Paintings that teem with life

Special to The Times

The title of Irene Hardwicke Olivieri's exhibition at Robert Berman Gallery -- "Thousand Acre Swamp" -- is apt: These are dense, lush and strikingly verdant paintings, brimming with life and a sense of perpetual fertility. Earth and water mingle throughout, evoking a sort of cosmic balance, and amphibious life forms abound, weaving between the two realms like canny dual citizens.

The symbolic nature of this balance comes to the fore in "Still a Tadpole, Already a Frog" (2003), one of the most beautiful paintings in the show, which portrays a woman's head partially submerged in the sea, as though growing up from its floor.

Her face, under water, is blue and veiled by gently swaying strands of seaweed; her crown is a green island, sprouting trees. A swimmer with kelp for hair and a backpack full of paints scours the depths with an expression of dogged determination; frogs float meditatively among lotus blossoms on the surface, and fat caterpillars hang in the trees, preparing for rebirth.

The work reads like a cross section of the human experience, suggesting that the processes of creation and transformation -- among Olivieri's favorite themes -- are not linear but circuitous and multilayered, and that growth, as the title suggests, is never so simple as merely moving from here to there.

Olivieri's imagery in this and other paintings is richly folkloric, characterized by a magical intermingling of human, plant and animal life. One woman crawls under the weight of a turtle shell; another has a head of leaves; another is a blue cat perched in a tree, crying big blue tears. There are leopards and monkeys and snakes; men with bobcat heads and men with fruit trees growing out of their genitals. Flowers bloom generously and vines wind around everything.

Text also plays a central role in the form of a tiny script that stretches across bodies like another layer of skin, winds around the edges of objects and accumulates copiously in negative spaces. Though not especially interesting to read -- the language typically resembles that of an encyclopedia or nature guide -- its visual presence is hypnotic, like a distant stream of conversation in the background of a dream.

"Enchanting" is a word that appears frequently in descriptions of Olivieri's work, and with good reason. These paintings aren't passive objects, waiting smugly on the wall to be appreciated and deciphered, but reach rather actively into the mind, arousing the imagination into activity -- casting a spell, if you will. It's a function that art too rarely assumes anymore, and it leaves one feeling curiously enlivened.

Robert Berman Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave. D5, Santa Monica, (310) 315-1937, through Dec. 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Midas retouched: new looks at gold

The theme of this group show -- as you might expect from the title, "Midas" -- is gold and its notoriously equivocal effect on the human psyche.

Pointing to the current tide of political conservatism, with its dubious assurances of financial stability, curators Martin Durazo and Sherin Guirguis suggest that gold is back in fashion. If a cool palette of white, chrome and silver characterized the optimism of the '90s, they argue, the gold of today reflects a new desire for "warmth," representing as it does "physical wealth and security in a world where trust of all that was once solid has now come into question."

It is an interesting argument but, unfortunately, not one that the exhibition -- a crowded and loosely governed affair -- is entirely capable of bearing out. There's little evidence here of anything so widespread or coherent as a sociological trend.

What does emerge among the better works, however, is a striking impression of the visual and psychological potency of gold as an artistic element.

Alexis Weidig's "Izmini" (2003), for example -- a wonderful construction of cheap gold chains, fake flowers, plastic beads and peacock feathers -- revels in the kitschy glamour of gold, while Robert Miller's elegant ceramic vessels, all coated with a reflective gold glaze, convey a sumptuous splendor.

Guirguis' "California Gold" (2003) and Jane Callister's "Floating Landscape" (2001) incorporate the hue into elegant, near-abstract compositions, while Stacy Duffin -- weaving gold thread into clear plastic sheeting to resemble a spider web -- emphasizes its delicacy.

A thin, even coat of gold pigment underscores the spare yet dramatic effect of Jamie Scholnick's "I Can Almost Get My Arms Around It (The Infamous Mr. T's)" (2003), a roughly two-foot-wide globe of densely knotted coat hangers. Streaks of the same pigment enliven a large study of the same on paper.

Durazo himself comes closest to examining, albeit elliptically, gold's elusive promise of the pleasure of wealth -- the blessing that so betrayed the show's namesake, King Midas -- in his installation. A disco ball, a sheepskin, a bong and other found objects are scattered in and around a large trunk once used by the band Earth, Wind and Fire. Few forms of wealth are as alluring to the collective imagination as that of the rock star, but a grimy ephemerality underscores the pleasures represented here, suggesting that one should be careful what one wishes for.

Post, 1904 E. 7th Place, Los Angeles, (213) 488-3379, through Dec. 13. Closed Sunday through Wednesday.

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Between film and photography

The concept behind Dane Picard's recent work at Richard Heller Gallery is simple enough to risk seeming gimmicky, but it produces so appealing an effect in practice that it easily overwhelms any such qualms.

Combining the rhythmic structure of film with the sensual malleability of video, Picard essentially animates photographs, stringing a series of similar but not immediately sequential images together and moving through them at such a pace that they morph seamlessly into one another.

Twelve of the 15 works assembled here are portraits of individual people -- many of them familiar L.A. artists -- that play on the screens of Palm Pilots.

Some involve 100 photos taken by Picard over the course of 12 minutes; others use a varying number of images, taken over the course of the subject's lifetime. (Both stream in continuous loops.)

The former, which read like studies of a particular face or expression, are compelling in their clarity, but the latter are by far the more dazzling. Watching the course of an individual's complete development, from infancy to the present day, over the course of a few seconds is an unnerving experience, as uncomfortably intimate as it is ultimately opaque. A snapshot smile, one quickly comes to realize, is an expression as universal as it is generic, communicating little about the real nature of a given individual.

Also in the show is a six-channel portrait of L.A. that incorporates, among other things, an endless succession of street corners, all the many stars on Hollywood's sidewalks and, most spectacularly, several thousand images of the sky over downtown, all taken from the same window in the artist's home.

As engaging as the human portraits are, it is here that Picard's technique feels the most apt, because this is actually how one experiences the city: not through sweeping vistas or singular monuments but through an endless stream of individually unremarkable details that eventually add up to something magnificent.

Richard Heller Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave. B5, Santa Monica, (310) 453-9191, through Dec. 20. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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