Joe Clower is one of Los Angeles' most under-appreciated veteran artists. Why? I don't know, but each time his pictographic urban landscapes turn up in a gallery, they look so strong that the matter becomes more puzzling. A prickly red question mark in one of his paintings could be taken to symbolize his predicament--as well as his thorny sensibility.

His translations of the hard surfaces, sharp corners and abrasive ambiance of cities in black, white and gray or bright-colored paintings inevitably lead to double-takes. Something about the collision of cartoon-like sprightliness and citified constraint pulls viewers up short before his artwork. Though his work is often cryptic, it is so consistently hard-fisted that it fairly cracks under the pressure of possible meanings.

In a mini-retrospective of Clower's works on paper (1977-1984), "Modern Plants" are mechanistic devices or jigsaw-puzzle shapes. "A Fool's Paradise" consists of skeletal towers and a figure with a heart-shaped pelvis lined up like specimens. Love and hate square off as identical architectural slabs atop a bright red monolith. And in "Personal Expression," a tipped-perspective room houses a scramble of curling lines and a bare light bulb blazing over a table; the excitement of creative energy is threatened by the cold process of interrogation.

Clower's apparent mentors--from Stuart Davis to Roy Lichtenstein and late Philip Guston--are fully absorbed in an aesthetic shaped by the tough side of urban experience. If we find his art looking strikingly au courant, it's not because he has changed his style to adapt to the times; fashion has finally caught up with him. (Irit Krygier Contemporary Art, 7416 Beverly Blvd., to April 6.)

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