A single sculpture by Jennifer Pastor commands the space at Richard Telles Fine Art with sober authority.
One could argue that sober and authority are odd words to use in relation to a work whose kitsch potential hovers at a stratospheric level. Could anyone immune to kitsch have possibly imagined five plastic Christmas trees in assorted hues, each ringed with color-coordinated tinsel and crowned with a massive, Busby Berkeley-style headdress, radiating outward like the rays of a Technicolor sun?
The conceptual heat is mitigated by the cool of the piece's ersatz, aquatic element--a fiberglass vision of madly splashing, bubbling, foaming water. The whole is like something one might encounter in an alternate universe, where the denizens of "Star Wars" link arms with the Man From Atlantis and do the cancan in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. On a sunny May morning, on the border of Hollywood, the psychic and seasonal dislocations alone are enough to inspire vertigo.
And yet, Pastor is not interested in the dizzying wonders of kitsch. Nor does she offer a sanctimonious essay on our undying taste for artificiality, sentimentality and excess. Her work is far too restrained for either scenario.
Instead, it is concerned with traditional sculptural issues of mass and volume. She achieves harmonies of form and color that are (perhaps unfathomably) classical. At a moment when culture has so overtaken nature that the latter exists only as a vague, ancestral memory, Pastor doesn't so much rescue debased materials as re-imagine beauty.
* Richard Telles Fine Art, 7380 Beverly Blvd., (213) 965-5578, through May 21. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Suspended Belief: In Rod Baer's mixed-media installation at Pasadena's Armory Center, logic and gravity are temporarily suspended. A rusted steel chalkboard is inexplicably mounted at a 90-degree angle to the wall. A mannequin spins in circles, like the impatient hands of a dysfunctional clock. A night table with impossibly long legs reaches for heaven, an inorganic variant on Jack's beanstalk.
And in the ceiling's rafters, high above eye level, an entire television room--complete with easy chair, lamp and half-eaten pizza--is sandwiched beneath its virtual double, a mirror reflection that purports to tell only half the story.
The title, "The Floating World," is a conceit familiar from Buddhist thought, referring to that which is fleeting in life, to a realm where nature and spirituality are one. Baer is likewise interested in a conjoined realm, in which the art object and the artist are one, floating in philosophical ether, tethered only by the imagination's constraints.
Baer's wholly romantic conception dares us to be dazzled by its refusal of limits. Yet, despite "The Floating World's" admirable mix of static and kinetic, silent and acoustic, inert and living, nothing here defies expectation. Nothing is truly uncanny, except, perhaps, Baer's rejection of the kind of irony that might have saved the day.
Romanticism is one thing, and tricky in any case, but the rigidly enforced poetics that dominate this installation eventually grate on the nerves. Instead of freeing our minds, the work presses its agenda, reminding us that even when it masquerades as poetry, didacticism is no fun at all.
* Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (818) 792-5101, through June 5. Closed Mondays.
Stain Painting: In a single blow, Didi Dunphy makes gorgeous tie-dye fabrics and gives Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis a run for their money.
What's the difference, anyway, between the narcotic pleasures of the 1960s craft par excellence and the snoozy palatability of Colorfield stain painting? Nothing much--besides status, dollar value and museum validation.
The same could be said for the differences between Colonial quilt making and so-called "systemic abstraction," yet another brand of 1960s formalism. Dunphy's deadpan quilt paintings, patched together from hundreds of tiny squares and triangles of painted canvas, suggest that the same, obsessive-compulsive impulse lies behind the cozy, "feminine" craft and the coolly intellectual, "masculine" art.
These large-scale works at A/B Gallery are intricately laced with pupil-popping color and sharply honed irony. But to consider them solely within the context of postmodern critique, parody or subversion is to miss the point.
Dunphy's paintings are merely dressed up for the occasion as flippant, knowing gestures. Like artist Jim Isermann, she has undertaken a labor of love, a plea for beauty.
Yet the stakes are entirely different. The myriad seductions of beauty, tangled up with questions of respect and respectability, are particularly problematic for women in this culture. Dunphy's answer is to take herself and those seductions very seriously and to entice us into doing the same.
* A/B Gallery, 120 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 659-7835, through May 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays.