Allen Ruppersberg's complex sensibility is finally clearing up after a couple of blotchy decades of exhibition. His work is highly literary and inclined to use a rag bag of materials and media to distill refined poetry from a fusion of the aristocratic and the trashy. Often its main content is the perversity of the attempt.
A current crop is no exception but includes stunning pieces and new depths. The ensemble, titled "Commercial Art," includes a group of stumpy logs that lie on the floor bearing such neatly carved mottos as "Just Married," "Hero in a Red Cape" or "Perfect Love," naive ideals trashed by time. The trees we once carved with sweethearts' names were symbols of eternity; now they are brought low. Out of the corner of the eye they look like fallen, truncated bodies.
Ruppersberg has jerked a bull's-eye between his inclinations to be either sardonic or sentimental. The log pieces, with their possibility of metamorphosis as fire, capture the sheer poignancy of experience and are classic pieces of contemporary poetry.
Nothing else quite comes up to them, but a new mellowness pervades works made of clunkily collaged '50s calendar art and posters. They pursue the theme of disillusioned hope with the cheerful, shiny-cheeked optimism of "born-again" believers whose evangelical enthusiasm is really just recycled desperation.
Ruppersberg's essay on a cowboy's sex fantasies is sophomoric, but other works bring a refreshing affection to their subjects. A hand-lettered news clipping about believers who don't ascend to heaven on schedule is more rueful than condescending. "The Last of Everything" could be callow with its superficially sophisticated recital of "God is dead," "The novel is dead," as well as painting, the avant-garde and "the author," but it's all more playful than anything.
There's a new empathy here that levitates the best work and makes the worst of it seem honestly flawed. (James Corcoran Gallery, 8223 Santa Monica Blvd., to June 29.)