Sculpture's stillness, captured in paint

Special to The Times

For every hot new artist who captures the headlines with a buzz-fueled solo debut, there must be an old cold one who has fallen off the radar screen. For the past 10 years, veteran Los Angeles painter Michael Roberts has been flying so close to the ground that his work hasn't shown up on anyone's radar.

Holed up in his Hacienda Heights studio, Roberts has been working on a series of multi-panel abstractions that is at once exceptionally focused and generously open-ended. At Patricia Faure Gallery, these furiously sophisticated works are the most exciting gray paintings I've ever seen.

To viewers whose TV-trained eyes see only images, Roberts' monochromes probably look like throwbacks to an era when abstract painting was supposed to be about its own formal properties: color, texture and edge. But these quietly ravishing abstractions are too worldly to fall for such separate-but-equal fantasies of painterly purity. With seemingly effortless ease, they give sculpture and photography a run for their money, stealing aspects of each to pack all the more punch into the experiences they deliver to viewers.

All of Roberts' canvases consist of four vertical panels bolted together and covered with a layer of thick paint so roughly textured it makes stucco look smooth. Vigorously applied brushstrokes -- some as wide as your wrist, others as thin as your pinkie -- collide, overlap and swirl around one another. His wildly activated surfaces resemble stop-action photographs of what you'd see if you stood on the stern of a ship and looked down at the water churning in its wake.

Imagine a crystal-clear photograph of the sea's tumultuous surface. Roberts' paintings embody a deep, utter stillness. Their three-dimensionality intensifies this impression, transforming a frozen slice of time into a space that is accessible to anyone interested in such perceptual wonders.

Roberts' art gives stunning form to the stillness of things carved in stone, because he makes his own paint out of a cement-like mixture of marble dust and bonding medium. Beginning with a huge bucket of a fairly runny mixture, he adds more pulverized marble with each additional coat. By the final application, he's not painting so much as he's carving and molding -- creating sculptures in low relief.

The big paintings weigh well over 300 pounds. But not a trace of heavy-handed grandiosity is to be found on their supple surfaces, where innumerable nooks and crannies capture the ever-changing interplay between light and shadow. Using a few simple tools, an intuitive vision, lots of dust and even more muscle, Roberts transforms inert matter into paintings so dynamic and serene they seem to come alive. Raw power and lyrical refinement never looked better together.

Patricia Faure Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 449-1479, through Feb. 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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A video exhibit that mocks video

Evan Holloway's new exhibition at Marc Foxx Gallery makes fun of hoary cliches about primitivism. It also ridicules the art world's fascination with projected videos. Best of all, it mocks the artist himself -- not to mention viewers who think they're above it all.

Titled "A White Hunter," Holloway's first video installation is an ingenious trap that's more fun to fall into than to escape. As bait, the Los Angeles sculptor has projected a smoothly edited sequence of film clips onto the back wall of a small, darkened gallery. The looped DVD features close-ups of Michael Douglas driving or riding in a car.

Taken from such movies as "Wall Street," "Fatal Attraction" and "Don't Say a Word," the scenes trace the star's expression as it changes from anxious to frustrated, from perturbed to incensed at the injustice of it all. No matter the backdrop, the costume, the car or the 20 years over which the movies were made, Douglas always appears to be struggling to contain the rage seething beneath the surface of his civilized veneer.

Holloway's silent montage accentuates the tension conveyed by an exemplary white guy battling through a seemingly endless session of anger management. Today it's not uncommon to visit contemporary art exhibitions and see similar imagery projected onto walls. For Holloway, however, such run-of-the-mill mediocrity is only the beginning.

When you turn to leave, a twisted menagerie of fanciful beasts comes into view, hanging from the rafters by their feet. Like bats in a cave, Holloway's papier-mache sculptures seem to be resting, hiding out overhead until the time comes when they can fly freely.

Painted white, they resemble a wacky rogues' gallery of pint-size misfits. Made of coconut shells, corncobs, pine cones, peacock feathers and bits of snakeskin, as well as peach, nectarine and plum pits, these woeful figures look as if they're auditioning for a third-rate sideshow run by Dr. Frankenstein. Most are hermaphrodites. Some have the presence of misshapen pets. Others seem to be the inbred offspring of furniture or simple mechanical devices.

One pinheaded acrobat holds the projector. The fattest figure's stomach also functions as a shelf for spare equipment. All act as if their world is perfectly ordinary, while ours is upside-down.

When you glance back at the video, Douglas no longer looks as if he's on the prowl. Now he appears to be fleeing, frantically trying to get away from the funky totems hanging in the shadows. In Holloway's hands, sculpture takes its revenge on video, as the besieged artist, now playing the role of hunter, casts viewers as his prey.

Marc Foxx Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-5571, through Feb. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Eye-to-eye with forgotten codgers

For most of the last century, art and religion have had a thorny relationship. For all of this century, art and entertainment have been slap-happy allies.

At Patrick Painter Inc., a series of new paintings by Jim Shaw treats religion and entertainment as if they're up to the same thing. What's blasphemous to some and hokey to others comes off, in Shaw's cockeyed view of the world, as unsettling and unforgettable.

Each of the 50-year-old artist's big oils on canvas consists of a background of loose, fluid brushwork, out of which emerge three or four realistically rendered heads. Lined up in orderly rows or columns, Shaw's disembodied heads have the presence of oracles.

His abstract backdrops call to mind watered-down, burned-out versions of gestural abstraction, the kind of canvases fussed over by second-rate faculty members at third-rate schools all over the Midwest, long after the style was milked dry on both coasts and put out to pasture. Shaw is a master at creating the impression that a viewer has stepped through a time warp.

His works express real affection for the old codgers' desire for some bohemian excitement amid the dreary blandness of conventional lives and amputated careers. Similarly, his heads look as if they belong to actors who never made it onto the big screen, but who ended up playing overwrought roles for amateur theater companies in small towns far off the beaten track.

Most are elderly. Many seem to be off their rockers. If they could speak, their wayward ramblings would include just enough sensible insights to prevent you from dismissing everything they said as utter nonsense.

A leather-faced crone with a black eye appears to be well over 100 -- or at least to have seen enough suffering to fill several lifetimes. Even the young ones seem to have aged prematurely. A fiery-eyed maven sporting Princess Leia's hairdo from "Star Wars" resembles a living mummy, her physical frailty belied by the intensity of her confused glare.

Many wear eccentric headgear -- moon-shaped hats, flamboyant turbans, bejeweled tiaras and woven fixtures that resemble lampshades. Two octopi rest on the crowns of a pair of bald men, their glistening tentacles functioning as form-fitting chinstraps.

Excessive makeup and garish earrings complement the exaggerated facial expressions of other outcasts, as do their hand gestures. Pressed to foreheads, massaging temples or clenching fistfuls of hair, the hands in Shaw's images belong to folks who believe they have something so important to say that it would be foolish to risk understatement.

As a whole, the screwy troupe holds nothing back as its loony members concentrate on whatever foggy visions fill their mind's eye. Paying homage to long-forgotten B movies and the disparaged art of popular illustration, Shaw's uncanny paintings cast crackpot spiritualism in a flattering light. In the dream-riddled world he concocts, unbelievable stories beat absolute skepticism any day of the week.

Patrick Painter Inc., Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-5988, through Feb. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Finding beauty in mistakes

In an impressive solo debut at Mark Moore Gallery, Las Vegas-based painter David Ryan makes a virtue of the imperfections he finds all around him. Transforming the little glitches we ordinarily overlook in the mass-produced objects that make up much of our everyday surroundings, the young artist demonstrates that inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes.

Ryan's art originates in the seams sewn into the upholstery of mid-range automobiles and in the gaps that separate various body panels. For example, the narrow void between a car's closed hood and its fenders might inspire him to make a detailed drawing of that tiny gap, paying particular attention to variations in its width. (When cars roll off the assembly line these eighth-of-an-inch openings are supposed to be uniform but rarely are.)

Ryan then feeds his drawing into a computer, which produces another wave of glitches and inconsistencies. Exaggerating some and downplaying others, he proceeds to design oddly shaped forms, each made up of a half-dozen components that he juxtaposes (like jigsaw puzzle pieces), sometimes laminating a few layers atop one another so that they fit together almost -- but not quite -- perfectly.

These components, cut with lasers from sheets of metal and plywood, could not be more precisely engineered. Ryan paints them with similar fastidiousness, spraying, rolling and brushing tasteful accents onto the white ground he favors. Although his finishes are impeccable, the contours of his shaped paintings most closely resemble a top view of a metal garbage can that's been banged around for a lifetime.

Lorser Feitelson's "Magical Space Forms" paintings from the 1950s are behind Ryan's casually elegant panels, as are Ingrid Calame's meticulously traced stains, Bart Exposito's idiosyncratic graphics and Sherin Guirguis' levitating cutouts. With a flair for making mistakes look beautiful, Ryan reveals that if you've got enough talent to make art work its magic, it doesn't matter what you begin with or how dumb your sources are.

Mark Moore Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-3031, through Feb. 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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