Reality and games in collision

Special to The Times

Truth is stranger than fiction -- we know that already. When the truth is frightening, it's also more insidious than its imaginary counterpart because its ramifications and consequences must be reckoned with. In Marco Brambilla's chilling video installation at Christopher Grimes Gallery, we face both truth and fiction and are left to speculate on the horrific prospect of their intersection.

"Half-life" is a three-channel video piece shown on three walls of the darkened gallery. On the back wall, we see a split-screen grid of faces of young men (and one young woman). They stare listlessly ahead, their eyes glassy, their faces devoid of emotion. On the two side walls, we see what their attention is fixed on: fast-paced scenes of violence from a popular Internet game.

Radical contrasts between the two realms register instantly. The game consists of short segments in which characters stalk and shoot enemies in various environments: along train tracks, inside a jumbo jet, around industrial loading docks. Men in combat fatigues, police uniforms and generic, dark-hooded terrorist gear hunt down and blast the life out of one another. Guns emit cartoon star blasts; bodies spurt lava-like gobs of blood.

Risk, danger and speed are the operative principles here. These games put players on the brink and keep them there. In truth, the players are sitting in suburban cyber cafes, at long banks of computers, on which Brambilla has mounted cameras to record their faces. He also provides, on another screen in the gallery's reception area, an elevated, surveillance-type view of the anonymous, sedentary playing environment. Its sterile uniformity couldn't clash more with the extreme angles, saturated colors and rough, raw settings of the game.

Just how do these violent fantasies mesh with reality? Sociologists differ in their opinions, and Brambilla himself, an Italian-born filmmaker living in L.A., doesn't peddle a simple conclusion. The immediate, visceral impact of his installation, though, triggers a reflexive response against such destruction-based entertainment. Snipers loose on the streets and airwaves filled with reductive, with-us-or-against-us war rhetoric make this game imagery feel uncannily, disarmingly familiar, as if truth and fiction have merged beyond distinction.

In another single-channel video, Brambilla has staged a reenactment of a stabbing that occurred outside an Orange County cyber cafe a few years ago. In an effort to sensitize us to the desensitizing effects of repetition, he plays this condensed drama of death over and over again in a continuous loop. The image, a copy of a crime that was, presumably, a copy of a game, is mesmerizing and traumatizing, powerful and, ideally, empowering.

Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Nov. 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Cups runneth over with wit, beauty

"Variety Show," the title of Ron Nagle's exhibition at Frank Lloyd Gallery, suggests that amusement's in store, and Nagle delivers generously. He's a consummate craftsman with a worldly sense of history and humor. His aren't pretentious in-jokes that reassure cognoscenti of their privileged status in the art world, but accessible witticisms, oddities and quirks that draw on popular culture and artistic precedent. They elicit smiles and chuckles, but also respect.

Nagle has been making cups and other small clay objects for 40 years. The work has had attitude from the start, and these recent sculptures are as irreverent as they are weirdly beautiful. Of the three groups of work here, the Thin Fins provoke the most delicious shock. A cross between comic ballet and lunar landscape, the format evolved from the basic cup but is now flagrantly functionless. Each of the sculptures sets an extruded shape, which curls or angles back in on itself, in front of a rectangular or curved panel. Strange, enchanting little objects, they have a curdled texture and come in an extraterrestrial spectrum of airbrush-perfect candy colors.

The Snuff Bottles resemble stylized female silhouettes from an earlier era. Statuesque little forms, they have heart-shaped, curvaceous upper bodies, pinched waists and long skirts with sinuous, drippy hemlines. These porcelain and overglaze pieces bear colors that hark back to traditional domestic comforts, like creamy tomato soup ("Miss Bisque") and hot chocolate ("Swiss Mystic").

Nagle's Smoove Wares take off from sturdy cups, slick cars, the reductive elegance of Brancusi and who knows what else. Their chief thrill comes through pungent combinations of color: neon orange with grape; sea green and wine; gunmetal gray and hot tangerine.

Nagle is also a master of the mixed metaphor. His work pulls seductively, persuasively, simultaneously in multiple directions. How else could he manage, in the Thin Fins work, to make something that looks as if it came from the litter box also muster grace? And in the Snuff Bottles, to so seamlessly merge a phallic neck with feminine shoulders? Nagle's work is subversive in the most glorious, expansive sense of the word.

Frank Lloyd Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-3866, through Nov. 16. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Primal emotions evoked in black

Black is predominant in Enrique Martinez Celaya's deeply affecting new paintings at Griffin Contemporary. It's neither the black of night nor of despair, but a darkness both vacant and deep. It suggests a primary condition, a state of unknowing.

Into this rich absence, Martinez Celaya introduces, one by one, figures and trees, children and light, as if building a world from scratch. In "Gabriela I," a baby hovers over an adult with upraised arms. Is he letting go of her for a playful, buoyant toss, or is he opening his arms to receive her, a gift delivered into his humble care?

"Rosemilk" pairs a faintly delineated human torso in cruciform pose, with arms outstretched, and a more fleshed-out rendering of a tree branch. The two forms overlap, resonating with each other like poetic kin.

In "Gabriela's Laughter," an outlined figure half-stands, half-sits beneath a cascade of light. Laughter and light become a single affirming force -- radiant, brilliant, necessary for life and growth.

Martinez Celaya paints the black grounds of these large canvases with emulsified tar, then uses oil and varnishes to build up surfaces as primal as the emotions evoked through the images on them. Furrowed, scraped, dripping, they are dynamic areas of the compositions, not static backdrops. They embody a sense of perpetual change, which, along with the notion of the self as continually becoming, permeates Martinez Celaya's work, here and in previous shows.

The figures in his work have no specific identities -- their eyes are almost always closed, their postures slightly hunched, their gender usually vaguely male. They have no detailed features, and their one consistent quality is that of inwardness. They seem to be quietly focused on fundamentals: love, loss, mercy, transcendence. The gentle stillness in these works, the grace of their questioning, draws our focus to the very same places.

Griffin Contemporary, 55 N. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 578-2280, through Nov. 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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A rainbow of Los Angeles images

The sublime beauty of a rainbow may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Los Angeles, but Patrick Wilson has brought the divine symbol and the urban landscape together with some panache. The highlight of his show at Susanne Vielmetter is a grid of 25 paintings, collectively named after the city.

Each square-foot canvas gleams a different color, and together -- reading from top left to bottom right, or simply from top row to bottom -- they describe the color spectrum. Wilson paints in alkyd, acrylic and oil, adding layer upon translucent layer to produce an utterly smooth, luminous surface. Light appears to reside within each square.

Small images of buildings (some of them recognizable), utility poles and dumpsters rest mutely beneath the veils of color. They ground the canvases in the particularities of L.A., while Wilson's color and technique evoke a more abstract, placeless realm.

Wilson follows a similar approach in a dozen panoramic canvases (1 foot high and 6 feet wide) that hang on the wall atop another, like modular, Minimalist sculptures. Here, too, he paints landscape fragments -- as well as an extensive skyline -- as small notations within luminous, abstract fields.

In this sequence, however, he trades luxurious color for a subtle range of off-whites, whose crimson and sapphire foundations peek through around the edges. Each panel is named after a month of the year, and as we follow the calendar down the wall, the eggshell and ivory adopt, in the late summer months, a warm, smoggy cast.

In both groups of paintings, Wilson sporadically adds little opaque squares or lines along the canvases' bottom edges. They yank the mind out of its light-and-space reverie into a more cerebral mode of geometric purity and order. All of the work in this engaging show, including a group of graphite and spray-paint drawings, benefits from that kind of oscillation between dispassionate description and passionate abstraction.

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5363 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 933-2117, through Nov. 16. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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