Like Eric Fischl, Canadian painter Tony Scherman employs conventions of contemporary figure painting only to knock it on its ear. Scherman describes his work as being about "the polarization that exists between panic and ecstasy" and, yes, his pictures are infected with a palpable sense of uneasiness. The subjects in Scherman's portraits have the naked vulnerability of deer frozen with fear by the headlights of a car and, gripped by that primal terror, they lapse into uncivilized behavior that becomes doubly unsettling in light of their civilized surroundings.
In "The Cake Thief," a shabbily dressed man stands at a lunch counter deftly pilfering a slice of cake, while "Betty's Bar" looks like the sort of place for ordering that final drink that brings on the DTs--the customers here look more dead than alive.
Painting with the loose, washy touch of a watercolorist, Scherman frequently uses a table as a central compositional element, and his pictures have a nightmarish cast evocative of Francis Bacon. Like that British master, Scherman handles paint with impressive panache, but while Bacon's hand and soul are invariably in perfect balance, Scherman's technical skills occasionally upstage the content of his work. It seems he's still struggling to sort out exactly what it is he wants to say; in the meantime, his paintings sure look good.
Also on view are small Photo-Realist paintings by Mark Wethli that are sort of like Vermeer without the fairy dust. Immaculately rendered depictions of suffocatingly tasteful interiors, Wethli's pictures orchestrate the objects one might find in an artist's studio into high-tech ballets of planes and angles. Austere modern furnishings, linens in muted tones, an easel and a portfolio combine in such a way that you feel as though you've read the palms of the people who inhabit these rooms. Two portraits focus on solitary women lost in thought, and it comes as no surprise to see that these attractive, middle-aged gals look vaguely dissatisfied with the lives they find themselves living. It's a smartly designed, strangely empty life of subtle, soothing colors. (Koplin Gallery, 8225 Santa Monica Blvd., to June 6.)