Diminutive paintings, big picture

Special to The Times

Dori and Joseph DeCamillis have been on the art festival circuit for years. No, you wouldn't have seen their work at Documenta or the Venice Biennale or Art Basel. We're talking the Lakefront Festival of Arts in Milwaukee, the Gasparilla Festival in Tampa, Fla., the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver. Across the country at outdoor festivals like these, the DeCamillises have garnered recognition for their work and reassurance that they're doing what they set out to do: make art that appeals to the average American.

Just what does the "average" American aspire to hang over the sofa? Soviet expatriate artists Komar and Melamid made just that inquiry several years ago in a poll, then methodically incorporated the elements and images that people listed as desirable into kitschy paintings (conceptual projects, really) that reeked of condescension. Dori and Joseph DeCamillis, in their sixth show at Frumkin/Duval, make their appeal to the masses in a more earnest -- and far more appealing -- way. Their paintings are clear, precise and precious in scale. They present the utterly familiar, laced with just a touch of mystery and drama.

The artists, who are married and based in Birmingham, Ala., make L.A. their subject here, specifically L.A. as seen by car. Their oil-on-copper paintings are no bigger than the snapshots they're based on: the largest are 4 by 6 inches, and the smallest, 2 by 2 1/2. The DeCamillises' local road trip takes them past big-box stores and fast-food outlets, on congested freeways and through the spreading rash of suburban housing developments.

Most of their views are seen by the romantic light of dusk, sometimes beneath skies dense with moody storm clouds. The sun sets in violet, mauve and peach behind a McDonald's. The taillights of cars on the freeway gleam dully, like the bloodshot eyes of weary travelers. The red letters of a Texaco station burn like embers against a dark sky, while fluorescents cast a lime glow over a car filling up with gas. Sublime natural light meets the artificial extremity of neon and together they illuminate the ugliness of the architecture of everyday commerce. What results are tiny jewels of delicious ambivalence.

The DeCamillises have been collaborating for a dozen years, but this is the first group of works they've painted separately. It matters little, since there isn't a marked variation in their styles, and the works aren't identified by individual hand. Throughout, they combine a Ruscha-like inventorying of experience (think of his photographs of the Sunset Strip) with a Hopper-derived sense of the melancholy of modern urbanism. The images are tenderly realized, even if sometimes conceived in cynicism. They are sweet little icons, and at the same time scary reminders of the way we live, on asphalt and concrete, engines propelling us from one consumer opportunity to another.

Frumkin/Duval Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-1850, through Jan. 18. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Echo the ordinary, create the hollow

The coyness of Josh Blackwell's new work hides nothing -- no deeper wisdom or cleverness, no slow-to-emerge beauty or complex inner meaning. The work appears slight at first, and over time, feels even more so.

In each of the 18 wall pieces at Mary Goldman (most dated 2002, a few 2003), Blackwell began with a piece of fabric, usually a scarf or handkerchief, and attached to it pieces of paper cut and painted with designs related to those beneath. In "Purple Oval Green," for instance, he started with an old Vera scarf bearing rows of purple and green ovals, and pinned to it a paper overlay with ovals cut out of it, so that it looks like an approximate stencil of the pattern beneath. In "DDD Red Squared," he took a small handkerchief with an embroidered letter D in one corner and pinned paper cut-out Ds around the rest of the border, humbly echoing the more formal and elegant sewn-in script.

The relationship between the '50s and '60s fabrics and Blackwell's latter-day visual response is exasperatingly inconsequential. He repeats and fragments and amends the existing geometric and floral patterns, but most were of little interest to begin with, so Blackwell's additions merely amplify the unremarkable.

To say, as the show's news release does, that these works exercise "a study in modernism through nostalgia and reflection" is to credit the artist with tapping into deeper currents of design sensibility than the work evidences, with its hip affectation of the modest, casual and awkward.

Mary Goldman Gallery, 932 Chung King Rd., L.A., (213) 617-8217, through Feb. 8. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.

Moving images of those among us

Of the camera's many uses, its power to validate is the one that Milton Rogovin exercised most effectively. Rogovin's photographs gesture toward correcting an imbalance in status. They give the marginalized and dispossessed a moment in the center, a moment of clear, dignified attention.

Rogovin, now 93, worked for over 40 years to enact that shift for his subjects, sliding them from the edge of our consciousness to the middle. Once there, the ample if not consuming narratives of their own lives endowed his images with drama. Rogovin supplied the visual bones, the structure, imposing a clean, architectonic order, sometimes nearly as brittle as Walker Evans'.

His subjects -- the working class, the poor, the faithful -- provided the flesh, the juice.

A selection of quietly affirming images at Luisotti traces Rogovin's career from a few early shots in Mexico -- tellingly, a worker threshing, and a worshipper lighting a church candle -- through series chronicling black storefront churches, Appalachian miners' families and working-class neighborhoods in Buffalo, N.Y. He worked as an optometrist there from the late '30s until his retirement in 1976, his practice suffering markedly after he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1957.

A socialist, Rogovin's politics infused his artistic practice. His photographs articulate the powerful friction between basic human dignity and the indignity of underclass life. His image of an eastside Buffalo boy reclining on a couch, for instance, spells out the condition of poverty in crisp tones and palpable textures. The boy's smooth skin is the only uncorrupted, uncompromised surface in sight: the arm of the sofa is frayed, the boy's blanket is pocked with holes as if from cigarette burns, the carpet beneath him is dark and grimy, the wall behind him cracked and badly patched.

Rogovin's pictures, most of them portraits, are a form of plain-spoken poetry, the found poetry of ordinary life. They embody a pure, essential humanism, a conviction that only ignorance stands in the way of social equality.

Knowledge leads to action and change, but first, we must learn by seeing, seeing clearly the lives of others.

Gallery Luisotti, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-0043, through Saturday.

Three mediums, three messages

Ruby Neri earned her MFA degree from UCLA in 1998. Alice Konitz received hers from Cal Arts in '99, and Rebecca Carter got hers from Art Center College of Design in 2000. The three have little else in common except for their concurrent shows in the galleries of LACE.

Neri's is the strongest of the three. She presents a group of plaster sculptures with earthy integrity. Alternately rough-hewn and sanded smooth, the sculptures are painted in deep, opaque colors in some areas, and left unpainted or sanded back down to white in others, giving them a raw, in-process feel. The figures of horses, especially, have definite animate presence and an appealing honesty. An oversized head of a woman recalls the work of Stephan Balkenhol in its fusion of the heroic and the ordinary. Neri's works on paper are less convincing, but some of the paintings are graceful.

Konitz has decorated LACE's storefront windows with a pattern of vinyl circles in silver, brown and ocher. "Eyehole pattern" gives the place a lively, retro veneer. Her sculptures just inside the front door fare less well. Intentionally clumsy constructions in wood, felt, plastic, mirrors and plexiglass, they mimic bad institutional architecture and decor of a generation ago. Even collectively, they don't approach the intrigue of her show's title, "Beautiful Ornaments as Shadows, Crashed Down and a Video of Flickering Light in a 70s Office Tower."

In the back of the gallery, Carter presents a two-channel video installation projected onto facing walls, about three feet apart. Both walls show views from an airplane cockpit of the descent toward the runway. The runway's lights seem to beckon in the darkening sky, but the plane never quite touches down. As soon as it approaches the ground, Carter reverses the film and the plane rises again. The white noise of acceleration and deceleration fills the confining space Carter establishes for us to witness this looping cycle of advancing and receding. It's a mildly visceral experience, provocative in its repeated denial of fulfillment.

The safety of landing never comes, and Carter leaves us in a virtually tight spot: claustrophobic and yet cocoon-like, where time is slowed and sound reduced to a lulling roar.

Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, 6522 Hollywood Blvd., L.A., (323) 957-1777, through Jan. 18. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

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