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Suspending the Limits on Imagination in Sculpture

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Daniel Wiener’s five pint-size sculptures at ACME Gallery hang from the ceiling on nearly invisible lines of monofilament. Loaded with associations that are difficult to articulate, these delightfully indescribable blobs of hydrocal, Sculpey and wire initially have the presence of words that get stuck on the tip of your tongue.

Just beyond the reach of your mind or memory, Wiener’s tantalizing works lurk in the shadow of intelligibility. To wander among the New York-based sculptor’s lumpy, dysfunctional mobiles is to be struck dumb--in the best sense of the term.

These intentionally inarticulate configurations of color, texture, shape and weight strip viewers of our ordinary recourse to language. Amid Wiener’s suspended sculptures, the only logical thing to do is to give free rein to your imagination, leaving each piece free to elicit unanticipated experiences. They quickly begin to trigger odd associations.

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“Pang” looks like a cross between the Stealth bomber and a vampire bat, with the added attraction of nine hooked feet, from which dangle nine blood-red forms shaped like bent cocktail forks with prongs on both ends. “As the Crow Flies” resembles a pair of tiny summer squashes joined like Siamese twins, from which extend spiraling wires recalling model train tracks, strands of DNA, hairs with split ends and beaded jewelry.

The more time you spend with Wiener’s libidinous sculptures, the more meanings proliferate. “Marionette” suggests that it’s the offspring of Puff the Magic Dragon and a hammerhead shark, to which the artist has grafted a pair of distended mandibles. The most complex piece, “Rumple, Crackle, Fold, Crackle,” appears to be the fusion of an inside-out brown paper bag and the vertebrae from a dinosaur’s tail, around which orbits a group of mutant seals whose skin is the color of eggplants.

If Wiener’s hand-crafted works begin by stopping language in its tracks, they do so only in the hope that the words you bring to them are of your own invention. This small yet generous exhibition celebrates idiosyncrasy as the basis of original thinking, which naturally enhances everyday experiences.

* ACME Gallery, 1800-B Berkeley St., Santa Monica, (310) 264-5818, through June 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Fine Lines: Carol Kaufman hasn’t had a solo show in 12 years, so for those of us who didn’t see the work then, seeing her quietly beautiful abstractions at Kiyo Higashi Gallery feels a little bit like discovering a new artist. Even better, the 45-year-old painter’s exhibition includes consistently solid works from the last four years, tracing a line of development along which her confidence and ambition steadily build.

Kaufman takes an awfully long time to complete a painting, sometimes spending more than a year on a small work. This tendency is most evident in a canvas from 1994, a diptych composed of two fields of innumerable graphite lines arranged in tight, patchwork patterns. Each line is so fine that an eyelash, in comparison, looks gigantic and unwieldy. The artist has partially erased the right panel, giving it the appearance of liquid clouds that play off the left panel’s wispy dryness.

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Over the next three years, Kaufman juxtaposed panels of milky whiteness with graphite’s metallic shine, incised razor-sharp grids that appear to be hyper-refined rubbings of the canvas’s weave and arranged horizontal bands of various densities, setting up pulsing visual rhythms that are a pleasure to see. She also stopped working on gesso-coated canvas and started working on Masonite. Its smoothness and inflexibility provide a perfect ground for her graphite-based paintings, allowing their size to expand exponentially.

Two recent works measuring nearly 4-by-5 feet steal the show. Fusing the impenetrability of metal with the feathery delicacy of finely drawn lines, this pair of shiny black paintings invites viewers to get lost looking at their softly reflective surfaces.

Although Kaufman, who is an art director for The Times, probably lavished as much attention on these pieces as she did on her earlier works, the labor that went into them is less of an issue than before. You get so thoroughly absorbed in the moment that you don’t really care about how they were made.

* Kiyo Higashi Gallery, 8332 Melrose Ave., (213) 655-2482, through July 6. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Pop Shelves: Charles Long’s synthetic sculptures at Shoshana Wayne Gallery divide neatly into two groups: goofy pieces based on free-standing or wall-mounted shelves and lozenge-shaped pods resting on the floor like sci-fi cocoons for Space Age humans.

The first group of brightly colored, oddly formed and curiously textured works has the presence of 3-D cartoons. Lumpier and more curvaceous than the Flintstones’ furniture, “Built-In Desire” stands nearly 6 feet tall and appears to be made of a mixture of Pop Rocks and blue lollipops. Despite its size, this piece is more suitable for licking than for storing things.

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Likewise, a row of three purple shelves, each of which has sprouted a pendulous tentacle, throws utility out the window with casual abandon, as well as explicitly sexual suggestiveness. Two other sculptures, covered with waxy enamel and tacky flocking, grow like vines or spread like viruses, in both cases ensuring that they are as dysfunctional as they are fun to look at.

In contrast, Long’s floor-hugging pods forsake deftness and whimsy in favor of heavy-handed autobiography. Filled with the artist’s family snapshots, childhood toys, pornography and a slide projector showing a family portrait, these streamlined, predominantly black, white and gray burial mounds betray the impersonal open-endedness of the shelves to make a sentimental point: Long’s art is about expressing himself, not about stimulating unpredictable interactions with viewers.

Although the New York-based sculptor attempts to link the two halves of his practice by uniting them under the title “Our Bodies, Our Shelves,” this coy, opportunistic reference fails to equal the flat-footed usefulness of its source, “Our Bodies, Our Selves,” an implicitly feminist resource for women’s bodily consciousness first published in 1971.

In the end, Long’s fidelity to theoretical correctness diminishes the impact of his mutant Pop Art-inspired shelves. Rather than releasing his salacious works to the ungovernable reactions of viewers, he limits their significance by locating them in a conservative tradition of Expressionism.

* Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535, through July 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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American Life: Almost two dozen watercolors and oils on canvas by Palmer C. Hayden (1890-1973) at M. Hanks Gallery span 45 years, painting an American picture that is quaint, melancholic and honest. The Harlem-based artist, who spent the late 1920s and early 1930s in France, practiced a type of simplified realism that conveyed his feelings about a subject without diminishing its immediate recognizability.

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Most of Hayden’s pictures depict people gathered in public spaces, particularly those designed for leisure and recreation, like the beach or carousel at Coney Island, a college football stadium on game day and an art show’s opening reception. Despite the festive nature of these settings, Hayden generally painted them under ominous skies, with the same claustrophobic grimness he brought to pictures of a welfare line, railroad tracks and a barren cornfield presided over by a lone vulture. Only “Le Vernissage,” with its giddy pinks, giant champagne bottles and framed paintings hanging overhead, conveys lighthearted joy.

The overwhelming desire to be serious--as an artist and chronicler of his people’s experiences--restricts Hayden’s inventiveness, limiting the playfulness that occasionally enlivens his art. This sort of no-nonsense, even moral, control weakens his images while it strengthens their Americanness.

* M. Hanks Gallery, 3008 Main St., Suite 100, Santa Monica, (310) 392-8820, through June 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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