Sculptor Jay Johnson, one of the pioneers in the development of the downtown art district, is having his first major solo exhibition in La Jolla at the Thomas Babeor Gallery. Fortunately, Johnson did not have to go too far out of town--to Los Angeles, for example--before he could begin to establish his reputation.

Johnson is a young artist, just over 30, and his works evince the kind of discontinuous experimentation characteristic of the young. Not that groups of works are not related. But it would be good to see one or two good sculptural ideas explored in depth rather than a half-dozen in various degrees of thoroughness.

As it is, there is a sort of scattershot quality to the exhibition that might elicit comments such as "Oh! Is all this by the same artist?"

On the other hand, the work is fresh and, more importantly, promising, sufficiently so that Johnson was included in the landmark La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art's "A San Diego Exhibition: Forty-Two Emerging Artists" a year ago. He has not yet clearly defined a mature artistic vision for himself, but he has obviously narrowed the field to the point that practiced viewers recognize a characteristic "Jay Johnson" look. He likes wood, a modest scale, a limited palette, a wall (for painting) rather than a pedestal or floor orientation, and he prefers organic to geometric forms.

All the works in the exhibition at the Babeor are wall pieces. They appear to be either painted sculptures or sculptured paintings. But form is Johnson's dominant concern. Color is important as its critical complement.

How critical can be seen in Untitled No. 22 (1985) in which vertical stripes in simple black grease pencil "camouflage" the curving contours of the poplar support. The viewer must become involved with the piece--two narrow, four-foot tall angled wood arcs--to appreciate the artist's subtle visual play between two-dimensional illusion and three-dimensional form. It is a very handsome, reductive work that appears distantly related to New York artist Frank Stella's early "pinstripe paintings."

Untitled No. 21 (1985) explores the same sort of play between two and three dimensions and seems to allude distantly to Russian Constructivism. Both works, for all their subtleties, have strong presences.

Three works from 1985 are similar in their resemblance to hemispheres but vary in surface treatment. Untitled No. 3 is the most seductive and mysterious: a painterly white field crowned by a red halation. In Untitled No. 36, red comes onto the poplar field, along with white and black, in seemingly random daubs of pigment. Untitled No. 35 is radically different, with a black and brown field that looks as if Johnson wanted to eschew the seductiveness of the other two related works and make a "tough" painting, a work that might be initially off-putting but whose virtues would be apparent to admirers of what is conventionally regarded as visually uningratiating. It just looks bad, unresolved and without presence.

The most successful works in the show are as a group clearly related to the Constructivist tradition and distantly resemble African tribal masks--Untitled No. 56, Untitled No. 55, Untitled No. 52, Untitled No. 53 and "Shadows Fall," all dating from 1986 and all made of layered ovals and parabolas projecting into the viewer's space, most colored black, gray and white and some covered with tin. They are complex and handsome works of art with a sinister bite to them.

Untitled No. 25 (1985), a large leaf form, has the same elegance and is notable for subtle linear components, including an unpigmented, scratch-like line in the lower right-hand corner.

The strongest work, however, is Untitled No. 58 (1986) because it is the most problematic, a flirtation with failure. Other than "Priest" (1985) it is the most nearly figurative work in the exhibition. Twisting precariously on its vertical axis, it seems about to lose its balance, but somehow it does not. Its surface looks dirty--hardly an appealing characteristic--mottled gray with wiped yellow and scar-red areas. It is a difficult, even "tough," work of art that will maintain interest.

In contrast, a work like "Four Different Times" (1986) is trivial. Editing it out of the show along with Untitled No. 35 and a ho-hum piece like Untitled No. 28 (1985) would have strengthened the show.

Both Johnson and Babeor merit congratulations, however, for taking chances.

The exhibition continues through March 29.

In his back gallery, Babeor is offering a dazzling exhibition of small works by 16 modern and contemporary masters, including Josef Albers, Arthur Dove, Brice Marden, Ellsworth Kelly, David Hockney and Alexander Calder. This exhibition continues through May 3.

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