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ART REVIEWS : A Splashy Parade of Treats in Palm Springs

TIMES ART WRITER

“Northwest by Southwest: Painted Fictions” bites off more than it can chew, but it spits out a splashy parade of contemporary narrative art at the Palm Springs Desert Museum.

The exhibition of 72 paintings by 40 artists offers juicy commentaries on racism by Robert Colescott, woodsy fantasies by Gaylen Hansen, Goya-esque nightmares by James Lavadour and agitated urban scenes by Jacob Lawrence. Among the treats are Melissa Miller’s beautifully painted panorama depicting Noah’s Ark, Holly Roberts’ ghostly personages painted on photographs and Robert Helm’s poetic landscapes that stop time.

Who can complain about such a selection of paintings by distinguished artists? Probably no one who merely cruises through the show, looks for something interesting and takes time to savor it. The problem is not with individual parts, though the quality varies sharply and occasionally descends to the amateurish level of “introductions” shows. It’s the whole that doesn’t make sense.

The art is so densely packed into the galleries and the artist’s approaches are so diverse--from Gene Gentry McMahon’s heavy-handed domestic scenes to Terry Allen’s poetic sequence on a woman who named her birds for memorable years--that the narrative theme tends to get lost. Allen’s four-part sequence and Vernon Fisher’s “Blue Landscape,” which combines the soft image of a bombed-out landscape with text about experience fading into “an astigmatic blur,” certainly belong in a narrative show. So does Richard Thompson’s self-portrait triptych, but it’s more difficult to justify the presence of some works that are said to portray a moment in a continuum. With a good enough imagination, one can invent a story about almost any piece of art.

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A more bothersome problem is the regional distinction suggested by the title. It’s probably a good thing that the curators didn’t perpetuate stereotypes by dividing the show into paintings by Northwestern woodsmen/fishermen and Southwestern desert rats. But with works from the two areas intermingled, and with catalogue essays that never get down to the point of regional distinctions, the title of the show is baffling.

The art reveals few regional characteristics beyond occasional telling uses of Northwestern or Southwestern landscape. Instead, the work crosses the North-South divide while betraying characteristics often attributed to art of the Western states: idiosyncratic individualism, intense color and a greater emphasis on emotion than intellect. This is art about people, animals and nature. It’s also art about big ideas--from creation to destruction and death. Some artists tell their stories loudly, some speak softly, and some don’t tell stories at all.

Palm Springs Desert Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs, to June 3.

Feel-Good Photos: An exhibition of 87 black-and-white photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Edouard Boubat is a feel-good show in the best sense of the term. Each of these French photographers has a warm appreciation of human foibles and an eye for the poignancy of everyday life. Image after image lingers in memory as a touching experience and their views of Paris since the ‘30s offer a profoundly human picture of the City of Light.

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The selection of Cartier-Bresson’s work includes such classic favorites as his shot of portly picnickers on the banks of the Marne and a small boy carrying two bottles of wine on Rue Mouffetard, along with less familiar works from Mexico, India and Germany. His portraits of Matisse and Giacometti in their studios tell all about these artists and their work.

Doisneau, who has an unquenchable sense of humor, can appear to be a rather slim talent when compared to Cartier-Bresson, but this exhibition seems to flow quite naturally from one body of the work to the next. A master of puns and strange visual twists, Doisneau has pictured Picasso with four-fingered bread loaves that look like oversized hands in “Les Pains de Picasso.” In “Le Pigeon Indiscret,” a bird perches on the head of a little boy using an outdoor toilet.

Boubat’s work has a more romantic tone, as in “Lella,” a 1947 photograph of a young woman in a see-through blouse whose light form is echoed by a dark face in the shadowy background. But he isn’t above paying a rear-view homage to “The Dream,” Rousseau’s painting of a reclining nude in a tropical landscape. Nor does he overlook the sheer beauty of white cloth blowing in the wind in Mexico.

Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave., to May 26.

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Vintage Memories: Nancy Youdelman has been doing strange things to vintage clothes for many years in artworks that address women’s place in the world and apparel’s identification with time. She still is, as we see in assemblages such as a strapless gown covered with metallic-painted magnolia leaves, a bodice riddled with safety pins and a blouse sprinkled with bits of calla lilies, glass, old postcards and dried flowers. Displayed as wall pieces, some garments are hidden by their peculiar coverings; others are drenched in varnish. Memories of school dances, family parties and girl talk coalesce in these symbols of lost innocence.

That’s the familiar part of Youdelman’s current show; the news is bronze. This is a risky move that brings her work dangerously close to the sentimentality of bronze baby shoes, but it works particularly well in sculptures cast from child’s dresses.

Twice transformed--once from soft, delicate frocks to unwieldy garments covered with buttons or flowers, and then to rigid sculptures--these pieces are small monuments of details that assume large proportions in childhood memories.

Ovsey Gallery, 126 N. La Brea Ave., to May 17.

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Culture Quest: Gilbert (Magu) Lujan’s life-size figures are on the move in a show called “The Culture Quest Continues.” These mixed-media sculptures step out on the town, wearing real Reeboks and cowboy boots or sporting feet in the shape of cars. Composed of a mixture of found objects (shoes, woven belts, suede vests) and painted components, the sculptures have dog faces and they stride on skinny tree-branch legs with the help of walking sticks.

Among splashy free-standing pieces are a character called “Spider Girl,” a “Leprechaun” with a mad dog and a cowgirl with her boyfriend, “Homey.” An undulating wall piece, “Mestizo Ride,” compresses a panoramic landscape in the wake of a flame-covered car that resembles a grinning dog.

Lujan’s world is a mixture of Chicano fantasy and experience--a place where the differences between animals, people and things are blurred. It’s also a place of enormous energy and pent-up frustration that erupts when one culture clashes with another. Lujan doesn’t get down to the nitty-gritty of this; instead he has fun with cultural pride and suggests that high spirits will prevail.

Saxon-Lee Gallery, 7525 Beverly Blvd., to May 19.

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