John Mandel, a precise craftsman and a vague conceptualist, paints big themes: an idealized worker at the pinnacle of creative labor, weightless astronauts engaged in sublime camaraderie, cattle basking in the essence of cow-ness. A strange assortment, but apparently they all have something to do with with art's commemorative function. Throughout history artists pictured important events and interpreted the vital elements of culture and economy.
That's clear enough, as are Mandel's images. He draws and paints so well that he can't resist bringing off his work in a state of near perfection, and we can't resist admiring his facility. But, as a thinking artist, Mandel wants more. His solution is a rather willful ambiguity introduced by painted words and juxtaposed panels. "Nature Moribund," neatly lettered on a canvas below a black-and-white bull, is a witty commentary on the artistic traditions of dead still life and live nature, but other works often reach so far in their "questioning" of prescribed meanings that they leave viewers out of the process. We are in the presence of "relevant" paintings made for the cynics who consider art's expressive aspect obsolete if not morally bankrupt.
All that said, Mandel is still an interesting artist. Consider, for example, an untitled work composed of three canvases. The central one, resembling a sepia-toned photograph, depicts a carpenter who has produced a triangular form in a romantic aura while other gleaming, man-made objects cascade through his workshop. On the right, a diagram-like panel suggests stages of life in a spiral and text, while a tiny canvas on the left presents a glorified hand. There are enough visual and verbal relationships in this piece to keep a graduate seminar going for a 3-hour session. (Krygier/Landau Contemporary Art, 7416 Beverly Blvd., to Feb. 28.)