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In These Startling Paintings, Laps Luxuriate in Emotion

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

All the paintings in Megan McManus’ second show at Post have the same subject, which is also, incidentally, the same subject of all the paintings in her first show a year and a half ago: her lap, as seen from her own perspective, looking down. Each work is about life-size and rectangular in format, with the same roughly triangular composition (knees at the top, hips at the bottom). Her thighs are bare in each (although the more private areas are covered) and often draped in loose cloth.

Such repetition would probably come off as tiresome, gimmicky or self-indulgent if the paintings were not so profoundly beautiful. If McManus did come to her subject, as seems likely, in a moment of low inspiration, she embraced the state courageously and mined its depths with a steady eye. What could very well have begun as an exercise to keep herself painting has become, with a period of refinement, a startlingly vivid series of emotional portraits.

In one, an emerald green dress rests on the thighs in a twisted pile, its snake pit-like tangle of strings and zippers spelling out the promise of female beauty and flirtatious adventure. In another, a white linen cloth drapes across the knees, illuminated with a clear, gorgeous light that brings to mind the comforts of a sunny kitchen and a longing for a mother’s protection. Two strips of fiery red satin, stunningly ablaze against a solid black background, cover all but the inner reaches of the thighs in another piece, revealing a startling streak of sexual prowess.

Technically, the paintings are nearly flawless. McManus’ style is lucid and clear, photographically precise yet sensual. Her flesh tones glow from within and her fabrics ripple effortlessly, absorbing and reflecting light at a perfect pitch.

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Past comparisons to Georgia O’Keeffe were not off the mark. The parallels, both stylistic and thematic, are undeniable, and perhaps even more apt in her current show than in her last. But one wouldn’t want to see her penned into the role of tribute painter; the sensibility is personal and independent and deserves to be approached on its own terms.

It is probably no accident that the physical pose McManus adopts in these paintings bears a strong resemblance to the postures used in yoga and Buddhism to facilitate meditation and the pursuit of enlightenment; it seems employed here toward similar ends. Indeed, as one moves through the seven works in the show, the repeated imagery comes to seem less like a figural motif than a mandala of sorts--a point of mental, emotional and artistic focus. Considering the breadth and depth of inner experience expressed in the intimate detail of these paintings, it’s been a valuable tool. It will be interesting to see what McManus finds when (or if) she decides to direct that focus outward.

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Post, 1904 E. 7th Place, Los Angeles, (213) 622-8580, through Saturday.

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Truth in Motionlessness: Although the two works in the current exhibition by Jeroen de Rijke and Willem de Rooij at Regen Projects should technically be classified in the medium of moving pictures--one is a 10-minute 35-millimeter film and the other a 20-minute video--it might be better to think of them as photographs in disguise. Rather than exploring the capacity of film and video to convey movement, action or performance, this Dutch team, appearing in its L.A. debut, composes long, static shots of nearly motionless subjects. They’re photographs extended into time.

The film, “Bantar Gebang,” features a single slightly elevated, long-range shot of a shantytown built on a rubbish heap near the city of Jakarta. The walled compound, a dingy patchwork of tin roofs and shaky construction, seems to have arisen spontaneously from the piles of trash that fill the foreground. Scavenging birds flutter around the two paths that intersect at the entrance, near the center of the composition, and passersby cross occasionally, usually alone or in somber pairs.

The video, “Junks,” consists of six three-minute portraits of men--junkies, presumably--whom the artists met in a bar in Amsterdam’s red-light district and persuaded to pose in exchange for a beer. Each is filmed from the shoulders up against the same dingy, wood-paneled wall. Some watch the camera steadily (and unnervingly), others look around anxiously and one dozes off.

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One senses that De Rijke and De Rooij chose their medium as a way of coercing their viewers to look closely at images we might otherwise process in a glance. Both works are charged with a deliberate tone of exoticism that spawns a series of complex questions as we watch: Who are these people? What kind of lives are they living? What kind of place is this? And how much of this can we hope to discover in a single image?

The images themselves are on the dry side--carefully composed but far from eye-catching. But they are surprisingly absorbing and do ultimately reward the patient viewer, if not with answers, then with a satisfying stimulation of curiosity.

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Regen Projects, 629 N. Almont Drive, Los Angeles, (310) 276-5424, through Nov. 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Strange Kid Stuff: Jo Ann Callis’ exhibition at Craig Krull Gallery aims to set the record straight on one of the most grossly misrepresented groups of people in popular visual culture: babies.

The tots depicted in her new photographs and paintings aren’t disguised as flowerpots or zoo animals; they’re not done up in period costumes and bonnets or propped up with teddy bears; they aren’t kissing one another or playing with kittens or pretending to surf the Net. They’re simply doing what babies typically do--which is nothing--and they look like babies typically look: fleshy, gangly and strangely out of proportion.

Drained of their sentimentality, Callis’ subjects look less like blooming vessels of purity and innocence than like stoned extraterrestrials. They’re cute, sure, but funny-looking too.

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Most of the 15 portraits in the show depict babies from the shoulders up, lying or sitting against a solid background. The paintings are large and luminous, with smooth, luscious surfaces and warm skin tones. They have a flattened quality that characterizes paintings made from photographs, but it serves here to enhance the work’s vague Surrealism.

The photographs--Iris prints printed onto textured watercolor paper--are more spontaneous than the paintings, capturing a wonderfully strange array of expressions and distortions. After the lush quality of the paint, however, the photographs are disappointingly dry in texture and color. One wonders if they would not have been more effective as glossy Cibachromes or C-prints.

Also included in the show are seven photographs from a previous series (dated 1994-95) taken of common pastries: a slippery looking glazed doughnut on pink, satiny cloth; a tiny lemon tart crowned with a pile of browned meringue on a butter colored sheepskin; two princess-like cream puffs on a field of pink fur. Simultaneously delicious and disgusting, and unnervingly sexual either way, these images underscore Callis’ peculiar talent for eliciting strangeness in the most banal of subjects.

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Craig Krull Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-6410, through Nov. 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Suburban Insights: Todd Bourret’s first solo show, at Sandroni Rey, is a clever meditation on the nature of suburban space. Although the subject is, perhaps inevitably, all too common among Southern California artists, Bourret’s particular spin is compelling.

Using the actual materials of commercial construction--acrylic, joint compound and ceiling texture--he reproduces the empty stretches of ground that surround suburban developments as sweeping desert landscapes. This ground consumes the majority of every large, square canvas, leaving only a few inches of sky at the top, against which malls, office parks and rows of tract housing appear as little more than distant, silhouetted cubes.

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The swath of property framed in each painting is essentially barren and patterned with an array of textures that give the impression of plowed dirt and pebbles, interrupted in a few of the paintings with subdued bunches of wildflowers. Bourret’s palette is warm, pale and surprisingly delicate, considering the hardy nature of his materials. It softens the potentially abrasive effect of these surfaces. His spare, eloquent compositions transform the sense of barrenness into expansiveness.

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Sandroni Rey, 1224 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 392-3404, through Dec. 1. Closed Sunday and Monday.


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