After an absence of four years, Bay Area painter Tom Lieber makes an impressive return to Los Angeles with a series of lyrical abstractions that somehow manage to mine the predictable vocabulary of expressionism without resorting to either cliche or mannerism. Much of this has to do with Lieber’s sheer facility with paint, his ability to create tough, muscular formal statements while exploring the more ethereal realms of light, color and atmosphere.

Lieber’s works are predominantly concerned with mark-making. In this respect they owe certain debts to the agitated calligraphies of Cy Twombly, yet Lieber also sets up more complex dualities, in particular the ambiguous relation of figure to ground, and by extension, the artists’ self to his environment. This environment might be historical--references to the agitated gesture of abstract expressionism and the misty sfumato of Turner’s landscapes are obvious--or personal, connected in this case to his wife’s pregnancy.

Although Lieber is always careful to blur distinctions between object, landscape and pure abstraction, the new work contains clear allusions to openings and channels. Impastoed, smeared agglomerations of pigment coalesce into what might be interpreted as portals or human legs, suggesting either an entrance to the womb, or at least a metaphorical “interior” that could be both physical and psychological.

Yet, we also never lose sight of the fact that this is mere paint, an artificial concoction of contrived composition, deliberately juxtaposed color values and chance occurrence. Lieber’s virtue lies in the fact that he can let us in on the mechanics of process, the innate “performance” of the painterly act, yet also transcend it, producing works that resonate with power and mood. (Tortue Gallery, 2917 Santa Monica Blvd., to Oct.4)