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Baldessari plays with puzzles

Special to The Times

At 71, John Baldessari is making the best work of his career. At Margo Leavin Gallery, his new pictures of people, places and things are also among the best being made by anyone today.

Over the last 35 years Baldessari has established his reputation as the poet laureate of L.A. Conceptualism. Long after that emphatically cerebral approach to art-making grew stale in New York and Europe (not to mention California), he has kept it fresh by never letting viewers forget that art can be at once whip-smart and fun.

In two ongoing series of painted photographs and drawings, Baldessari does for images what crossword puzzles do for words. He compresses loads of otherwise unrelated elements into small spaces in ways that make sense if you know what you’re looking for, yet befuddle those unfamiliar with the loose logic that links them.

Each of his nearly 7-foot-square works consists of five, seven or eight rectangular compartments arranged in the shape of a cross, the letter “H” or a tick-tack-toe grid (whose center remains empty). Baldessari fills these tidily framed spaces with two, three or four photographs he shot in color with a landscape camera or enlarged from carefully cropped B-movie stills, which are often, but not always, black and white.

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Running vertically or horizontally, each of these digitally printed images occupies three abutted compartments. Sometimes, a single compartment contains a single part of a panoramic image. These read clearly. Most depict the mountains, deserts and beaches of Southern California.

At other times, two photographs occupy the same rectangle, overlapping to form pictures of anonymous actors in less than memorable movies superimposed over trees, seascapes and other bit players. These are harder to discern. Most have the presence of ghostly collisions between the parallel worlds of long-forgotten dramas and the ordinariness of everyday reality.

Baldessari complicates matters by painting over fragments of the superimposed sections with solid blocks of bright color. Adding outlines and accents, he makes images that combine the playfulness of a kid’s coloring book with the finality of a crime scene’s taped silhouettes. An in-the-street formalist, Baldessari transforms 3-D illusions into flat paintings that recall the work of artists as diverse as Alex Katz, Roy Dowell, Ellsworth Kelly and Matisse.

Although he sticks with such tried-and-true media as photography and painting, his images are far more sophisticated (and stimulating) than most made with more advanced computer technology. And, unlike crossword puzzles, the answers to the enigmas his deliciously puzzling pictures embody will not be published in tomorrow’s paper. This further distinguishes Baldessari’s art from run-of-the-mill Conceptualism, which strives to produce knowledge in a medium more suited to the unpredictability of pleasure.

Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., L.A., (310) 273-0603, through Dec. 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Head for numbers, an eye for delicacy

Another 71-year-old Conceptual artist makes his L.A. solo debut with a single, unfinished work he began 37 years ago. In 1965, Roman Opalka painted a white number “1" in the upper left corner of a black canvas. Like a schoolboy forced to endure some strange punishment, he continued painting neat rows of tiny numbers from one side of the canvas to the other. When he reached the lower right corner, he was up to 35,327.

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Opalka then recorded his voice reading the sequence of numbers and snapped a black-and-white photograph of his face. The rest is history.

The French-born artist, who lived in Poland from 1949 to 1979 before moving back to France, added a few drops of white paint to the black background (exactly 1% of its volume) and started his second canvas with the number 35,328 in the upper left corner. Upon completing it, he again recorded his voice reading the sequence, shot a nearly identical self-portrait, added 1% more white paint and continued where he had left off.

Since then, Opalka has never looked back. Like the U.S. Postal Service or the Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken Jr., he hasn’t missed a day of work. Whatever misgivings he must have felt about his plodding, Sisyphean task, he has committed every minute he has spent in the studio to his extraordinarily focused project.

At Grant Selwyn Fine Art, five large canvases and a row of photographs record the passage of time. The photographs do so in an instant. Portraying Opalka over the years, they document the effects of growing old: a whitening of hair, a softening of facial features and an increasingly androgynous appearance.

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The paintings reveal themselves more slowly. Now, as their numbers continue well beyond 6 million, their backgrounds are closer to white than to black. Shifts from medium- to light-gray are discernable. Plus, the diminishing contrast between the figures and their grounds causes the paintings’ surfaces to shimmer, like sunlight reflecting off nearly still water.

Opalka enlivens his works by dipping his brush in paint only once for each number, when he begins to paint its seven digits. Each numeral is slightly more faded than the last. This causes his canvases to appear to quiver -- not quite like they’re breathing, but as if they’re animated. The effect is meditative yet stimulating. Like some Light and Space works, his paintings heighten perception by diffusing a viewer’s attention over wide expanses.

If Opalka lives long enough, eventually he will be painting numbers on surfaces so lightly tinted that it will be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to see the results of his labor. When that happens, it will be clear that his entire oeuvre, all of which is titled “Opalka 1965/1-infinity,” is an elaborate, slow-motion disappearing act, one in which workaday drudgery is redeemed by the clarity and elegance of what it leaves behind.

Grant Selwyn Fine Art, 341 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 777-2400, through Jan. 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Cartoonish fun, mixed with drama

At a time when many artists are acting as if advanced computer technology had laid painting to rest, it’s refreshing to see a painter treat digital imagery as a good old-fashioned source for abstract pictures. In an eye-grabbing group of new acrylics on panel at Patricia Faure Gallery, Scott Grieger combines the format of bit-mapped imagery with the exuberance of cartoons and the drama of freely splashed paint.

Never one to pause for long before gleefully going over the top, the veteran L.A. artist also tosses in patterns based on the paths of orbiting electrons and DNA ribbons, both of which sit atop surfaces so sleekly polished and exquisitely finished that they could be kitchen counter tops from high-end design magazines -- or mobile homes from the 1950s. At once stubbornly independent and promiscuous, Grieger’s gregarious paintings are equally at home in a Beverly Hills mansion or a trailer park on the wrong side of the tracks.

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His handsomely framed panels, which range in size from 8 inches to 6 feet on a side, do not appear to have been painted with a brush. Instead, each looks as if it has been built from the ground up with the tools an artisan might use to construct a terrazzo floor. Although Grieger uses nothing but paint to craft his multilayered images, he treats pigment and the various mediums in which it’s suspended as if they’re as useful and sturdy as mortar.

A pragmatic, hands-on sensibility infuses his art with the pride and dignity of do-it-yourselfers who never settle for second-best -- and who have the fortitude and talent to realize their visions. Most of the marks that appear in Grieger’s paintings catalog properties of paint: drips, smears and splashes; properties of pictures: shadows and highlights; and the molecular structures of both. Moon eyes pop out of the backgrounds of several of the best ones (including a trompe l’oeil brick), suggesting that if you look long and hard, these potent paintings will look right back at you.

Patricia Faure Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 449-1479, through Nov. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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When a pack rat gets creative

If your garage is as messy as mine, it’s the perfect setting for Jason Meadows’ six new sculptures, which bear a strong family resemblance to the frayed brooms, bent folding chairs and precariously balanced stacks of scrap lumber that spill from its corners.

The materials that make up the 30-year-old sculptor’s casually bolted-together works at Marc Foxx Gallery do not distinguish them from the around-the-house stuff guys who like to fix things can’t seem to throw away. What sets Meadows’ terrifically inventive sculptures apart from such higgledy-piggledy piles of junk is their acute formal intelligence. Seemingly slapdash, his 3-D collages hide their refinement amid oddly angled fragments, jerry-built platforms and ingeniously adapted braces.

Imagine what Brancusi’s mature work would look like if he had had a nervous breakdown and spent years recuperating among the Beverly Hillbillies. Meadows lavishes thought and care upon otherwise forlorn materials. Like Jessica Stockholder, he transforms household materials into wonderfully precise arrays of color, texture and weight. Unlike her abstract compositions, his piecemeal sculptures often resemble the bodies of humans, horses and bats, as well as cigar-store Indians.

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In Meadows’ hands, ordinary two-by-fours, zigzagged fragments of pressed wood and homemade signs are held together with lengths of clothesline and aluminum brackets so lovingly customized that it’s hard to reconcile the labor that went into them with the scrappiness of the objects they’re attached to. Likewise, passages of virtuoso woodworking are interspersed among quickly stapled dowels, nonsensically rigged bases and hastily painted components. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the affection an artist brings to an object is more powerful than whatever it is made of. This ethos is no more perverse than the fact that people who take pleasure in making things with their own hands are more likely to appreciate these idiosyncratic sculptures than viewers who hire others to do such labor for them.

Marc Foxx Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-5571, through Nov. 16. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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