Winner of this year's Frank Jewett Mather Award for distinction in art criticism, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe has long had a reputation as a prolific, sharp-witted theorist whose paintings never quite measured up to his consistently brilliant essays about contemporary culture and philosophy. At Shoshana Wayne Gallery, his first Los Angeles solo show in seven years goes a long way to dispel this view. Five deeply intelligent and frankly sensuous paintings, accompanied by 15 often dazzling gouaches and watercolors, flaunt so much virtuoso authority that it's impossible not to see this body of work as equaling the level of sophistication maintained by Gilbert-Rolfe's best writing.
The huge main gallery, whose high ceiling and blocky proportions are more suited to sculpture than painting, has never looked better. Every inch of the daunting space feels as if it's suffused with warm energy. Hung high on each wall, as if in an old-fashioned picture gallery, Gilbert-Rolfe's paintings seem to elevate and expand the whole space, taking viewers along with them.
Framed by the entrance, the first painting you see is about as tall and as wide as an adult. Titled "More Than One Thing," its vertical arrangements of chocolaty browns, icy whites and golden yellows appear to slither over and under one another. Although painted with painstaking deliberation, this oil-on-linen slips out of focus when scrutinized. You find yourself blinking to clear your blurry vision.
Setting your eyes in motion with more vigorous energy, two mid-size paintings exploit an autumnal palette. "Space in the Forest" and "Lightness" recall Cezanne's vertiginous images of the material world dissolving into an exhilarating swirl of thin air. Imagine Mont Sainte-Victoire enshrouded in the smoke from a forest fire and you'll have an idea of the dense, flickering light that moves through Gilbert-Rolfe's paintings.
The largest two works rank among his most ambitious and accomplished. Deceptively simple, "Ghost" is a single panel painting that sometimes dissolves into three equal parts and sometimes four. Your eyes are pulled horizontally, then vertically and finally into a rectangular space that spills out of the picture plane.
On the gallery's far wall, the fifth canvas forms the still center around which the entire installation turns. Laid out to accentuate the fact that its composition is out of sync with its edges, "Order, Uncertainty, Movement, Immediacy" seems to unfold in slow motion. Defying time and taking up more space than its literal dimensions imply, this endlessly fascinating painting is part of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
* Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535, through Oct. 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Split Seconds: Larry Fink's engrossing photographs of people at parties should lay to rest the over-used idea that documentary pictures should be examined for evidence of whether the photographer empathized with his subjects or maintained his distance. Simultaneously intimate and dispassionate, the Pennsylvania-based artist's powerfully theatrical pictures at Jan Kesner Gallery demonstrate that the meaning of any work of art has a lot less to do with its maker's feelings than with the often contradictory responses it triggers in viewers.
Loaded with prop-like details or defined by a spare economy of elegance, Fink's beautifully printed black-and-white images rarely lead one to wonder about what kind of guy might have made them. If you do start to speculate about the photographer's character or personality, you soon realize that you're only avoiding your own relationship to his strangely fascinating works.
At once raw and stylish, nearly all of the 52 images on display depict high- and low-profile party-goers, people who have put themselves on public display by attending various formal gatherings. Raucous weddings, staid fund-raisers, gala charity benefits, grungy punk clubs, stuffy museum openings, high-fashion fe^tes, plain town-hall receptions and spectacular debutante balls form the backdrops for the photographer's one-act dramas.
A consummate observer with a talent for capturing fleeting glances and for freezing casual gestures, Fink does away with the stereotype that the rich are soulless robots and the less privileged really know how to have a good time.
Boredom plays a major role at formal occasions across all strata of society. In Fink's art, it links the upper crust and the middle class. Likewise, booze flows freely. Whether it's poured from 1.75 liter jugs or sipped from crystal flutes, it gets some guests to let down their guard while fueling the anger of others.
With an eye for the idiosyncratic, Fink focuses on individuals who stand out from the hubbub swirling around them. His best images depict people whose faces and outfits easily fit into their surroundings, but whose expressions and demeanor somehow suggest that they'd be equally at home on another planet.
A fugitive glance, a surreptitious whisper and a few point-blank stares reveal that Fink is a master at finding worlds within worlds--split seconds that speak volumes about modern life's contradictions.
* Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea Ave., (323) 938-6834, through Oct. 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Misery's Company: Ten years ago, art about failure and pain enjoyed a moment of fame and respectability. Today, striving to make work that looks downtrodden and pathetic lacks the resonance it once had.
This seems to suit Georganne Deen just fine; her paintings and works on paper have never sought the spotlight for its own sake. Instead, the L.A.-based artist's crudely rendered figurative images have consistently preferred to stew in the resentment-laced aftermath of her own unhappy upbringing.
Like Deen's brutally honest earlier works, her 15 new works at Christopher Grimes Gallery paint a picture of a life so thoroughly shot-through with trauma and cruelty that the mere idea of happiness appears to be an outlandish fantasy.
A dreary palette of dirty browns, rusty reds and bruised blues sets the tone of these intentionally dispirited images. Cartoonish depictions of monstrous women, amputees and religious hypocrites star in sour vignettes in which fleeting sexual pleasure is treated as poor recompense for months of sorrow and years of suffering.
Short, sarcastic phrases punctuate Deen's works, driving home the idea that life is not what it's cracked up to be. Painted in a folksy style that's anything but naive, her grim pictures give form to a world-weariness in which once-intense bitterness has mellowed into jaded resignation. Expecting little from life is passed off as deep wisdom by these corrosive celebrations of sad-sack dissatisfaction.
Given the personalized subject matter of Deen's paintings, it's strange that they're so generic. Unlike her earlier canvases, which are filled with scathing specifics, her recent pictures are surprisingly bland and often trite.
Although tempered by a healthy dose of self-deprecation, these paintings fail to rise above the overwrought self-involvement of someone who won't stop talking about what they said to their therapist. Misery may love company, but it's very difficult to make convincing art out of it.
* Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Oct. 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Paper Trail: Joe Goode's exhibition of modestly scaled works on paper at Manny Silverman Gallery is a treasure trove of little gems. Sketched, painted and pasted together between 1960 and 1973, the 33 drawings, collages, pastels and oils that make up this delightful selection show the veteran L.A. artist at his best. Deftly combining abstraction and representation, these compact Pop icons invite viewers to pay close attention to the similarities and differences between images and things.
Goode makes art-making look easy. By surrounding a miniature, bird's-eye diagram of a modern kitchen with a dense field of bright green brush strokes, he efficiently argues that contemporary art is not an instance of otherworldly transcendence, just an ordinary object among others--but one that just happens to make you see things differently.
When Goode depicts such common household items as milk bottles, loaves of bread and unmade beds, or such socially suggestive objects as ashtrays, matchbooks, Coke bottles, car keys and sunglasses, he links the privacy of domesticity to the accessibility of public space. Nearly all of his casually crafted objects are also exquisitely rendered images, which willingly inhabit the rough-and-tumble world of bars, restaurants, city streets and interstate highways.
To look at any of Goode's early drawings is to see that Pop art leaves a lot of room for individual idiosyncrasy--and even more space for viewers who like their art to hit them where they live.
* Manny Silverman Gallery, 619 N. Almont Drive, (310) 659-8256, through Oct. 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays.