Mind's-eye view of nature

Times Staff Writer

Five new prints by Vija Celmins at Gemini G.E.L. show how seamlessly this exceptional artist is able to move among drawing, painting and printmaking, blurring the boundaries between the disciplines while exploiting the unique properties of each. Three images of stars in the night sky and two of silky spider webs continue her earlier exploration of those subjects in oil and graphite, while now weaving multiple printing techniques together.

Stargazing is an ancient occupation -- an activity whereby nature could be understood and brought under some semblance of control through the projection of recognizable pictures onto its otherwise apparently random attributes. White spots emerge from inky darkness in Celmins' "Night Sky 3," with brightness compacted near the center and darkness spreading in an arc across the lower range. Harnessing techniques of photogravure, aquatint and drypoint, she makes light magically appear to emanate from the paper's surface. Nature becomes a projection of mind.

Remarkably, two other prints reverse this procedure, scattering tiny points of black and gray ink across a field of off-white. (Think of a photographic negative of the night sky.) You are looking at nothing more than tiny polka-dots on paper, not unlike the so-called foxing that occurs when a print discolors, but through careful modulation and dispersal of the gray scale, the two-dimensional surface yawns into deep, visually infinite space.

Celmins' other two prints show wispy white filaments of spider web against gray backgrounds, which were made with multiple printing techniques. Each web is anchored to the four sides of the sheet, as if a diligent arachnid had been at work on the plate.

Spiders are a standard symbol for industriousness, and their webs are traps for unsuspecting passersby. Celmins' webs also create a visual pun for a printing term (a web is the paper configuration on a web press) while making remarkable visual snares for perception.

Gemini G.E.L., 8365 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (323) 651-0513, through Feb. 14. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Sculptures merge delicacy, gravity

"Blue Bird," one of six new sculptures by Alison Saar at Jan Baum Gallery, features the copper-clad figure of a young girl seated on a small, bright red chair. What at first appears to be a thick, black braid soon turns out to be a tree branch growing from the side of her head. The outer reaches of the branch provide a delicate, distant perch for a carved and painted wooden bird.

The elusive prospect of happiness is out there, just beyond reach, in this dreamy, poignant reminiscence of childhood. Saar is known for sculpture that merges the formal gravity of African totems with social and cultural narratives of African American life and tradition. Several strong works in this show bring to mind the first volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," which recounts her alternately charmed and harrowing youth.

"Songbird" is composed of a carved red Venus figure, who hangs by her heels from a hefty rope tied to the rafters. Upside down, her long hair becomes a cascade of wire that transforms into a suspended birdcage, in which a gilded bird silently sits. As a metaphor for the spirit, the sculpture is a highflying vision of the tensions between freedom and captivity.

More poised, stoic and self-possessed is the stately figure called "Inheritance," which shows a standing woman crowned by an enormous ball of wound and knotted strips of white muslin. The figure, clad in sheets of rusty decorative ceiling tin, exudes a distinctly urban presence. It also creates an image of regal labor while simultaneously evoking a feminine Atlas. Humble yet heroic, it's a riveting icon.

Jan Baum Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., (323) 932-0170, through Feb. 28. Closed Sun. and Mon.

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A sociologist's revealing photos

The Progressive Era in American social and political life is gone but not forgotten, and the photographs of Lewis Hine (1874-1940) are one reason its memory will never be erased. Hine was trained as a sociologist, and he melded his poetic camera work with the inquisitive rigor of the humanistic social scientist.

An exhibition at Jan Kesner Gallery features 25 vintage prints made between 1907 and 1913 for the National Child Labor Committee. Together they show Hine's exceptional capacity for creating images that are frank yet not exploitative, revealing without being sensationalist.

A pastoral 1913 photograph of a little girl in a cottonfield is emblematic. The composition is somewhere between that of Romantic genre painting and a Japanese print -- elegant, asymmetrical and earthy. Crowned by tousled blond curls, the child cups a fluffy tuft of cotton in her hands. Look closely, though, and this image of guileless curiosity and fragile beauty is tattered around the edges: Her frock is grimy, worn and frayed. The 4-year-old doesn't engage in the exploration of play but in the hardship of work.

The selection of pictures shows the range of child labor during the period: farming, oyster shucking, millwork, packing, shining shoes and more. In addition to jobs in factories, children did piecework at home. These photographs never show them in gruesome, backbreaking situations, which has the noble effect of making their exploitation as laborers blatant while also insisting on their human dignity.

Some (usually boys) swagger and mug for the camera; others (usually girls) are more reticent. Already much in evidence are familiar gender distinctions between acting in the public world and being acted upon.

Even what is not seen comes into play, especially in a 1910 image of young truant boys loitering on the street. Throughout this work compulsory education for children, designed to prepare future citizens for informed participation in democracy, has been swept aside by the rapacious forces of capitalism.

Jan Kesner Gallery, 164 N. La Brea Ave., (323) 938-6834, through March 1. Closed Sun. and Mon.

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Hanley gets things rolling

What would you get if you crossed Joan Jonas' classic 1972 video, "Vertical Roll," with David Hammons' visually musical 1997 video, "Kick the Bucket"? It might be something like Kevin Hanley's "Three-sixty," an eccentric and engaging fusion of technology, skill and playfulness, which is currently enlivening the small rear gallery at ACME.

Jonas built her work on the structural platform of the medium's inherent characteristics -- in a TV, a vertical roll results when two out-of-sync frequencies meet. Hammons' video is a masterpiece of loose-limbed serendipity that follows the trail of a tin pail being kicked down a nighttime city street. For his part, Hanley invited a skateboard wizard to execute some vigorous 360-degree spins, which were recorded by four cameras set up on tripods in the corners of the room.

The video is projected on the wall of the same room in which the sequence was shot. Hanley edited the four camera views together in a sequence of short bursts -- one after the next, following the direction of the skateboarder's spinning path. It shows the skater being transformed from awkward mortal to magical whirling dervish before falling back to earth once more. Goofiness becomes thrill.

The projection is almost like a fragmented Futurist painting come to life. Here, however, the energetic dynamism is not being illustrated but viscerally experienced.

The subtle soundtrack is critically important to the success of Hanley's work. The scraping sound of metal wheels against a concrete floor and the crack and slap of the board as its end is lifted and brought back down is played continuously and at low volume. Severed from the herky-jerky visuals, it creates a musical through-line; meanwhile, the spinning image adds visual syncopation.

"Three-sixty" puts you in mind of everything from a turntable playing records to the Earth spinning on its axis. Culture and nature rarely collide with such concise and insistent fun.

ACME, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-5942, through Feb. 7. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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