ART REVIEWS : Ausgang Takes Cartoons Seriously in Exhibit

Largely because of their accessibility to children, cartoons aren't taken too seriously in the world of high art. It's a weird, widely held assumption that art should be hard to understand, and cartoons--a familiar part of everyone's childhood--are intimidating to no one, so they can't be art. Roy Lichtenstein might've gotten away with using cartoon motifs in the '60s (things were a bit less buttoned down then), but Ronnie Cutrone and Kenny Scharf have their work cut out for them trying to do the same thing today.

Add to that list Anthony Ausgang, an L.A. artist who uses the vocabulary of comics to explore a variety of adult themes--the legacy of the Vietnam War, animal rights, gender bending and high vs. low culture, to name a few.

Inspired by the art of Robert Williams, Charles Adams and Tex Avery, Ausgang, whose work is on view at the Zero One Gallery, cites Warner Bros. cartoons as his central influence. "Warner Bros. imbued cute cartoon animals with a malevolence that's peculiarly human," says Ausgang, whose work is ignited by a brash streak of aggression. Pulsating with the hysterical energy of adolescence and rendered in shrill, Kool-Aid colors, the paintings are rooted in the anarchistic aesthetic of punk rock and the skateboarding world.

The work shows considerable growth over Ausgang's last solo exhibition. This new cast of characters looks as though it were lifted straight from a Looney Tunes classic, but they're actually composite figures, each with a distinctly different personality. As in work by Jeff Koons, these figures look like something we've seen before, but in fact, we haven't. Ausgang handles paint better now as well, and he's learned to get his point across with a minimum of fuss (his compositions are much less cluttered than they used to be). He can be seen operating at the peak of his powers in "Elegy to the Vietnam War," the least literal and most emotionally straight forward piece in the show. Like a Tex Avery version of a portrait by Francis Bacon, "Elegy" depicts an anguished cartoon character stretched and contorted in pain. It's a surprisingly powerful image.

Zero One Gallery, 7025 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, to May 10 .

Andy Warhol Has a Lot to Answer for: "I'm not passionately into my work," declares artist Tom Henry III, the subject of a one-man show at the Dennis Anderson Gallery. "I make money with it and it's an avenue to recognition. And the notion of originality means nothing to me--I'm a cynic," he snickers. "That's the way it is." Needless to say, this ultra-modern young man is a graduate of CalArts, the avant-garde petri dish that spawned a generation of blase Post-Modernists.

Adopting the overt rip-off as a legitimate technique, this second-generation Appropriationist has selected the art of New Yorker Richard Prince as his working blueprint. Henry III's "Hot Rods to Hell," for instance, tips its hat to Prince's "Hoods" series. Prince did a body of work exploring the design of car hoods, so Henry III presents a car engine with the explanation that "my artistic talent is knowing what hod-rod shop to buy this engine from." That may be true, but the piece is a bust because Henry III adds nothing to the intrinsic beauty of the engine.

Prince did a series of portraits based on found images of biker gangs and heavy-metal bands; Henry III shows a series of found images of metal bands. Prince did advertising logos; Henry III does bank logos. The most ambitious piece in the show, "Somebody Get Me a Doctor," involves an imitation Dan Flavin florescent tube positioned next to a Jack Daniels barrel (Henry III is a native of Tennessee), with rock CDs strewn on top. The piece appears to be an homage to the party mentality, and Henry III claims that he strives to align himself with youth culture in his work. However, this desperately delinquent art is young in a way he can't have intended.

Dennis Anderson Gallery, 1007 Madison Ave., Hollywood, through May 12.

An American Dream: Local interest in American Regionalist painting is apt to soar when the Thomas Hart Benton retrospective opens at the County Museum on April 29. The leading exponent of a style of figurative painting that flourished during the '30s and '40s, Benton is known for his robust interpretations of American history and daily life.

Investing the lives of struggling farmers and industrial workers with an epic, mythical dimension, Benton created a sweepingly romantic portrait of America that pulsates with the power of a haunting dream today. Was America ever as peaceful and lovely as Benton depicted it to be? The Tobey Moss Gallery provides a rich footnote to the Benton retrospective with "Thomas Hart Benton and Friends," a museum-quality survey of work by Benton and nine artists who were influenced by him.

Several of these artists befriended Benton when he visited Los Angeles in 1923; Stanton Macdonald Wright is the best known in the bunch, but this fascinating show is full of minor revelations. Central to all the work is a sense of the rhythms of nature; the Regionalist world is a sensual place where the elements undulate in a graceful dance that occasionally erupts into the hallucinatory.

Losing oneself in this show is like being transported to the enchanted Kansas of "The Wizard of Oz." From Palmer Schoppe's sketches of black blues musicians in the South, to John A. DeMartelly's scenes of Midwestern farmers harvesting hay, to Benton's incandescent depiction of a young man wading in a secluded stream, the show takes us on a tour of an America of hope and promise. Struggling through the Depression, America's creative community responded with art infused with a spirit of can-do optimism and, as in much WPA art, the dignity of poverty is a subtext in many of these images.

When this style is done poorly--as in a recent series of portraits by Roger Medearis--it's merely quaint. More often, however, the unabashed sweetness of this art is irresistibly winning. A valentine to an innocent era when Americans wore overalls and weathered straw hats, chewed on stalks of hay and had endless hours for private reverie with nature, "Thomas Hart Benton and Friends" is a melancholy evocation of a past that may be wholly fictional. Real or imagined, it's gone now.

Tobey Moss , 7321 Beverly Blvd., Hollywood, to May 9.

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