ART REVIEWS : Milano Kay's Eternally Modern Women

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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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.

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Grouped Together to Stand Apart: It is probably a misnomer to characterize "gone," at Blum & Poe Gallery, as a group show. With only five works by four artists, "gone" is more like a provocation--and thank goodness. Overstuffed group shows with grandiose themes almost invariably fail these days, and "gone" steers clear of almost all their pitfalls.

Its theme is work located on the periphery of sense, of genres, of aesthetics. Not another orthodox rehash of the dialogue between the center and the margins, "gone" is about shaking off orthodoxies and courting edginess instead.

Bas Jan Ader's posthumously printed 1971 photograph "Broken Fall (Organic), Amsterdam Bos, Holland" establishes the tone. One of the artist's trademarks, staged "falls," this black-and-white image of a figure careening through a wintry tree is both comic and melancholic.

It pictures the artist as neither hero nor charlatan, fool nor daredevil, but all of the above. In Ader's work, illogicality triumphs. Something is always a bit off, though failure is less a romantic inevitability than an invitation to persevere.

If 1970s Conceptual art made a fetish of lists, indexes and one-liners, Rainer Ganahl's revamped Conceptualism fetishizes computer file windows, software commands and other structures of data. Ganahl paints fragments of footnotes, book indexes and bibliographies directly onto the wall, just as they might appear on a computer screen. The gallery's sterile white cube is transformed into a cybernetic space abuzz with electronic impulses, and the artist into a computer genius. He reworks Conceptual art at a moment in which traditional notions of beauty are once again ascendant, and art incorporating all kinds of language is suspect.

Sam Durant's "Abandoned House (Case Study 22)" is a vision of perfection gone awry. Durant has crafted a cardboard, foam-core and plexiglass model of one of the famous Case Study houses--not in its idealized form, but as if it were trashed, with holes punched through the walls and windows, and nothing but an overturned chair left inside. Durant explores the Modernist conceits of the model as shining exemplar and the miniature as domesticized double, and he finds both wanting. His work is high-strung but solid.

Not so the art of much-hyped British newcomer Gillian Wearing, which is a bust--yet another videotape of a Post-Post-Conceptualist dancing around as if in a trance (see Sean Landers, Thaddeus Strode and so on, ad infinitum). Whatever it's billed as, this move betrays a heaving nostalgia for the artist-as-movie-star decade of the 1980s. It's boring, a bit sad and not at all edgy, like the other pieces nervously congregating here.

* Blum & Poe Gallery, 2042 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 453-8311, through Saturday.

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Art as Therapy: The desire to psychoanalyze artists can be overwhelming at times. For voyeurs at heart (which is, needless to say, all of us), this kind of vulgarized, Freudian titillation can be more compelling than the headiest aesthetic moments. In new work at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Jim Shaw quashes this desire--almost--by letting on that artists are as boring as the rest of us.

"I dreamed I was performing in an alternative space in my Maidenform bra" is a collection of more than 100 pencil drawings and printed texts that recount Shaw's dreams, part of a project begun in 1985. While most of us probably don't dream of being up on a scaffold with Michelangelo or hanging out in a villa with the Ed Ruschas, we do dream about work, sex and mundaneness too embarrassing to conjure the next morning: crossing the street, noticing some '50s fabric at a yard sale, trying to merge on the freeway. Shaw professes to remember everything. But since this is art, not therapy, one assumes he has made certain editorial decisions along the way.

Among them was the decision to play down what has in the past been a charmingly bravura drawing style. The grand-slam schizoid look of "My Mirage," Shaw's multimedia masterpiece, derived in no small part from the artist's multiple inspirations: super-hero comic books, cheesy album-cover art, insipid greeting cards, Surrealist paintings, mass-marketed religious iconography, etc. The images in this show--mostly multipaneled cartoons--seem deliberately unexciting in comparison, rendered in a generic, comic-book idiom.

In Shaw's dream life people are strangled, guts bubble and rubber devil-puppets appear on the scene, along with countless art world celebrities. It's amusing to see the latter through the scrim of Shaw's nocturnal peregrinations. But the pleasures are circumscribed by one's knowledge of the players. It's a bit of an insider's game, and it overwhelms all speculation about the artist's psyche, and the modest visual pleasure Shaw offers.

* Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through Feb . 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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