Like a pack of animal crackers that have just come to life, the curious creatures in Tim Ebner's new paintings at Rosamund Felsen Gallery appear to be leery of their newly found freedom. Dolled up in fancy hats, dress uniforms and woolly turtlenecks, these birds, bears, kangaroos and clowns seem to have sat still as their portraits were painted, despite being suspicious of such a stuffy, formal exercise.
The pain in their eyes is palpable and subdued. It is as if the darkness these misfits endured in their crowded cracker boxes has prepared them for experiences much worse than sitting for their pictures.
Two ducks in profile peer out of the corners of their eyes, ever vigilant for some threat from behind. A pair of bears strikes tough-looking poses, but they are more vulnerable than fierce in their goofy outfits. A deep-sea diver seems trapped in his protective gear, and a figure behind a sunken ship's porthole expresses the horror of being buried alive.
The most poignant expressions in Ebner's unsettling circus of lost souls are found on the faces of pencil-necked toy soldiers, one wearing a coonskin cap and the other a fez. Both have brightly rouged cheeks and painted lips. Neither male nor female, human nor inanimate, these skittish figures are simultaneously sympathetic and creepy. They tug at your heart as they elicit a touch of disgust.
Ebner's paintings recall Edgar Allan Poe's suspicion that most of the time we haunt the world like ghosts rather than inhabit it like fully sentient beings. Whether this is a defense mechanism or the inevitable result of growing up in a cruel world is a question left open by these haunting portraits.
In either case, Ebner's pictures give shape to the grim wisdom that the light at the end of the tunnel is an unreachable illusion. Rather than symbolizing an escape from unhappiness, this light simply illuminates everyday suffering, allowing the artist to explore the nuances of long-endured pain.
The only similarity between Ebner's new paintings and his slick, synthetic abstractions from the 1980s is that both bodies of work sustain long-term scrutiny. The more you look, the more there is to see.
* Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through Saturday .
Abstract Exploration: Michael C. McMillen is a modern myth-maker whose art relies on the power of suggestion. At L.A. Louver Gallery, an informative postcard, a fake newspaper and 10 round paintings hint at a wide-ranging tale of exploration and discovery.
Two enigmatic cartoons, a pair of quasi-scientific contraptions and a camouflage-shrouded periscope round out the exhibition, revealing that McMillen is less concerned about telling you the whole truth than getting your imagination going.
His homemade postcard describes a cache of artifacts found in an abandoned shed near a fictitious tributary. Each object supposedly bore an image resembling a dartboard's background. Rumored to function as a timekeeping device, surveying instrument or hypnotic mandala, the image's true use remains a mystery.
Likewise composed of 24 equal sections alternating between black and white, McMillen's abstract paintings prefer speculative possibilities to precise references. The pattern also appears in a picture on the front page of the fake newspaper, on the sail of a small, unmanned raft making a solar-powered, radio-guided journey across the ocean.
In the same way Thomas Pynchon's novels capitalize on coincidences to drive the narrative forward, McMillen's art cultivates the mind-set of an avid conspiracy theorist, finding tenuous links in the oddest of places.
Peering through the periscope in his outdoor installation, you see a seemingly distant figure planting a staff in the ground. Stepping back from the periscope's viewfinder strips the scenario of its magic: Plainly visible on a balcony's railing, the apparently far-off figure is only a plastic toy holding a small paintbrush. Getting a glimpse of the big picture drains the wonder from more focused--if blinkered--points of view.
* L.A. Louver Gallery, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-4955, through Oct. 21. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Spontaneous Control: There aren't any masterpieces in the Fernand Leger (1881-1955) exhibition at Louis Stern Fine Arts, but there are some real zingers.
Leger's preparatory drawings and masterfully casual watercolors steal the show. As a result, an intimate view of the artist at work emerges from this hit-and-miss survey of 18 hard-to-find works made between 1923 and 1952, well after the painter had secured his place in art history and drifted out of fame's spotlight.
A small drawing from 1932 neatly summarizes the dual impulses that drove Leger's art. "Landscape Composition" depicts a dense configuration of figure-ground ambiguities, set in a schematic, seemingly childish outline of a farmhouse and fence. With a wavy, clam-like line running down its middle, Leger's abstract figure has an aggressive, feminine presence that's wildly out of sync with his sweet, simplified countryside.
Hip and risky modernity thus collides with down-home Populism in Leger's optimistic pictures. Seeking to reconcile stylized graphic designs with personal expressions, and streamlined modern life with intimate domesticity, his fusions of abstraction and figuration juggle spontaneity and control.
Leger's most compelling images serve as a bridge between the refinements of Cubism and Pop's mass appeal. Three works on paper from the early 1940s, representing a pool full of swimmers, exemplify his desire to link advanced art and popular subjects. More than his finished works, Leger's studies expose the hands-on quality behind his bold designs.
* Louis Stern Fine Arts, 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 276-0147, through Nov. 8. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Friendly Experimentation: Whether or not you've seen Chris Finley's sculptures before, his latest works at Acme Gallery will throw you for a loop.
To those familiar with the young artist's mind-boggling constellations of plastic containers (which have regularly appeared in group and solo shows over the past three years), his eight new pieces made of pencil stubs, melted crayons, jigsaw puzzle pieces and whittled bits of wood initially seem to be the work of another artist.
If Finley's sculptures are new to you, you may be in the best position to experience what the artist intends with his user-friendly constructions. Made to be taken apart and endlessly reconfigured, these floor- and wall-works are do-it-yourself Rorschach blots with more meaningful permutations than a curious viewer can exhaust.
Spontaneous impressions and whimsical insights are meant to be generated by Finley's quirky works. Each resembles a little self-sufficient world in which the artist got lost, shaving thousands of pencils down to tiny stubs, cutting up place mats into spiraling strips, or gluing innumerable puzzle pieces together in odd blobs.
With amazing economy, Finley condenses time and space in his compact clusters. He then invites you to follow, to get lost in mini-labyrinths where time and space unfold at your own, unpredictable pace.
* Acme Gallery, 1800-B Berkeley St., Santa Monica, (310) 264-5818, through Saturday .