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LA CIENEGA AREA

While Eric Fischl’s traveling exhibition continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (through May 11), six recent paintings have arrived in Los Angeles. They are so large that they are divided between two galleries; three at Gagosian, three nearby at Weinberg.

We aren’t the first to see these massive works--they were recently exhibited at a New York gallery--but they are so compelling that it’s hard to feel persecuted for living on the wrong side of the country. Anyone who gives these paintings only the standard seven seconds of viewing time deserves to go home and watch television.

Of the most heavily publicized enfants terribles of Neo-Expressionism, Fischl stands alone as a traditional figure painter capable of moving his audience emotionally. Now 38, he’s no beginner, and his exhibited work resonates with authentic feeling, set forth with a mature grasp of painting. Combining two or more canvases in each work--usually overlapped and often at angles--he pieces together disturbing bedroom or beach scenes fraught with tension or embarrassment.

People may seem out of place, as in “Pretty Ladies,” in which a nude black woman lies on a satiny white bed in a dark room, her eyes trained on a small TV set. Or one subject may confront another as life goes on in another part of the picture. A muscular young woman, flexed for action, has a catlike fix on a placid man in an orange-and-green beach picture called “Titanville” while nude bathers cavort in the background. A vivacious woman talking to a languid sunbather is oblivious to a masturbating boy (or midget?) in a particularly strong painting called “Costa del Sol.” A generation gap (and possibly a familial one) widens to an abyss in “Bayonne,” a haunting painting depicting a young ballerina dancing with her palms flat out, as if to fend off an older nude woman.

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When Fischl moves into carnival pageantry, as in “Manhattoes” (the largest work at Weinberg), he loses touch with the emotional charge that’s so effective in other works and seems to be indulging in complexity for its own sake. But even then, it’s impossible to ignore the sight of a woman carrying a severed head, the pair of masked jesters on stilts and the whirling Latino women. This is a seething painting, but its heat isn’t concentrated enough to have the impact of the less ambitious pieces.

He also fizzles out in “Fort Worth” (the 18-foot-wide centerpiece at Gagosian). Here a blond woman in a yellow leotard and a man in bikini briefs don’t so much confront each other as announce vague discomfort. They stand silently in a hillside urban living room also occupied by a camera on a tripod and a convoluted marble sculpture.

Yet even when Fischl’s work is flawed, it dredges up unsettling feelings that expose the flayed heart of human experience. When he’s at his peak, as in “Pretty Ladies” and “Costa del Sol,” he’s unforgettable. (Larry Gagosian Gallery, 510 N. Robertson Blvd., to April 29; Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 619 Almont Drive, to May 3.)


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