Lush brushwork and simple compositions come together in Roberto Gil de Montes' new paintings at Jan Baum Gallery. Big and bold, yet subtly intriguing, these hypnotic nudes, portraits and still lifes rank among the best he has made.
In the past, Gil de Montes' intimately scaled images were generally stronger than his larger, often wall-size canvases. In this exhibition, however, the tables have turned: The most captivating pictures are also the biggest. As a result of the artist's newly developed mastery of scale, even the mid-size works seem larger than their actual dimensions.
In three of the four biggest paintings, a larger-than-lifesize man with almond-shaped eyes stares straight at the viewer. Dressed formally, casually or wearing nothing at all, these handsome men either stand in front of a giant spider web spun over an upside-down landscape, or behind lacy veils interspersed with flowers. Each figure seems to possess a rich inner life that is even more mysterious than his beautifully painted surroundings.
In contrast, Gil de Montes' best painting lays everything out on its surface. Hiding nothing behind its lively brushwork, "Frenzy" depicts about 25 silhouetted black birds whose shapes are as dark as a moonless night. Amid the crisscrossing branches and deep green foliage of a fecund pomegranate shrub, the birds nearly disappear into Gil de Montes' painterly camouflage.
Suffused with visual energy, "Frenzy" also juxtaposes thick, buttery brush strokes of golden yellow with bare expanses of raw canvas. To look at this picture is to experience what it is like to look at the sun shining through a network of branches: You almost have to squint to see the painting clearly.
Rather than merely depicting the world, Gil de Montes invites viewers to physically experience it. His painting's stark, jarring contrasts and highly animated patterns stimulate your retinas, causing your body to respond well before your brain has a chance to intervene.
* Jan Baum Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., (213) 932-0170, through Oct. 26. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Imaginative Wanderlust: Wildly colorful and endlessly inventive, Ynez Johnston's new paintings and sculptures at Tortue Gallery depict fantastic lands jampacked with fabulous creatures, strange vehicles, loony monuments and wacky architecture.
A typical painting by Johnston consists of a large field of vivid color given texture and tone by thousands of her inky fingerprints. Atop these atmospheric expanses float crisp, jazzy shapes whose hand-drawn contours have been built up with thick beads of pigment (they resemble Huichol yarn paintings). Cement, casein and other mediums add gritty substance to the whimsical images.
Although it's impossible to determine exactly what any single thing is in the 76-year-old artist's powerfully amusing pictures, it's not difficult to get a vivid sense of how much fun she is having, making up an impressive inventory of idiosyncratic shapes and forms, and arranging them as if she were some sort of fantasy-land urban planner.
In bronze and painted wood, Johnston's sculptures (made in collaboration with her husband, writer John Berry) look like elements of the paintings that have jumped into three dimensions. Most of these pieces represent adventures in the making, with navigators, runners, riders and bons vivants embarking on journeys and escapades.
A highlight of Johnston's wonderfully sprawling show, which easily fills three galleries, is a selection of her works from the 1980s. Included are a 6-foot-tall sculpture of a comical lighthouse crawling with amiable creatures and a maquette for an imaginary town square. Combining the goofiness of Disneyland's Toontown with the edgy nuance of Tom Otterness' public sculptures, Johnston's miniature city center shows that levity and seriousness sometimes go hand in hand.
So playful and engaging that it's sure to stimulate a sense of adventure even among curmudgeonly homebodies, Johnston's fun-loving art triggers wanderlust in viewers with more active imaginations.
* Tortue Gallery, 2917 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8878, through Nov. 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Designer Archeology: Barbara Kasten's photographs of ancient statues, temples, vessels and fossils attempt to wed the scholarly discipline of archeology to the giddy thrills of pop culture. At Gallery RAM, these two halves of the photographer's project fail to hold together, instead diminishing the impact of each side's best qualities.
Somber monoprints, Cyanotypes and photograms, usually depicting temple ruins, amphoras and tiny fossils, are too abstract and stylized to communicate anything specific about their historical sources. Kasten's silhouetted images belong to the genre of designer archeology: all style, no substance.
An artifact's mere appearance, not research or study, is meant to convey generic spiritual import. Supersaturated Cibachromes and slick, large-format Polaroids cast a neon glow over the monochromatic auras Kasten presents in her more reserved prints.
Bathed in an electric rainbow of hot pinks, vibrant violets and gorgeous oranges, the statues of women and temple ruins in these sumptuous prints look more like modern showgirls on beautifully lighted stages than goddesses in holy places. This gloriously tacky aspect of Kasten's art is its best feature, even though it flies in the face of the generalized spiritualism hinted at by the less flashy works.
* Gallery RAM, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-0043, through Nov. 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays.