Maybe it's the theatrical light that gives Astrid Preston's new paintings of pretentious West Los Angeles' dwellings an Italian flavor. Maybe it's the rows of cypresses, the imposing gateways, or the actual Italian influence that has seeped into Southland architectural pastiches. Or it could just be Preston's injection of high-contrast acidity that renders the familiar oddly foreign and clammy. Whatever the cause of their awkward formality, these paintings seem to draw on something both deeper and more particular than this year's brand of Neo-Expressionist estrangement.

She gives us boxy houses at the ends of curving drives and dwarfed by stone entrances. Whether the buildings radiate hard, lemony light--like enchanted rocks about to be beamed up to the heavens--or hang tough as fortresses, they send off signals about privilege and enforced privacy. No people appear to tell us who lives in these formidable dwellings or who travels these spooky streets crossed by jagged shadows, but we assume they aren't friendly.

Preston has upped the emotional ante of her work in recent years and taken admirable chances in doing so, but her paintings no longer convey the feeling of an artist who is thoroughly at home with her material. This art looks uncomfortable with its mystical drama, as if it has tried on someone else's oversized coat and is trying to fit into it. Part of the struggle is simply the artist's process of turning herself into a painter after years of drawing meticulously and painting broadly on honeycomb aluminum. Her current canvases appear to be built of shape and line rather than painted.

She's a good artist, so she'll probably solve that. A more difficult problem is finding an emotional niche that feels authentic. Some small diptychs do it splendidly, but they're drawings and that's very firm territory for Preston. (Newspace, 5241 Melrose Ave., to July 6.)

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