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Fabric Pieces Revel in the Joy of Color

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pure optical pleasure comes first and last in Polly Apfelbaum’s new work at Karyn Lovegrove Gallery. The mental machinations set in motion in between are just as rewarding. Apfelbaum’s reputation has soared since the early 1990s when she began exhibiting her stained fabric pieces, which startle in their beauty, simplicity and humility. Her brightly blotted bedsheets hanging on the wall or stained swatches of velvet arrayed on the floor have encouraged feminist readings--their references ranging from menstruation to handicraft--as well as a respectable array of art historical touch points. These new installations retain all of those depth-invoking associations, while on the surface they deliver a wondrous visual spectacle.

A shock of beauty hits instantly upon rounding the doorway and encountering the largest of the works, an ellipse of overlapping, concentric swatches of velvet that occupies most of the gallery floor. The cloth pieces are saturated with washes of dye, or dabbed with dots of teal, jade, crimson and gold that usually bleed and spread a little but always leave a slim border revealing the velvet’s original color (either coral or a cool, pale green). A centrifugal blossoming of color, “Crazy Green, Bruised Orange” (the name comes from a Frank O’Hara poem on the controlled chaos of the city) verges on patterned order but revels in the vagaries of chance, like an Oriental rug filtered through the irreverent sensibility of Duchamp or Arp.

Along the border of the room runs another installation, with similarly shaped and dyed fabric pieces progressing loosely from a golden orange through a blood red into sweeter pinks and on through several more spectral changes up to a final few pieces dominated by a strong slate gray. A smaller circular piece, slighter also in its effect, sits atop a flat file in the back section of the gallery, and another linear work edges up to a wall in the office area with the gentle irregularity of a lapping tide.

While none of the smaller pieces carries the same ecstatic charge as “Crazy Green, Bruised Orange,” each is unabashedly beautiful and refreshingly lacking in pretense. Earlier works of Apfelbaum’s made reference to fairy tales, commercial products (like Wonder Bread) and such psychologically loaded matter as ashes and blood; but these are simpler fun. They answer the angular geometries of Minimal art with a seriality built of organic blobs--smart and beautiful, both.

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* Karyn Lovegrove Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 525-1755, through April 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Southern Exposures: When Jack Spencer equates his photographs of the American South with fiction, he has in mind William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. His new book, “Native Soil,” kicks off with a quote from one and closes with a terrific line from the other. However, his pictures at Rose Gallery (formerly the Gallery of Contemporary Photography) put one more in mind of John Berendt’s bestseller, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” an easily accessible tale that plays into popular, romanticized expectations of the South as painfully beautiful, deliciously tragic.

The photographs in Spencer’s book, it should be noted, regularly transcend such cliches, but the selection on view in the gallery panders to them. This is Faulkner Lite, where soft focus and rich sepia toning impose the aura of melodrama on any and every subject, summoning at a glance the region’s scarred past and haunted present.

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Mist rises from under a bridge like a mysterious portent; sunlight sanctifies the ruins of a church burned down in the Civil War; two empty tire swings hang from a tree like twin nooses. A forced romanticism drips from these pictures like the parasitic moss that hangs from trees around the Mississippi River delta.

Spencer breaks free from canned emotionalism most often in his portraits, which owe a shamefully heavy debt to Debbie Fleming Caffery but are nevertheless striking and effective. In one image from 1995, his subject, a black man named Cooter, holds a square pane of rippled glass in front of him, creating a frame within the frame and dissolving his features into aqueous, impressionistic dabs of light and shadow. In another, a heavyset African American woman named Gussie gently cradles a magnolia blossom between her fingers, its pristine whiteness set off dramatically--but not melodramatically--against the broad, black solidity of her blurred form.

* Rose Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-8440, through April 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Darkness and Light: A dark undercurrent threads its way ominously through “Parallax,” an intriguing photographic group show at Sandroni Rey Gallery that features six young artists from the U.S., Spain, England and Finland.

The trouble begins immediately, with the first body of work on view: Sue de Beer’s “Malevolent Evil” series. In these large color prints, the artist has inserted her own girlish image, doubled, into the settings of a video game steeped in morbid fantasy. In the most unsettling of the five images, she sips impassively from a McDonald’s cup while facing her own mirror image, hanged.

The unease lingers on, through the self-portraits of Elina Brotherus, whose self-conscious diaristic confessions show us both the blush of love and the splotchy bruises, or “Love Bites,” ensuing from it. In Patricia Dauder’s setup self-portraits, the artist is mysteriously, clumsily wrapped in white, looking for all the world like she just walked off the set of “The English Patient” and is bumbling, lost, through the woods.

In Deborah Mesa-Pelly’s work, we glimpse a luminous, mossy forest under the floorboards of a room, and discover, along with a young woman in the picture, that the bedroom closet is really a dark, lichen-patched cave that seems to be creeping beyond the closet door. The photographs have a rich, fictional spirit about them. They remind, through fantasy, that extraordinary life lies beneath the veneer of the commonplace.

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Soo Kim’s understated images also focus on the ordinary--an airport interior, a scatter of red tickets massing on the cobblestone pavement like fall leaves, the rhyme of two small, bobbed heads leaning toward each other. Together, her images read as an impressionistic, slightly melancholy poem.

Tom Hunter’s work provides the show its only unabashedly affirmative visions, as well as its most affecting, meticulously beautiful images. The portraits derive from a series Hunter made of squatters in his London neighborhood. Modeled after paintings by Vermeer, they show ordinary men and women in everyday interiors, humble but thoughtfully maintained, all of them graced by a cleansing, dignifying light. “The Anthropologist” is an exquisite example, alone worth a trip to the gallery. Its subject, a young man, seems poised between two worlds, two eras, and like the photographer, a particularly earnest observer of place and time.

* Sandroni Rey Gallery, 1224 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 392-3404, through April 22. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.

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A Quiet Grandeur: “Transformation” is an unusually strong word to title and characterize the 40-year survey of Martha Alf’s drawings, paintings and photographs at Newspace Gallery, since the artist’s work has been so consistent in its pensive stillness, its quiet, introspective beauty. When transformation occurs in her work, it’s a slow and subtle drama that begins with something mundane--a toilet paper roll or a pear--that is gently raised to the status of secular icon.

The show is organized by decade, beginning with Alf’s sweet but unremarkable self-portraits in pencil and her Morandi-like painted still lifes of the 1960s. Around the turn of the decade, Alf introduced humble household objects into her paintings, to the exclusion of everything else.

Paper towel rolls, spray can tops and especially those toilet paper rolls get more than their due in her careful chromatic studies of form and shadow. This purposefully banal Minimalism has its beautiful moments, but it’s not until Alf focuses on pears, singly and in small groups, that her work stops feeling constrained and approaches the transcendent.

She draws with a steady, meditational focus, always placing the pears in the center of the rectangular sheet, usually before a simple, straight horizon line. Bodies in concert, they lean into one another or rest harmoniously side by side, and sometimes are aligned in a more dynamic, two-together, one-apart rhythm.

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Over time, Alf’s sturdy Realism has given way to a more luxurious exploration of texture and color, and the work of the 1990s glows with a confident sensuality. A crimson pear vibrates against a green ground and casts a deep violet shadow. Another has the quiet, dominating presence of a seated Buddha, drawn in the reds and oranges of a breathtaking sunset.

Like fine chamber music, Alf’s images are relatively modest. But their humble scope is ample enough to encompass moments of grandeur.

* Newspace Gallery, 5241 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 469-9353, through April 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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