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Finding Ways to Break Out of a Box of Conformity

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Compact, efficient and sensible, Sam Durant’s installation at Blum & Poe Gallery demonstrates that art not only comes from dozens of sources, but that it also gets put to dozens of uses by viewers who get involved with it.

Wide-open potential, rather than fussy, fixed meaning, takes precise shape in the artist’s sculptures and silk screens.

In the center of the gallery, Durant has arranged seven box-like structures made of two grades of ordinary particle board. Masterfully crafted, each five-sided form has a single laminated surface opposite its open end.

Consequently, all of these furniture-size pieces appear to have been unceremoniously tipped on their sides. This simple gesture serves two purposes: It links Durant’s works to the normally hidden insides of kitchen and bathroom cabinetry found in most middle-class homes; and it simultaneously suggests that all art begins when quotidian things are upended--when they get used for purposes other than the ones they were made for.

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This fusion of everyday pragmatism and anti-establishment rebellion gives Durant’s installation its taut--and particularly American--edginess.

Having subjected mundane domestic materials to a mild type of mistreatment, he invites viewers to do the same to his works. Inside most of his sculptures are stacks of magazines, catalogs and photocopied diagrams of home improvement projects. Free to peruse these source materials at your own pace and according to your own interests, you begin to rearrange the interiors of the otherwise neutral sculptures.

If you’re uncomfortable treating fine art in such a casual, hands-on manner, Durant has provided a helpful example in one of his pieces. A cluster of red, white and blue candles, stuck in the mouths of empty liquor bottles, provides illumination by showing that a big part of good old American ingenuity is based on simple adaptation.

Likewise, five large grids of silk-screened images, reproduced from the same magazines and catalogs, play upon this radically democratic sense of interchangeability. Rather than insisting that art’s meaning be traced back to an artist’s intentions, Durant’s bracing installation takes its chances with viewers willing to use it for whatever purposes they see fit.

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* Blum & Poe Gallery, 2042 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 453-8311, through March 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Exercises: Ghoulish women, skeletal men, tormented horses and pasty-faced children populate a fine selection of ink and charcoal drawings by Rico Lebrun (1900-1964) at Koplin Gallery.

Based on details of famous paintings by Goya, Grunewald, Rembrandt, Rubens, Traini and Velazquez, Lebrun’s swift, linear studies and shaded ink washes are loose and impressionistic, less concerned to compete with the Old Masters than to use their compositions as ready-made armatures on which the Italian-born, California-based painter could hang his own gestural flourishes.

A wide range of techniques is displayed in 21 drawings and three paintings made between 1952 and 1960. Some works are all quivering line, as if the decrepit figures they depict are held together by nothing but nervous energy and might topple over with the slightest agitation.

Other figures have smudged, indistinct features, as if their lack of moral resolve has caused their faces to become monstrously generic masks. In still other images, Lebrun combines various styles of drawing to form grossly distorted bodies that often writhe in anguish, leer demonically or lose their human characteristics altogether, becoming swollen blobs of flesh as ghastly as they are sentient.

As a group, Lebrun’s pictures represent an attempt to link the expressive immediacy of swiftly drawn gestures with the power of the emotionally loaded subjects they depict: death, pain and suffering. They also represent something of an end-run around Picasso and Pollock, major artists who also worked through Surrealism to increase the visual impact of their images.

As a result, Lebrun’s drawings have the presence of competent studio exercises, minor works that recall the authority of the Old Masters while ignoring the formal rigor and inventiveness of their contemporaries.

* Koplin Gallery, 464 N. Robertson Blvd., (310) 657-9843, through March 1. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Buoyant: The works in Carlos Mollura’s exhibition at ACME Gallery may look like air bags, balloons or the pillows of air mattresses, but they function just like the best kinds of contemporary art.

Although it’s difficult to say whether the young artist’s inflatable forms, made from industrial-strength polyvinyl-chloride film, are paintings or sculptures, each of these wall-mounted works marks off a space that is no different from the space around it, yet seems more highly charged simply because it has been separated from its surroundings.

Art intensifies ordinary situations, and Mollura’s untitled works do this by literally raising the air pressure. Stretched taut, their synthetic, sometimes polyester-reinforced surfaces reveal that the air in their invisible atmospheres is more compressed than usual.

As a result, these seemingly empty works have a tangible effect on their surroundings. Hung in groups of two, three, four or 48, Mollura’s symmetrical compositions activate the gaps between each component, transforming negative spaces into physical presences that are integral to the works themselves. This makes for a buoyant show that recalls Warhol’s free-floating Mylar balloons from the 1960s as it draws viewers into more formal, yet still playful exchanges.

* ACME Gallery, 1800-B Berkeley St., Santa Monica, (310) 264-5818, through March 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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