They're technically impressive exercises filled with bravura and verve but lacking the grit and gristle of originality that would make them stick in the mind's eye and satisfy long-term looking.

Either too much or too little takes place in a typical painting. The too-littles simply juxtapose a blurry oval of air-brushed color against a sandpapery, nearly monochrome ground. Or conversely, an oval of illusionistic texture is set against an atmospheric backdrop.

In the ones with too much, Podoll lays out 10, 20 or 30 little ovals and sometimes adds a handful of irregularly shaped sections. Each little part features a single painterly technique, rendered in an appropriate palette. These works have the presence of samplers -- mix-and-match attempts to compensate for indecisiveness with multiple choices.

In two small square paintings, Podoll allows elements from some of his otherwise precisely circumscribed samples to breach their borders. The messiness recalls a kid going outside the lines in a coloring book. It's a welcome development in a body of work that feels straitjacketed. One hopes it's also a sign of more messy freedom to come.

Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through July 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.cgrimes.com.

A light touch and simple images

Valérie Jacobs' finely detailed works on paper and canvas reveal that art made with a light touch and a heavy heart is far more resonant than any made with a heavy hand. At Bert Green Fine Art, 20 understated images neither clamor for your attention nor aggressively mess with it once they get it.

Instead, Jacobs' supple pictures swim into focus like daydreams that leave you wondering where they came from but knowing right where they take you: back to a familiar world that seems different because you see it with fresh eyes.

Jacobs mixes metaphors as deftly as she mixes media, combining oil paint, pastel crayon, ink, pencil, etching and just a bit of collage.

The works describe simple things, such as old-fashioned hats, boxing gloves and scampering rats, as well as fanciful figures, such as Thai deities, mischievous monkeys and ghost demons.

The best images are the simplest and the most complicated.

A series of seven little drawings, each featuring a common object or two, transforms ordinary things into intriguing talismans, with just the right combination of film noir mysteriousness and everyday plainness. The complex compositions invite viewers to forget about messages, their incompatible elements making poetic rather than logical sense.

Jacobs stumbles when her works convey direct messages about the danger of beauty and the trickery of images. When she avoids conventional symbols, her works lure viewers into a world where everything is just what it is and much more.

Bert Green Fine Art, 102 W. 5th St., (213) 624-6212, through June 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.bgfa.us.

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