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Daring to Make Abstraction Look Easy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At Burnett Miller Gallery, Michelle Fierro’s first solo show stands out as one of the best in recent memory. With great economy of means (and spellbinding effectiveness), the young L.A.-based painter’s nitty-gritty abstractions deliver more visual stimulation per square inch of canvas than most paintings--especially those that wear their labor-intensity on their sleeves, like merit badges honoring the Protestant work ethic.

Each of Fierro’s canvases consists of little dabs, dollops and smudges of paint, sometimes squeezed straight from the tube and at other times scraped off the floor of a friend’s studio and wadded into crusty globs that get glued to the painting. Scraps of paper, nonchalant pencil markings and tiny bits of fabric (often only a few stray threads) likewise interrupt large areas of canvas the artist has left raw or hastily covered with uneven coats of black, white or powder-blue acrylic.

Fierro’s daring paintings dispense with the idea that earnest hard work consistently results in art that’s worth looking at. Raw talent, not clock-punching labor, takes shape in these smart, inventive works. As a result they look easy, almost as if they happened by accident.

Of course they didn’t. But that doesn’t take anything away from the seemingly magnetic pull they exert on your eyes. Effortlessly drawing viewers into orbit around their compact constellations of diverse visual incidents, these paintings are fun to look at.

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From viewers they elicit lively back-and-forth movements. From far away, one’s eyes dart from one focal point to the next, quickly flitting across the canvases’ open expanses. From close up, you focus on tiny details, getting lost in delicate touches and forgetting about an overall view of the whole.

The seductive influence of Cy Twombly’s painterly renditions of slacker lassitude comes immediately to mind. So does Richard Tuttle’s offhand yet fastidious Minimalism, in which nothing but a couple of pencil lines or a single, oddly folded piece of paper is shown to be just perfect.

However, what counts in Fierro’s sensible paintings is not where something comes from, but where it takes you. True to their scrappy, unpresumptuous character, each of these works risks looking like an incidental studio leftover as it lures you into an engaging exchange.

* Burnett Miller Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 315-9961, through Oct. 19. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Delicious Work: Depicting tumbling plates of food, airborne jack-o'-lanterns and flying lollipops, Megan Williams’ new paintings at Christopher Grimes Gallery are so full of verve and virtuosity that they seem to leap from the walls like out-of-control cartoons. To see the artist’s best canvases and works on linen is to be drawn into a swirling whirlpool of visual energy in which anything can happen.

In “No Control,” a cartoonish yet very human man is sucked into a downward spiraling vortex of empty booze bottles and gale-force winds. “Belts and Buttons” brings equal energy to a pudgy man’s midriff as he wiggles and struggles into clothing that must have fit 10 years ago. And “Pagan Candies” fills your visual field with dozens of larger-than-lifesize jack-o'-lanterns, lollipops and sour balls, all floating in and out of focus like a nightmare that’s both unclear and unforgettable.

Stealing the show is “Spill,” a tightly composed group of nine variously sized panels on the wall and floor. This masterful demonstration of Williams’ capacity to wrestle high drama out of simple little events transforms a common dining-room accident into a touching parable about the difficulties of making art--and of maintaining one’s balance--amid the often overwhelming chaos of modern life.

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With playful good sense, “Spill” makes fun of the idea that paintings represent the outpouring (or spilling) of the artist’s inner self. This multi-part picture also suggests that making a mess--and picking up the pieces--are inescapable elements of life.

Until now, Williams has been best known for her works on paper, rambunctious pastel and charcoal drawings of frantic, often manic activity. Her new paintings take her art to a new level, adding clarity, physical substance and eye-popping colors to an oeuvre already animated by zippy, whiplash mobility.

* Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Oct. 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Cool Magic: So cool they’re hot, Rudolf Stingel’s abstract paintings at Margo Leavin Gallery are a pleasure to see. Downplaying self-expression with confidence and aplomb, their impersonal, seemingly mechanical surfaces are all the more mysterious for being matter-of-fact.

Ranging in size from 2 feet square to 8 by 6 feet, the Italian-born, New York-based painter’s ruthlessly unsentimental works fall into two groups. The small ones are shiny silver monochromes, and the larger ones consist of two colors, usually a textured, industrial-strength layer of maroon, acid green, aqua or fire-engine red sitting atop a flat coat of cold, silvery white.

Most of Stingel’s paintings resemble contour maps that have been copied so many times their details have been lost in the process. The organic patterns in these high-keyed images recall landscape configurations when seen from so far away it’s impossible to identify any specific location. You’re left to savor the paint’s exquisite materiality.

Stingel makes no secret of the process he uses to make his sensuous paintings. In 1989 he published a booklet in six languages describing, as a recipe does, how he pushes paint through a diaphanous fabric that has been treated with a fairly arbitrary application of glue. Pealing off the fabric leaves a tiny, webbed pattern in the gooey paint that passed through the fabric where it wasn’t blocked by the glue.

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To get to the gallery displaying Stingel’s eight paintings, you have to walk past three rooms whose floors are covered with blue-and-orange-striped carpeting, and past a Styrofoam wall that is riddled with holes and almost blocks the main gallery’s entrance. Part of the beauty of Stingel’s bold works is that they are able to hold their own next to the obnoxious carpeting, whose brash bands of complementary colors pale in comparison to the slippery optical shifts animating Stingel’s art.

* Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 273-0603, through Oct. 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Natural Elegance: Richard Misrach’s gigantic photographs at Jan Kesner Gallery bring individual slices of the sky into architectural settings, elegantly transforming small parts of nature into quietly beautiful works of art.

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Hard to beat for its beauty, blind drama and vast scale, nature is tough competition for any cultural artifact. Misrach’s gorgeous photographs succeed in what could be a foolhardy endeavor because of their subtlety.

None of the eight impeccably printed images includes the sun or any other object that might get in the way of the artist’s subject, which is light itself. Made at dawn and at dusk in deserts throughout the American West, Misrach’s pictures record, with dazzling accuracy, the extremely nuanced spectrum as light gradually displaces darkness at the beginning of the day and as it gradually withdraws from the sky at day’s end.

An incredible variety of color, tone and temperature is present in these images, ranging from orange, mauve, azure and black to yellow, powder blue, violet and steely gray. Indescribable gradations of value and hue foreground the fact that the vocabulary we have for naming colors is profoundly inadequate to the task of accurately labeling them as they regularly occur in the world.

Misrach’s pictures of nothing-but-light also have the curious effect of forcing viewers to stand fairly far away when looking at them. To come up close to the photos, particularly the dark ones, is to experience a touch of vertigo, as if the sky’s unfathomable blackness opened onto a void into which one might fall. By duplicating, rather than merely depicting, some of nature’s sublime power, Misrach’s photographs take on a power all their own.

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* Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 938-6834, through Oct. 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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