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In Two Surprising Exhibitions, LeWitt Starts to Get Emotional

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Surprises--much less pleasant surprises--are not what you expect from Sol LeWitt. For more than 35 years, he has adhered to the Conceptual art mandate he himself laid out in 1967, to make work that is “mentally interesting” and “emotionally dry.” Yet surprisingly, and pleasantly, LeWitt’s insistently logical work has begun to assume an emotional charge. In tandem shows at Regen Projects and Margo Leavin Gallery, LeWitt defies the tone of austere order that he championed decades ago. At Regen he turns aggressive; at Leavin, lyrical.

Established and familiar, LeWitt’s work helped define the parameters of Minimalism through its modularity, seriality and unrelenting geometry--and cerebrally oriented Conceptualism. His wall drawings, which he has made since the late 1960s, consist of a set of instructions, procedures whose execution is left to others. “The idea,” LeWitt has said, “becomes a machine that makes the art.”

Stating its own case so plainly, LeWitt’s work would seem to leave little to wrestle with, yet here he surprises. His sculpture at Regen Projects confronts all comers with a taunt, a dare. Just inside the gallery doors stands a concrete block wall, not quite denying entry, but certainly not encouraging it. LeWitt’s wall, in monolithic industrial gray, stands more than 10 feet high and runs the 34-foot length of the gallery, undulating in a series of asymmetrical setbacks. It stands so close to the front wall in places that to walk its length you must turn sideways twice.

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Concrete block is the perfect impersonal module for LeWitt, and he has been using it since at least the mid-1980s. Most of the sculptures he’s made using it are benign variants on geometric forms: cubes, notched cubes, stepped pyramids, columns and the like. What makes the sculpture at Regen Projects so different is the way it claustrophobically commands the space, refusing access even to all sides of itself. The knowability so typical of LeWitt’s work is aggressively withheld here, making for a startling, disarming encounter.

At Margo Leavin, LeWitt fills two rooms with new wall drawings--geometric diagrams in intense primary and secondary colors. However large, bold and illusionistic, they read nevertheless as variants on what we already know. A good, compact selection of sculptures is also on view, one of the “Serial Structure” floor pieces from 1978-79 and an origami-like “Complex Form” from 1989.

What intrigues here are the recent “Irregular Curves” paintings in gouache on paper, more than a dozen calligraphic pages of wavy lines. Painted in lush color combinations (maroon on aqua, gray on searing yellow, olive on blood, yellow ocher on royal blue), these gentle images are repetitive in overall format but never tiresome or dry. The loose weave of the lines gives the impression of a floating net, billowing in dreamy slow motion. The lines answer to a natural rhythm, the pace of the breath and the flowing stroke of the arm. Their order is based in the body, not in the abstractions of geometry.

These paintings conjure terms that LeWitt’s earlier works repel. They are lyrical, forgiving, lush. Poetry here supplants formula, intuition overcomes logic, the sensuous envelopes the austere. The “Irregular Curves” series delivers, especially to those bothered by the distance between LeWitt’s hand and the art attributed to him, an exhilarating rush of authenticity.

Regen Projects, 629 N. Almont Drive, L.A., (310) 276-5424, through Oct. 19. Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., L.A., (310) 273-0603, through Oct. 27. Both galleries closed Sundays and Mondays.

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The Vast Earth: The earthly elements, in themselves and as subject matter for artists, are inexhaustible. Gillian Theobald has been painting earth, air, water and fire in distilled forms for more than 15 years, and she continues to sustain in her work a profound sense of vastness. Her newest paintings, at Cirrus Gallery, are as soul-satisfying as they are simply beautiful.

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Theobald’s paintings are accessible as landscapes, each canvas bearing silhouettes of trees, the suggestion of a lake or riverscape. But geography seems less and less important to her as the years go by. These paintings are views beyond the land. They expand upon the given through intensification of color and subtlety of form, so that one can easily lose oneself within them--not so much in the imagined physical space of the landscape as in the rarefied zone of contemplation they evoke.

Trees and bodies of water appear here as shaped densities of color, often the same color as the sky but more opaque. Water, air and land feel continuous as a result, unified and whole. Because Theobald generally sets her horizons low, sky predominates in most of the paintings. They become portraits of particular conditions of light, visually related to Color-Field paintings, as well as to the light and space work prevalent in Southern California in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when Theobald was getting her degrees at San Diego State University.

Theobald, who has lived in Seattle for the last decade, now paints more atmospherically than ever, using a palette stretched to gorgeous extremity. Her skies run salmon, mauve, teal, eggplant, royal blue, sea green and blue-violet, most canvases keyed to a single tone, with many paintings paired to suggest the same view in both night and day.

As still as these scenes are, they are also stirring, so exquisite are their hues. They act as reprieves to the eye, serene summons to the spirit.

Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda St., L.A., (213) 680-3473, through Oct. 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Trafficking in the Everyday: “I am a mechanical eye,” Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov proclaimed in a 1920s manifesto. In 1929, he made good on that in the now-classic silent film “Man With a Movie Camera.” The camera served not only as an extension of the cameraman, but as his surrogate. It moved through Moscow in the course of an ordinary day, at a manic, fluttering, disjointed pace.

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For Vertov and other artists of the Machine Age, the camera was the perfect, most appropriate tool for comprehending contemporary urban life. At London Street Projects, three artists have collaborated to make a downsized, updated, humble but charming installation reminiscent of “Man With a Movie Camera.” The artists cite other influences from film and fiction, but they do share Vertov’s intent to capture the physical sensations of urban life--speed, erratic movement, edgy excitement and loss of control.

Margaret Pezalla-Granlund and Jim Ovelmen, both of L.A., and San Francisco-based Anna Rainer call their project, “I in the Sky, or the Chaos of the Galaxy Hurts My Head.” It’s not terribly impressive in its static form--just a roomful of photo cutouts of cars, mounted near eye-level on dozens of dowels planted in overturned Styrofoam cups. When activated, however, the installation amuses.

A small video camera suspended on a cable lurches through the space, zigzagging through the cars and out a moon-shaped slit in the gallery wall, over a covered patio and back in through the gallery work space, toward a photograph made inside a parking garage, a photomontage of a parking lot and then back in among the cars to complete the loop. The visual chronicle appears on a monitor on the gallery floor, and it’s hard to resist the pull of its familiarity.

The camera becomes a body--our imagined body--wheeling through the city, facing brake lights and concrete to the soundtrack of its own amplified mechanical buzz. It may be chaos, but it’s our chaos, the one we love to hate.

London Street Projects, 2924 Bellevue Ave., L.A., (213) 413-1210, through Oct. 13. Open Saturdays and by appointment.

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Inward Focus: “Poser,” one of Aaron Smith’s absorbing new paintings at Koplin Gallery, is coy from the title on down. Certainly, every subject of a formal portrait is posing, but the term poser implies an unsavory layer of deception. Who is this striking young man with the long, dark hair? Is he not who he appears to be?

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Between his hair, his gray smock and the carved stone base he sits on, he looks like he belongs to another era. A brown moth perched on his thigh further complicates the matter.

Such meticulously rendered insects have been common in still-life painting since at least the 17th century. Illusion, they wink, can be terrifically persuasive, inviting and subverting our trust in one swift stroke.

Smith, who teaches at Art Center College of Design, employs great skill in rendering people, places and objects, but he doesn’t dwell on the seductive nature of visual illusion for its own sake. He puts those gifts in service of a deeper probe into conditions of identity.

“Regret” is the title of one pensive portrait, temptation the subject of another (“Orchid Eater”). His scenes are rich in narrative implication, a cross between Renaissance-era religious painting and the staged photography so popular in the 1980s and ‘90s in work by Eileen Cowin, Jo Ann Callis and others. This anachronistic mix is part of what gives Smith’s paintings such gripping presence.

The work feels stylistically incongruous, and that edginess reinforces the unsettled state of the subjects, who are each enacting some sort of private reckoning with the self. Outwardly magnificent, thanks to Smith’s exquisite modeling and dramatic light, they are focused inward. Only the man in “Poser” meets our gaze--and he, of course, is only posing.

Koplin Gallery, 464 N. Robertson Blvd., L.A., (310) 657-9843, through Oct. 20. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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