At Christopher Grimes Gallery, Lisa Yuskavage's paintings of post-pubescent baby dolls are perversely entertaining--not titillating, or even horrifying, though they seem as though they should be both.
Yuskavage traps the eye looking for a thrill. Her lusciously painted images stop you dead, first by virtue of their glorious fields of color--green, yellow and all variety of pinks--and then by the pneumatic creatures who emerge from them, clad in bed jackets that look like torture implements disguised as gift wrap, or, more likely, in nothing at all.
With plump, pink lips opened obscenely wide, breasts sliding down rounded bellies, missing noses and prominent ears, the latter cocked as attentively as an indolent nymphet could possibly manage on short notice, these figures offer themselves up for delectation.
"Rorschach Blot" depicts girl-as-orifice, with her legs bent open, mouth as deep and dark as a tunnel, a bellybutton stretched accommodatingly. Yet the desire is short-circuited by virtue of the girl's dubious and decidedly mutant charms. Here, Yuskavage seems to say, is everything you want times three, and everything you are ashamed of times four.
Such excess is embarrassing, contemptuous and funny; Yuskavage mixes it up with abandon. But the real trick is figuring out how to prevent the hyper-charged imagery from overwhelming the painting. Yuskavage does this by melding the two, quite literally. Often, the hair, clothing and skin vibrate with the background color, as if they were electrified bits of the same matter. Boundaries become all but imperceptible, making this a regulation psychosexual adventure and an essay about the sensual overcharge of monochrome painting.
* Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Feb. 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Domesticated Identity: The artwork featured in this year's Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions Annuale, curated by Mexico City's Maria Guerra, departs from the identity politicking we have come to expect from this venerable alternative space.
There is a certain mellowing here, to be sure. But while it might be welcome, the blandness that accompanies it is disconcerting and (almost) makes one nostalgic for the urgency of the art LACE regularly showed during the '80s and early '90s.
In 1996, domestic materials and themes predominate instead. Jill Poyourow makes realist paintings of cookies and cakes that, despite references to Audrey Flack and Wayne Thiebaud, remain oddly flat; Karin Lanzoni makes toothpaste flowcharts; Mark Bennett offers the same architectural renderings of beloved television sets that are currently showing at Mark Moore Gallery; and Kent Young fashions wall-scaled collages out of rectangular bits of silky fabric and terry cloth towels.
Young's work does double duty by referencing the resurgence of interest in geometric abstraction. Angie Lee's color field paintings are also two-dimensional, both formal and slyly narrative. Interestingly enough, her work is the most compelling in the show and the most conservative.
What does this say? With a new director and a new space, LACE has clearly been faced with all kinds of questions about what its role should be. Yet to mimic art world trends and/or the kinds of choices made by commercial galleries is not what is needed. It is no more appropriate than continuing the focus on identity, which at LACE as elsewhere had the unfortunate effect of atomizing communities and aesthetics.
* LACE, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., (213) 957-1777, through Saturday.
Complex Beauty: Andrea Modica, whose new "Treadwell" photographs are at Paul Kopeikin Gallery, should by all counts be a documentarian. For the past 10 years, she has followed a family of 14 from one decaying farmhouse to another, beginning in Treadwell, N.Y., and winding up in one of those anonymous rural towns whose bleakness intimates its proximity to death.
Yet Modica finds beauty in death, in its look and the rituals surrounding it. She finds mystery in bad luck, ratty T-shirts and the fantastic games children invent out of necessity. In someone else's hands, this might be unbearably elitist. In Modica's, it is the stuff of fables--both fanciful and deeply moral.
This morality bespeaks the intimacy the photographer shares with her subjects. The trust bestowed upon her is evident from the very first photograph in the series, in which an anguished Barbara, the plump child who becomes the center of this ongoing body of work, reveals everything to a strange woman standing within breathing distance of her tears. Barbara raises her hand to her chest in a gesture that is piteously, prematurely adult. The moment is at once solemn and electric.
If she shies away from exploitation, Modica is nonetheless a voyeur. Thus, the many images of an older Barbara covering her face--with her hands, heavy makeup, a splayed cat or a paper bag. Barbara's emergent self-consciousness is envisioned in a complex manner, suggesting the young woman's sense of shame about her body and her understanding of photography's potential for cruelty. Modica's work is always complex, but never more so than when it lingers upon Barbara's fleshy beauty and mythic resilience.
* Paul Kopeikin Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., (213) 937-8765, through Feb. 10. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Troubling Poses: One of the strangest effects of Sam Samore's large black-and-white photographs of models at Richard Telles Fine Art is how ordinary these extraordinarily beautiful women appear.
The women materialize in pairs, on either side of the horizontally oriented frame. The images are tightly cropped so their faces are isolated. Yet they do not exchange glances. They cast their eyes downward or into the distance. Perhaps they give the camera a sidelong glance.
Heavily rouged, with thick eyeliner, sculpted eyebrows and the sullen expressions Vogue has codified as sexy, the women are weirdly affectless. They neither embody desire nor court it. They are too passive and too practiced.
Posing is a profession with many rewards, but the pose inevitably reveals itself and the spell is broken. Something is troubling in each of Samore's grainy images. One bears the slightly disjointed look of montage; another the doubling effect of a mirror. A third image--a photo of a woman with tightly wound hair viewed from three angles--recalls classical statuary, designed to be seen from all sides. But here, there is no symmetry: The head is off-center, the set of the jaw is harsh and the lips are fleshy.
To look at this exquisite woman is, paradoxically, to witness a fall from some imagined state of grace, a descent from art to life-imitating art. By placing these images within the context of the gallery--the space of the ideal--Samore insists upon them as tokens of degradation, which is one way out of the inevitable accusations of voyeurism and complicity.
* Richard Telles Fine Art, 7380 Beverly Blvd., (213) 965-5578, through Feb. 10. Closed Sundays and Mondays.