La Cienega Area

Against the limitless black of the night sky British artist John Murphy sets out on a lyric search for the essence of life. It's a romantic venture, rich in metaphor and philosophic contradiction where titles like "At Evening an Odour of Violets and Clay (Sagitta)" reach for the sensation that forms the thrill and chill of mortality itself.

If the ideas are complex, the paintings in the "Constellations" series can so simple they seem too easy. Murphy covers huge canvasses with thick, blue-black impasto and sparsely flecked dots that appear like tiny warm stars shining in cold infinity. In one small portion of this whipped blackness, dots are joined with white lines to form a fragment of a star map. The constellation's name is written in.

The uncomplicated nature of the imagery forms something of a demanding, visual keyhole onto Murphy's distilled ideas. The longer you look at the rectangular patch of deep space, the more meaning seeps through. Once comforting, the night sky becomes overwhelming. The ancient assignment of astrological names and zodiac shapes to the vastness of the universe is reduced to an arbitrary and somehow futile gesture of relative order. It's a faintly nostalgic realization brought on by an art that licks at the bittersweet essence of self-awareness and then tries to describe the flavor. (Asher/Faure, 612 N. Almont Drive, to March 18.)

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