At Jan Baum Gallery, Milano Kay's paintings of women play out Baudelaire's notion of Modernity. They have something of the eternal in them: woman as cipher, seductive and mysterious. They also bear something of the new: navel rings, couture rereadings of ethnic dress, asymmetrical bobs and underwear worn as outerwear.
In Baudelaire's estimation, to be modern is to be at odds with oneself. Kay (previously known to art audiences as Milano Kazanjian) enacts this romantic truism. He is an interesting artist precisely because what he does is so contradictory.
Although the titles of his paintings identify specific sitters, Kay is not a portraitist. He is unconcerned with using paint as an index of psychology, and his brushwork is descriptive but cool.
Yet, if these are not portraits, neither are they voguish icons, although irresistible in the way a good fashion illustration is. Covered by a layer of resin as thick as glass, the figures are untouchable--not because they are perfect, but because they are voids. There is nothing there to touch.
Kay has studied art history and his influences are eclectic. There is much of Sargent and Boldini here: the elegant dress, the soignee proportions. There is also the perversity of Balthus, especially in the image of Susan Hayden garbed in a Lolita mini-dress and posed suggestively.
The empty but restless backgrounds recall those in Jacques-Louis David's late portraiture, where they echo the tensions of the sitters, caught up in the upheavals of Revolutionary France. In Kay's images, however, the scumbled expanses of tone-on-tone work to opposite effect: They underscore the blankness of a life consecrated to style, if not the blankness of an art so consecrated.
* Jan Baum Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., (213) 932-0170, through Feb . 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Coasting in Santa Barbara: Hank Pitcher's paintings of the Santa Barbara coastline have always been perfectly pleasant, if uninspired, less like the proverbial Matissean armchair than an Ikea hammock, which breaks just when you are starting to get comfortable.
There is a modicum of style in his show at Tatischeff/Rogers Gallery, but absolutely no substance. Perhaps you can't have it any other way if your subject is limited to frolicking young boys and dogs, surfers riding tame waves and views of lush cliffs extending down to the pale waters of the Pacific.
Perhaps you can, but Pitcher is too absorbed in the fantastically bland paradise he invents to see the need to try.
Not that there isn't room for this kind of Sunday-painter thing. There is. But Pitcher is too skilled to fit the bill.
His brushwork is brisk and sure, but compromised by formulaic compositions and those relentless pastels: aqua, peach, pale yellow, baby blue. Santa Barbara is certainly as bloodless a setting as one can imagine, where such blanched colors would work wonderfully within a local interior-design aesthetic. The idea of illustrating nature as tranquilized by culture is an interesting one. This is not Pitcher's gambit, however, and more's the pity.
* Tatischeff/Rogers Gallery, 2042 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 449-1240, through Feb . 11. Closed Sundays and Mondays.