Glimpses of the Drama in L.A. Settings

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A touch of romance, a hint of voyeurism and a dose of surveillance commingle in William Leavitt's casually engaging paintings, watercolors and photographs at Margo Leavin Gallery. Depicting back-lit desert foliage, nighttime street scenes and modern homes at dusk, these understated images of the Southern California environment feel as if the artist caught them out of the corner of his eye--through the driver's side window as his car passed by.

Fleeting glimpses from different points of view make up much of Leavitt's imagery. Seemingly incidental details do not convey dramatic narratives so much as they evoke moods and provide viewers with adaptable backdrops for their own stories.

In two wonderfully slight pastels from 1992, each of which depicts an ordinary suburban home, four oddly shaped silhouettes of automotive parts float across the picture plane. Like blank, misshapen speech bubbles from a cartoon strip, these mysterious, out-of-scale shapes punctuate Leavitt's pictures of domestic tranquillity, suggesting that almost anything can take place in such seemingly bland settings.

Eight new oil-on-canvases imply that all of Los Angeles is a stage on which countless dramas are played out every day. In Leavitt's hands, the vast suburban sprawl of the city never seems overcrowded or overrun with bustling energy. His L.A. is an intimate one, made up of late-night drives around quiet Silver Lake neighborhoods and along the narrow roads winding among residences in the Hollywood Hills.

Even restaurant patios, jampacked with lamps, overhead heaters, palm fronds and yucca plants have a serene, solitary feel in Leavitt's pictures. The orb-shaped lights and pod-like gas heaters resemble friendly UFOs. People never appear in his images, which consistently embody an attitude of cool romanticism.

Three previously unexhibited photographs from 1969 anticipate the format and demeanor of Leavitt's playful Conceptual art. Each shows four small-scale props he arranged on his studio floor after randomly selecting them from a group of ordinary objects that included picture-books, chicken wire, marshmallows, stuffed animals, a paper bag and a pair of gloves.

"Random Selection: Sand, Smoke, Meat, Plant" transforms a bit of beach sand, some billowing smoke, a pork chop and a potted plant into a bird's-eye view of a deserted island where a king-size barbecue appears to be taking place. Like Leavitt's more recent arrangements of city images, his early photos endow ordinary things with a sense of intrigue equally driven by a desire for hands-off observation and animated engagement.

* Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 273-0603, through Aug. 14. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Free Associating: Everyone knows that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But few viewers act as if meaning also resides in their interaction with an object.

At Regen Projects, Lawrence Weiner's straightforward phrases with multiple meanings put each viewer's response front and center. Painted directly on the gallery walls, two new pieces combine with one left over from the artist's last show to make for some open-ended poetry as engaging as you are willing to make it.

Like the best Modernist paintings and sculptures, Weiner's enigmatic works refer to themselves and to a lot of other ideas, situations and circumstances. Painted in sky-blue capital letters, "OUT OF THE BLUE" turns inside-out the human tendency to think that our ideas are our own. Suggesting that the best ideas come from all around us, often without warning and rarely as a result of our intentions, this simple, ephemeral piece endows every cubic inch of our surroundings with the potential to generate meaning.

Likewise, "THIS ROCK OR THAT ROCK / IN A HOLLOW OF THE LAND" evokes landscape imagery of a particular, rolling sort, as well as the colloquialism "between a rock and a hard place." When rocks and rolls come together, music enters the picture. Such freewheeling associations are welcomed by Weiner's flexible art, in which the physicality of language, both graphic and aural, is valued for its bodily impact.

Outside, on a bright, white brick wall is emblazoned the fragmented phrase: "MATTER CAUSED / TO CEASE TO / FUNCTION / AS IT HAD." Precisely describing what Weiner did with orange enamel, these nine words also describe what his art does to a viewer's brain, which, in common parlance, is sometimes referred to as "gray matter."

Although it takes only a split second to read any one of these works (if not all three), there's no time limit on how long you can mull any one of them over--and you don't have to stay at the gallery to do so. Most important, there's nothing difficult or convoluted about Weiner's readily accessible, user-friendly Conceptualism. Curiosity is all that's required.

* Regen Projects, 629 N. Almont Drive, West Hollywood, (310) 276-5424, through August. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Misplaced Mocking: Although Stephen Bush's two big, sumptuously colored pictures of Alpine landscapes and people dressed up like giant stuffed animals striking provocative poses sound as if they've got a lot going for them, they wear thin rather quickly. Along with four nearly identical black-and-white images depicting pint-size toy elephants exploring a rugged coastline, the Australian-based artist's consummately crafted oils on linen hark back to a time when mocking painting's pomposity was taken seriously as a goal.

Now that such tongue-in-cheek gestures have a hollow ring to them, Bush's studiously Postmodern pictures at Rosamund Felsen Gallery have little to send up or make fun of.

Spoofing a genre only works when that genre is dominant. Mocking something that has a hold over no one is neither pointed nor satisfying.

In contrast, Bush's four modestly scaled paintings of Paris streets on garbage day possess a depth and resonance absent from his grander, more theatrical paintings. Each of these photo-based paintings is a close-up of a cluster of three to eight "wheely-bins," those plastic, lidded trash receptacles that have been popping up on city streets as waste disposal and recycling programs continue to get more sophisticated.

Strange as it may seem, there is a warmth, humility and integrity to Bush's group portraits of the bins. Some stand like stoic sentinels before ancient doorways. One pair brushes up against one another like lovers. The largest gang is arranged haphazardly on a street corner, like a bunch of old men gathered for afternoon gossip.

As a whole, Bush's first solo show in Los Angeles demonstrates that art is more interesting when it risks celebrating simple things than when it aims to criticize general tendencies and over-conceptualized abstractions.

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Also at Rosamund Felsen Gallery is "Landscape Memories," a small group show in which indirect references to the landscape adeptly play off of one another. Organized by artist Steven Hull, the seven-artist exhibition contends that the most resonant landscapes are those that exist in the mind's eye, despite what one's actual surroundings look like.

Georgina Starr's nearly 9-foot-tall inkjet print depicts the artist sitting at a bus stop in front of a mural-covered wall. The fanciful mural transforms Hollywood into "Starrwood," a personal fantasyland starring the artist herself. Similarly, Jonathan Monk's "Detention," consisting of a cafeteria table into which the image of a British galleon has been carved, asserts that it's easier to control a kid's body than to contain his mind.

Stephan Pascher's mock newspaper story tells the odd saga of a five-legged cow's supporting cast, while Charles Gaines' account of three people who died on Mt. Rainier reminds viewers that landscapes are not just pretty pictures and that beauty can be deadly.

Isabell Heimerdinger's adapted Marlboro ads eulogize the passing of some of the best-looking billboards that ever existed. Each of her four page-size works consists of a Marlboro ad torn from a magazine; she carefully filled in the logos, cowboys, saddles, lassos and surgeon general's warnings with colors and textures that match the backgrounds, causing them to disappear into the landscapes.

Recalling Soviet-style doctored photographs, Heimerdinger's works part company with an artistic tradition of manipulated advertisements by suggesting that ads do more than manipulate consumers. Demonstrating that an advertisement's beauty is not subservient to its message, her sly art evokes memories of gorgeous billboards that suffered the same fate as religious imagery at the hands of Martin Luther.

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* Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through Aug. 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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