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ART REVIEWS : Cultivating Unexpected Vistas of Artificial Landscapes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nothing happens by accident in Lynn Geesaman’s meticulously composed photographs of extravagantly manicured gardens and parks. Every tree, shrub, footpath and pond plays at least two roles simultaneously, reminding viewers of the beauty of natural flora and demonstrating the gardeners’ power to compose plants in visually satisfying panoramas.

At Stephen Cohen Gallery, Geesaman’s 25 exquisite silver prints from the past six years begin where the gardeners leave off, adding another level of artifice to nature’s raw materials. Her pretty, black-and-white images focus on odd, off-center vistas. Geesaman tweaks the highly structured symmetry of the formal gardens she visits in Belgium, Holland, France, England and Italy to create her own idiosyncratic--yet formally rigorous--compositions.

From across the gallery, the Minneapolis-based photographer’s perfectly square pictures appear to be modest abstractions. Against bright, white skies that look like pure vacuums, saturated black silhouettes of shrubbery and trees dramatically contrast.

The absence of tonal modulation locks the pictorial elements into single planes. Branches, trunks and canals read as straight or curved lines. Sculpted topiaries have the presence of flat, geometric shapes.

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The restraint evident in Geesaman’s well-mannered photographs enhances the visual tension between volumetric depth and graphic two-dimensionality. Moving up close to her pictures complicates the formal drama, revealing previously invisible textures, details and subtleties.

What had seemed to be monochromatic silhouettes slowly unfold to become rows of identically trimmed trees, tangles of limbs sprouting foliage from their ends or clusters of plump topiaries whose individual leaves are clearly articulated. Dark halos emanating from the trunks of many trees endow Geesaman’s artificial landscapes with a soft, haunting afterglow that intensifies their mystery. Seemingly lit from behind, her photographs resemble empty stage sets suspended in time and cut free from the pull of gravity.

Fragmentary and partial, these entrancing images reject the idea of distant overviews or excessively planned surveys. Rather than privileging a fixed, central point-of-view, Geesaman’s photographs describe unexpected perspectives. They combine a classically modernist sense of composition with a romantic desire to find vistas that stir deep sentiments, effectively demonstrating that when fresh views don’t happen by accident, they can be carefully cultivated.

* Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7466 Beverly Blvd., (213) 937-5525, through Sept. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Fresh From the Past: “In Retrospect: Paintings of the ‘80s” is a slyly titled, six-artist exhibition at Rosamund Felsen Gallery. Its compact, far-from-complete survey of a vital strand of Los Angeles-based abstraction is more of a tease than a fully elaborated history lesson. Like a movie preview, it leaves you wanting to see more of each artist’s rich, painterly flourishes, bold, graphic patterns and quirky, cartoon Surrealism.

The show is an effective antidote to the notion that painting, in the 1980s, wholly consisted of the neo-expressionist return to figuration that swept Europe and New York. By baldly laying claim to that decade, “Paintings of the ‘80s” pointedly suggests that art in Los Angeles has its own history, that it cannot be assessed in terms of Baselitz, Clemente or Schnabel, but must be accounted for according to different criteria.

Nearly all of the exhibition’s 14 images still look fresh. However, they are most engaging as points of comparison to each artist’s current work.

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Lari Pittman’s mural-scale “Netherworld” traces his manic, hyperactive graphics to an imaginary landscape overlaid with decorative motifs, dancing organic forms and a sailboat drifting on a golden lake. Likewise, Roy Dowell’s current, cacophonous collages have their roots in five emblematic paintings, in which Cubism’s fractured space is held in check by an eccentric geometry.

Marc Pally’s recent, tattoo-like cartographies grow out of rougher, doodle-derived compositions that masterfully meld media. Three dreamy paintings by Jeff Gambill begin to chart the psychological territory out of which his moving, inarticulate symbols continue to spring. “Broader Landscapes,” by Renee Petropoulos, signals her emergent interest in pushing painting beyond its frame to actively engage architectural space.

Unlike all of these images, which track each artist’s current work back to an earlier stage of development, Karen Carson’s juicy oil-and-acrylic-on-canvas departs from her recent banners, globes and installations, revealing a sumptuous side that has not carried over into her more message-oriented pieces.

* Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 8525 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 652- 9172, through Sept. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Grand Delusions: “Pistonine,” Greg Solomon Falk’s largest sculpture at William Turner Gallery, resembles a gigantic, dysfunctional balance that doubles as a gushing water fountain, miniature reflecting pool and slow-burning oil lamp.

The ambitions behind this towering, multipurpose contraption, made of rusted metal, baked clay, hidden pumps and ample gaskets (among other mechanical devices), are concisely summarized by the materials listed under its title on the exhibition checklist: earth, fire, water and oil. The artist, it seems, wants viewers to believe that his piece consists of four substances very similar to the four elements that were once believed to constitute all physical matter: earth, fire, water and air.

In a preposterous game of one-upmanship, Falk proposes that, as an artist, he has outdone the creator of the universe himself. In substituting oil for air, the young sculptor pretends to have made an object more valuable and salable--and poisonous--than anything else that exists.

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The problem with Falk’s fantasy of grandeur is that he asks viewers to share it. Although the idea that artists are endowed with godlike powers--capable of miraculous creations and able to give form to inchoate matter--might be attractive in the studio, it falls flat in the gallery, especially when it’s the art’s main appeal.

A series of six small sculptures confirm suspicions of Falk’s pretensions. Individually titled “Core Sample,” followed by fictitious latitudinal and longitudinal readings, these watered-down, cleaned-up assemblages, placed under glass on expensive metal pedestals, look like designer rehashes of the style that originated in California more than 30 years ago.

The fourth piece in this series gives away Falk’s game. “Core Sample--Latitude 120 North, Longitude 43.1 West” describes coordinates that do not exist. Its toothless Surrealism attempts to trick viewers into thinking that its gambit is authentic, and not just a self-conscious pose trying to pass stylized merchandise off as the real thing.

* William Turner Gallery, 69 Market St., Venice, (310) 392-8399, through Sept. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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