Wilshire Center

In his heart, Peter Plagens has always wanted to be a painter. A confirmed formalist, he writes--in a statement prepared for his current show--of pursuing an "elusive grail" for 25 years. But the former Los Angeles artist, now living in New York, had such a flair for writing that he became best known as a controversial critic.

Plagens has been stereotyped as a smart-aleck writer yearning to be taken seriously as an artist, but now that he has reestablished himself in New York he seems to be pouring his soul into painting. His recent work--seen in 15 mixed-media works on paper or canvas--is softer and more intuitive than we remembered. His logos are more variable, too, though he still turns out variations on a visual theme.

An irregularly contoured shape floats on a broad smear of solid color painted over a spattered ground in each piece. The shape--sometimes notched and always containing bright bits or stripes of color--is anchored by two long strokes. The effect is a rather playful tension between containment and release, duty and love--rather like chunks of the earthly experience being set nearly free in space. Plagens wants meaning to arrive as a direct experience of his work, but even without a statement about a new autobiographical and vaguely metaphysical turn in the work, thoughtful viewers are likely to conclude that he is moving toward abstract self-portraiture. Imagine that.

Concurrently, Dave de Buck debuts with geometric abstractions that introduce illusionistic space into solid blocks of form. Perfectly crafted and richly colored in a sophisticated palette of muted tones in acrylic on wood and cement, the work is cosmetically sound. Matters of composition and balance work, too, but it's difficult to distinguish yourself in a genre that has been so extensively explored. De Buck comes closest in large pieces--about 10 feet wide--that orchestrate a subtle play of unfolding and projecting form. (Jan Baum Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., to Jan. 30.)

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