Like most kids who grew up in the 1950s and '60s, artist Laurie Pincus spent much of her time camped out in front of the television set watching the adventures and misadventures of her favorite characters.

But with Pincus, that fantasy realm often transcended the small screen. Her father, Irving Pincus, produced one of the era's most popular shows, "The Real McCoys," and Laurie often found herself a happy bystander in the process of make-believe.

"My life was really linked to television," recalled Pincus, a 35-year old Pacific Palisades resident whose life-size and smaller tableaux are on exhibit at Chapman College's Guggenheim Gallery through Oct. 20. "If I wasn't watching it, I was at the (studio) set with my father, watching it coming to life." One day she would be watching Walter Brennan hopping about as a character in the series; the next day Brennan would drop by the Pincus home for dinner.

Television clearly has had an impact on her art--a point she makes eagerly and often. Looking at her boldly painted wood cutouts of people arranged in curious, almost surreal, scenes, "you can see something going on, but you have to use your imagination to fill in the gaps and make them become real," she explained. "Much like TV."

Pincus believes that many of her figures (which she describes as archetypes) were inspired by what she saw on TV as a youngster. There is, for example, "The Big Man," a gangsterish type who appears in many incarnations, usually holding a gun or some other implement (a flashlight, a fish) threateningly. Then there's "The Other Woman," a somewhat insidious lady who spells trouble for any marriage.

But what the television process did most was show her at an early age that there was a way to express the "images and people blossoming in my mind. I was exposed to the idea that you could make fantasy take a concrete form, that you could get something from the inside and bring it out," said Pincus, who began drawing in front of the set when she was 3.

Her other main influence, besides television, is film maker Federico Fellini, the Italian who made "Satyricon," "Juliet of the Spirits" and "8 1/2."

"His fantastic imagery, and the sense that he taps into dreams, is something that has always impressed me very much," Pincus said.

As her visions are personal, the symbolism of her tableaux can be arcane, even confusing. When asked to explain key figures, Pincus hesitated. After some thought, she tried to clarify her metaphors.

The gangster imagery does not necessarily imply danger, she said, but is meant to convey mystery. She often places her characters in water, Pincus explained, to symbolize the unconscious, or the world of dreams. Many of her settings feature sleepwalkers, which signify the connection between the dreaming and waking planes of consciousness.

But why place a stiff fish in a man's outstretched hand? Pincus became impish: "Well, it's sort of funny, don't you think? My work has lots of humor in it, too."

Pincus, who has exhibited in Japan, Chicago and San Francisco, as well as Los Angeles and Orange County (her last local show was at the Laguna Art Museum's South Coast Plaza satellite gallery in January), began her professional career with two-dimensional paintings but wasn't satisfied. She moved to small three-dimensional wood cutouts arranged in scenes in boxes, and then to her larger tableaux.

The bigger pieces are the most accessible, Pincus said. Viewers are drawn to the full-size figures, and Pincus encourages people to enter the setting and walk among them.

The figures' striking acrylic colors and strange attire make them attractive, inviting close scrutiny. The men, with their boxy plaid suits and clashing ties, and the women, with their outrageous dresses, are adventurous fashion plates.

"It all fits in because what I'm really trying to do is describe a different place," she said. "The clothes are also some of the little jokes that you find among all the seriousness."

The next step for her tableaux may be the addition of sound. Pincus is considering whether to have her characters speak recorded dialogue, a move she admits runs the risk of making her art too specific: It could take away some of the audience's pleasure in deciding for themselves what each scene means.

"The imagination is the important thing," Pincus said. "That's what has to be preserved."

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