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Personalizing a Mass-Produced World

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There’s more to George Stoll’s pretty little sculptures than meets the eye. On one level, the L.A-based artist’s fake sponges, tumblers, rolls of toilet paper and child-size Halloween costume at Grant Selwyn Fine Art pretend to be something they’re not. On another level, however, these sweet nothings made of wood, wax and fabric never try to trick viewers into thinking they’re anything other than just what they are: handcrafted facsimiles of things we get rid of when we no longer need them.

Attached to the wall at eye level, Stoll’s sponges playfully masquerade as abstract paintings. While their dimensions, tints and textures exactly match those of real sponges, their presentation (singly or in groups of two, four, six and nine) echoes the serial format of Minimalism and the physicality of monochrome painting.

From afar, Stoll’s works fool you into thinking that whoever cleaned up the pristine gallery left the tools of his trade behind. Up close, they hide nothing. Wood grain, visible through delicately brushed layers of chalky alkyd paint, attests to the organic material out of which they are made. Dark circles around each oddly angled indentation reveal that Stoll has burned hundreds of pock-like perforations into the soft balsa, dutifully duplicating the look of sponges while creating complex surfaces that catch light in various ways throughout the day.

After the initial appeal of these tastefully tinted baubles wears off, a question lurks in the back of your mind: Why would anyone make mass-produced objects when he could purchase an unlimited supply at any housewares store?

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In the past, commentators have answered that the handmade quality of Stoll’s art is just what distinguishes it from the impersonal feel of packaged conveniences, thus returning a human touch to Pop art. This is especially true of his tumblers. Made of beeswax, paraffin and pigment, each is slightly misshapen; many, marred by fingerprints and indentations, bear obvious evidence of the artist’s touch.

Today, however, it is more interesting to think of Stoll’s art as embodying a poignant narrative about finding one’s place in a world made by and for others--about striving to fit into socially prescribed categories and failing to live up to common ideals.

This impulse runs through a significant strand of Pop, from Jasper Johns’ beer cans cast in bronze to Robert Gober’s homemade bathroom fixtures, Michael Jenkins’ seashore accessories and Stoll’s own household objects. Significantly, all of these artists are openly gay men. Knowing this, it is impossible not to see their conceptually and stylistically similar works as metaphors for a shared desire to fit in to society while remaining distinct from it.

Based in a subtle sense of alienation, each of Stoll’s uncommon objects embodies a fantasy of what the world would be like if everything in it felt as if it had been made for you. Like all art, his humbly ambitious work refashions life so that it might be lived on more intimate terms.

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* Grant Selwyn Fine Art, 341 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 777-2400, through Jan. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Read Between the Lines: Despite its sprawling size and serious historical character, a big show of more than 60 drawings, watercolors, lithographs and sketchbooks by Balthus is a remarkably intimate affair. True to the 91-year-old artist’s capacity to conjure flesh-and-blood solidity out of nothing but a few lovingly fingered smudges or wispy lines of graphite, this decade-spanning sampling of famous and rarely seen works at Shoshana Wayne Gallery makes you feel as if the legendary artist is an old friend and that you’re on a first-name basis with his work--even though this is his first solo show in Los Angeles.

Balthus is at his best when he focuses on a solitary figure (mostly young female nudes) with such intensity that the rest of the world seems to disappear. Background details almost never intrude into his modestly scaled pictures. His sitters, who rarely sit upright, fold themselves languorously over couches or recline listlessly on beds. They seem to materialize out of thin air, with many parts of their lithe, sensuous bodies dissolving into the nothingness around them.

In many images, Balthus directs your attention to a particular detail or gesture--say, the curve of a shoulder, the turn of a neck or the roundness of an abdomen--by rendering it with just a little more shaded solidity than the rest of the figure’s form, which is sometimes only lightly outlined and at other times awkwardly added on. With an exceptionally delicate touch and a precisely honed knowledge of just when enough is enough, he holds back from spoiling the fantasy by never overemphasizing a figure’s literal physicality.

In a sense, the consummate draftsman does not realistically depict his models so much as he gives palpable form to emotionally charged musings about getting lost in the pleasures of the flesh. With utmost fidelity to the ongoing activity of art-making, Balthus sacrifices the idea that drawings are completely resolved, finely finished works of art; instead, the merest hints, the slightest whispers and the slimmest intimations resonate more deeply and to much more long-lasting effect.

* Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535, through Jan. 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Ho-Ho-Humbug: If your holidays haven’t quite measured up to expectations, pay a visit to Paul McCarthy’s installation at Blum & Poe Gallery to see just how badly things can go at this time of the year.

Twenty decorated Christmas trees fill the main gallery, spilling into the entryway with what should be an excess of Yuletide cheer. But McCarthy’s plastic trees are bent, dusty and damaged, their ornaments crooked and broken. Still partially wrapped in their protective packaging (which appears to have been gnawed by rats), some call to mind fatalities stuffed halfway into body bags. Most look as if they belong on a crime scene or in an evidence locker. You certainly wouldn’t want one in your living room.

Scattered throughout this fake forest is a ketchup-smeared Santa’s mask and costume, a toy monkey, a pair of wrapped presents, eight cardboard boxes and a table strewn with crayons, bottles and props left over from one of McCarthy’s messy performances. Mounted high on the four walls are 15 nearly life-size photographs of the artist dressed as Santa Claus as he performs a series of simple yet disturbing activities.

Although nothing explicit is depicted in these pictures of McCarthy fondling a sausage, opening a can of chocolate syrup with a butcher knife or spilling ketchup everywhere as he makes crude prints and drawings, they evoke more unsavory associations than most viewers would like to acknowledge--especially in relation to Santa and the childhood innocence he symbolizes.

More than a mean-spirited mockery of America’s saccharine-coated, over-commercialized season of exaggerated happiness, McCarthy’s anti-Christmas celebration strikes at the heart of the lies adults regularly tell kids--supposedly for their protection and enjoyment, but equally for the protection and enjoyment of our own nostalgic fantasies.

A cross between an office party gone sour and a Santa’s Land display for kids who’d rather make a mess today than wait for tomorrow’s gifts, McCarthy’s cheerfully demented installation insists that if art puts us in touch with the child within, that kid can be a brat--a bundle of ungovernable energy driven to do dumb things on its own rather than follow social conventions, which, when you think about it, aren’t all that smart to begin with.

* Blum & Poe Gallery, 2042 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 453-6311, through Jan. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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