Long ago in the fabled ‘50s, Jay DeFeo was among the breakthrough artists of the Ferus Gallery who were about to put California art on the map. Most observers remember that the gallery nurtured artists who would develop the sleek L.A. trademark “Finish Fetish” style but forget there was a woolier Abstract Expressionist contingent who retreated to the Bay Area and did not necessarily become famous.
DeFeo was among the disappeared ones and has rarely been heard from since. Now she puts in an appearance in the form of 17 large abstract paintings. Coming through the gallery door, one first sees a picture called by the initials “N.D.I.O.S.” It creates the false impression that DeFeo has taken to painting in the accents of Franz Kline in high-speed swaths of black and white.
In fact, most of the work is considerably more rationalized than a Kline. A work like “Firesun,” although clearly abstract, leaves the impression of being derived from a table top still life. “La Brea” might be a figure gesturing by a campfire.
The literal sources of DeFeo’s imagery are not important. What is, is the fact that these are paintings that remember that painting is about form existing in space mantled with light. It also remembers that paintings have lives of their own and that their maker is privileged to manipulate the grammar of nature in the service of art.
In the present cultural climate of overheated chic, DeFeo’s work is gratifyingly sober, assertive and classic. Aside from its formal force, the work has very little in the way of idiosyncratic emotion. Recurrent use of a kind of subdued lunar light suggests the moony idealism required to hang in so long behind art of such unbudging conviction.
Also on view are 18 small paintings by Elsa Flores, who uses a fat, loaded brush to depict the mythic fantasies of a young woman. She runs nude through the woods, falls in the water, escapes from a Pan-like infant and winds up having sex on the trunk of a parked car. The paintings are so smilingly loose and high-sprited that they seem a little shallow. (Janus Gallery, 8000 Melrose Ave., to June 15.)