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Intimate Works Pale Next to Legend of Artist’s Life

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s appropriate that the first West Coast solo show of collages by Ray Johnson (1927-1995) is titled “The Cult of Celebrity,” because the legend that has grown up around the reclusive artist’s life and death overshadows the art he made. The 29 intimately scaled works at Manny Silverman Gallery (dating from 1953 to 1994) underline that fact: He is a minor artist whose life story is more captivating than the art he left behind.

On their own, Johnson’s collages are perfectly charming conflations of schoolboy yearning and world-weary urbanity. Sharing formal similarities with Warhol’s early graphic-design work and the goofy little figures that break up the text of long articles in the New Yorker, his mixes of media are neither formally inventive nor loaded with significance.

Nevertheless, many take you on light-handed scavenger hunts that use the rigors of Russian Constructivism to organize the wonderful dusty stuff found in old cardboard boxes in granny’s attic. Deft and handsome, Johnson’s recycled works do not delve to great depths but instead skate across the surface of things, bringing a chilly touch of fatalism to their otherwise playful embrace of chance occurrences.

Some of the most complex ones include small rectangles of paperboard whose rounded corners recall the pieces Scrabble players use to spell words. In Johnson’s hands, these little building blocks form shallow reliefs that are often adorned with photocopied drawings depicting stylized swans, sunsets, snakes, flowers, tattooed biceps and casually idiosyncratic patterns.

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Playing cards, pictures clipped from magazines and postage stamps add to the sense that meaning is fleeting and always on the move. Likewise, images of such stars as Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Rock Hudson and Shirley Temple bespeak fame’s mercurial, often tragic aspect, as do references to such artists as Jackson Pollock, Oyvind Fahlstrom and Rene Magritte.

A legendary recluse who exhibited frequently from 1965 to 1973 before moving to Long Island and turning to mail art as his medium of choice, Johnson was born in Detroit and attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he studied under Josef Albers and met such luminaries as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller and Richard Lippold. He seems to have known everyone important in the Manhattan art world, or at least to have sent them one or more of his signature missives.

On Friday the 13th of January 1995, Johnson jumped off a bridge into the icy waters of Sag Harbor and drowned, leaving many fans and acquaintances convinced that his death was his final piece of performance art. This is the stuff of legends. The exhibition isn’t. But with such drama lying behind it, it’s hard to resist.

* Manny Silverman Gallery, 619 N. Almont Drive, (310) 659-8256, through July 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Paintings or Photos?: The cross-fertilization between painting and photography that has been cropping up in some of the most intriguing works being made today takes breathless shape in Don Giffin’s physically resplendent paintings at Christopher Grimes Gallery. Before these 6-by-5-foot acrylics on panel, a two-act drama transpires, setting viewers off on journeys filled with many more conundrums than clear-cut answers.

Immediately upon entering the gallery you are wowed by the visual impact of Giffin’s abstractions, which resemble the offspring of Morris Louis’ “Veil” paintings and gigantic Polaroid photographs. Each dreamily atmospheric image is aglow with smoky browns, saturated yellows, burning oranges and rich magentas, all set adrift in ethereal fields. These blurry forms hint at the presence of figurative elements or out-of-focus objects, as if seen through heat-sensitive lenses or night-vision goggles.

But your interest in determining what Giffin’s images depict immediately gives way to your need to know what sort of objects they are. The urgency of this drive is significant and strange. After all, in a world dominated by digitized images, computer-generated special effects and billion-dollar programming, what difference does it make if you’re looking at painting or a photograph?

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The beauty of Giffin’s art is that it makes you feel that no matter what the ultimate answer to this question is, your need to know what you’re looking at right now is infinitely more important.

A close scrutiny reveals that each piece consists of a finely sanded layer of gesso over which translucent layers of acrylic paint have been pulled with a squeegee nearly as wide as the painting. The edges, where the colors do not overlap but sit, side by side, like an out-of-register print, provide the most clues. Here, all that remains of the puddles of paint that once pooled atop Giffin’s smooth panels are the traces that have soaked into the absorptive layer of underpainting. The rest of the surfaces, which have had four or more colors pulled over them, are haunting in their ghostly intangibility.

The best thing about Giffin’s mesmerizing works is that identifying the materials and processes that were intrinsic to their construction in no way diminishes their mysteriousness. Knowing how something was made goes a long way in telling you what it is--but not very far in explaining its lasting fascination.

Also at Grimes is a compact solo show by Michael Pierzynski. Composed of two small sculptures and two small paintings, this sharply focused exhibition is transitional in that it suggests a shift away from the charmingly twisted tabletop tableaux the artist has exhibited for the past eight years or so. However, the biggest change that has taken place has less to do with Pierzynski’s materials than with an increase in the explicitness of his previously elusive works.

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“Helmet #1" is a life-size rendition, in fragile plaster, of an ancient Greek helmet. Painted bone-white and polished so that it shines like fine china, this surrogate skull links the ferocity of hand-to-hand combat to the vulnerability of the human body.

Opposites also fuse in “Lingam,” an eye-shaped platter in the center of which rises a form both phallic and vaginal. Named for the symbol used in the worship of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and reproduction, this fleshy pink piece of stylized tableware resembles a ravishing ashtray. The decorative yet functional object is perfectly suited to the complexities of such double-edged pleasures as smoking.

Pierzynski’s beige canvases create the impression that you’re seeing double. In one, a silhouetted man and woman sit back to back, their out-of-register profiles quivering with a touch of optical energy. In the other, the phrase “Human Skin Lantern” is printed twice, its pastel-blue version shadowed by a blood-red one.

Ordinarily, an increase in directness means that an artist’s work is getting stronger. But strength isn’t everything, especially for an artist as dedicated to slippery ambiguity as Pierzynski. In his hands, an undertow of menace has more lasting resonance than a blunt confrontation with it.

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* Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Sept. 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Mixed Results: Christopher Pate’s new works have one foot firmly planted in the world of commercial design and the other in that of abstract painting. With such terrific sources, it’s surprising how bland his exhibition at Roberts & Tilton Gallery is.

On one wall, 10 approximately 2-foot-square paintings set up a simple structure and present uninspired variations within it. Limited to a palette of black, white, gray and silver, each of these pieces is a collage made of five elements set within wide frames painted the color of the gallery’s walls.

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A horizontal line divides all of the compositions in two. Below it, organically shaped sections of Mylar suggest watery reflections. Above it, similarly configured shapes echo those below. Lacking the rigor of art based on systematic patterns and the open-endedness of more intuitive formats, Pate’s staid works fail to bring design and painting into productive contact.

Six modular works, each measuring 6-by-4-feet, are cleaner, more streamlined and somewhat more successful. Each consists of two layers, one made of mirrored Plexiglass that Pate has cut into the shapes of oversize jigsaw-puzzle pieces, and another made of fiberboard, into which he has cut similarly shaped holes.

Allowing much of the wall to show through, Pate’s shallow reliefs play positive and negative space off one another in a thoroughly conventional fashion. Abutted with one another, his six panels wrap around a corner of the gallery to create the airy illusion that it is more spacious than its actual dimensions. This effect would be more resonant in a coffee shop or clothing store, where the mirrors would catch more dynamic reflections. In a gallery, Pate’s perfectly pleasant backdrop covers such well-traveled territory that it doesn’t stand on its own.

* Roberts & Tilton Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 549-0223, through July 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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