ART REVIEWS : Finding Meaning in the Muffled Mess

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Suzanne McClelland's paintings look dirty. Some have the presence of soiled linens. Others resemble bodily orifices, bulbous organs or poisonous oil spills. A few seem to be suffocating in thick, pungent smoke.

At L.A. Louver Gallery, messy gestures scrawled across raw canvas, carved into plywood and smeared over sandpaper resound with immediate visceral impact. Unlike much current art aimed at our bodies, however, the young New Yorker's predominantly black-and-white abstractions don't punch you in the gut or club you over the head.

Instead, her mature, powerful works feel as if they get stuck in your throat. After spending a little time with McClelland's paintings, letters and words begin to emerge from their glutinous stews of charcoal, paint, clay and synthetic resin. You catch yourself stuttering and mumbling along with them, struggling to make sense of their muffled articulations.

But McClelland doesn't let you get much out of her art by reading it. Each cacophonous painting contains only one word, such as more , anymore or sure . Their meanings depend on their placement in sentences and the tone in which they're spoken. "More" is always relative; "anymore" compounds the ambiguity; "sure" signifies anything from sarcastic dismissal to eager agreement.

McClelland paints each word so irregularly and repeats it so many times that its significance dissolves into an abstract composition with its own rhythm and diction. You can almost hear her images.

One seems to describe a defiant shout in the night. Another evokes a barbed reply muttered under one's breath. A third has the feel of a cascade of syllables pouring out of control.

The content of these utterances is never specified. McClelland's paintings pull words apart until language breaks down. In the end, speech is experienced more like a burp than a tool for communication.

Like a tenacious cough that causes your whole body to convulse, or a notion so distasteful you cannot say it out loud, her work gives emphatic physical form to the invisible force that binds bodies to language. Speaking becomes a type of oral gratification in which coherence isn't always important.

* L.A. Louver Gallery, 55 N. Venice Blvd., (310) 822-4955, through June 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Abstract Studies: The previously unexhibited suite of 21 charcoal drawings by David Smith (1906-65) at Margo Leavin Gallery offers an encyclopedic glimpse into his well-known oeuvre. Sketched over two months in 1958, with more than half the drawings dating from just two days, these approximately 17-by-11-inch works are the only charcoal drawings Smith is known to have made.

This curious group of abstract studies is intriguing because it is at once casual and comprehensive, uncharacteristically loose and remarkably thorough in its survey of the Modernist sculptor's artistic concerns.

Although they lack the stately composure of his handsome ink washes, their offhanded draftsmanship gives them a tentativeness and vulnerability both awkward and charming--qualities rarely seen in Smith's scrupulous ink drawings and never present in his spray-painted or polished steel sculptures.

The charcoal sketches fall into three categories. The least captivating most closely resemble the sculptures he made in the 1950s and 1960s, tight clusters of geometric shapes that resist gravity and attempt to lift off their pedestals. More volumetric than his other drawings, these nine images consist of vigorously shaded rectangles and circles.

The next group is nine abstract landscapes. Although the shaky, coloring-book contours of one are filled in with autumnal watercolors, the rest trace fragile, spidery lines.

The three remaining drawings are the oddest and most interesting. Two abstract, supine figures resemble beefy and benign versions of Giacometti's nightmarish sculptures. The third is Smith's weirdest: It appears to be a cartoonish cross between an aardvark and Mickey Mouse.

With a few quirky turns, Smith's charcoal drawings concisely summarize his development as a sculptor, offering a compressed overview in a medium that was as fresh to his hand as it is to his viewers.

* Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 273-0603, through June 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Fluid Abstraction: The selection of paintings and drawings by Jack Tworkov (1900-82) at Manny Silverman Gallery offers a quiet reminder that gestural marks and geometric structures are not antithetical ways of organizing an image. It also suggests strong connections between highly emotional Abstract Expressionism and the cool restraint of Minimalism.

Although Tworkov is most remembered for his fluid, brightly colored gestural paintings from the 1950s, the linear compositions he made throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s are also significant for their capacity to fuse the spontaneous energy of swift brush strokes with the solid pictorial order of gridded planes.

His late paintings are actually large drawings on canvas and linen. Their simple, hard-edged structures are belied by the myriad handmade marks that constitute them.

After a few moments, Tworkov's tight, diagonally oriented fields loosen up: They appear to float free of their borders and to drift away from the picture-plane. Their muted tones and porous lines create the impression of light filtering through from behind.

Tworkov's subdued paintings serve as a bridge between Joseph Albers' rigorous studies of color, Sol LeWitt's quirky clusters of shape and Agnes Martin's fluid grids. His late works link disparate tendencies and flesh out an often forgotten strand of Modernist abstraction.

* Manny Silverman Gallery, 619 N. Almont Drive, (310) 659-8256, through Saturday.

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