The world of Norman Schwab’s mixed-media painting constructions is a gloomy and impoverished place, defined by black-painted pieces of cloth, bedraggled bits of string, twigs bound together to form skimpy triangles, black crosses in little boxes, sad photo-etched imagery (a sorrowful young man in the Army, innocent people gunned down by snipers) and incongruous swaths of wallpaper printed with little ducklings, which the artist paints over in various ways.
There are pieces that convey an earnest attempt to create a particular mood and attitude, but too often it comes across as hollow and secondhand. Schwab borrows certain elements from arte povera-- the use of “poor” or “innocent” materials, a deliberate starkness--but without being able to endow the work with the all-but-magical power it needs to make an overwhelming impression. As it happens, the concrete, undramatized images (mostly from newspaper photographs or snapshots) that Schwab incorporates into the works generally have a good deal more power than the ritualized settings he creates for them.
A few pieces, however, offer an overall fresher approach. In “Demise of a Stone-Cutter,” a wooden ammunition box filled with sharp stone shards in a bed of mulch and earth, Schwab combines various ideas and images--war, a gravestone, futile attempts (at chipping the stone), craftsmanship and the shape and purpose of an individual life.
Bay Area artist Barbara Milman’s mixed-media works on paper are busy and bright. Layers of multi-directional little images--skulls and hands and hearts and fish and crosses and heaven knows what else--create a steady drumbeat that reads primarily as all-over pattern. For the most part, this bouillabaisse of familiar imagery does not seem have anything fresh to say. The more successful pieces are the ones (like “Patterns of Chaos” and “The Secret Garden”) in which the broth is made up mostly of abstract markings and garnished with the steadying effect of superimposed black shapes. (Space, 6015 Santa Monica Blvd., to April 8.)