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Sexually explicit, in that very abstract way

Special to The Times

Sue Williams’ first L.A. show in seven years brings a delirious vitality to Regen Projects’ new exhibition space, a pleasantly roomy venue one door north of the gallery’s former location. Marked by a stridently neon palette and a precociously articulate, if frequently obscene, vocabulary of line, it is a wonderfully exhilarating body of work.

As the New York-based Williams continues to drift from the representational style that characterized her early career, she seems to be not so much exploring abstraction as pinning it to the wall and interrogating it. She demands from abstraction a degree of humor and substance that many contemporary painters seem happy to do without.

Five of the 10 works on display are ink drawings characterized by an assortment of unmistakably sexual motifs: gaping vulvae, flapping ovaries, puckered orifices, tiny tufts of hair and countless unspecified curves and crevices, all entwined into dense and unnervingly tactile snarls of line. Floating on clean sheets of white vellum -- and occasionally staggered across multiple layers, as though suspended in a thin mist -- Williams’ strokes are crisp but fluid and expressive as cartoons.

The remaining five works are large-scale paintings dominated by a luscious spectrum of pinks. Williams’ lines here are thick and painterly -- occasionally even dripping -- and tend either to wind up in tight coils or to stretch into loose, graceful curves. Although not as overtly suggestive as the drawings, the paintings are evocative in their own manner, at times quite humorously. Indeed, one occasionally feels that the grand and largely masculine legacy of big abstraction has fallen into the hands of the smart-aleck girl in the back of the high school sex-ed class.

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Nowhere is this clash more delightfully explicit than in “Violated Abstract,” in which a loose assembly of painterly lines, rendered here in a quasi-sophisticated palette of tan and turquoise, is ambushed by the sort of hysterically frenetic motifs that fill the drawings. There are little skirts drawn playfully around the lines’ breadth, tufts of hair tucked into their crevices and ovaries penciled onto their folds.

One coil is consumed by decorative turquoise stripes. As skillful as it is sarcastic, the painting reminds one of the persistence of the body and physical reality, even in the rarefied realm of abstraction.

Regen Projects, 633 N. Almont Drive, West Hollywood, (310) 276-5424, through April 12. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Granite and stones that defy gravity

Despite the enduring influence of Modernism’s emphasis on material integrity -- the paint-for-paint’s-sake philosophy that’s held sway for half a century -- there is still something thrilling about a work that appears to defy its own natural properties. Such is the case with Woods Davy’s new stone sculptures at Craig Krull Gallery, which flout the most basic law governing three-dimensional work: gravity.

In five of the seven sculptures assembled here, large and roughly ovular chunks of granite are stacked end to end to form precarious towers between 6 and 9 feet tall. In the other two, blue and gray water-smoothed stones are arranged in a horizontal V shape that resembles a grouping of small clouds.

In each case, the stones are joined end to end with invisible stainless steel pins and appear to be magically floating. Indeed, stepping within a foot or two of the taller pieces can be intimidating; they seem likely to topple down at any moment.

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The trick might come off as mere novelty but for the quality of meditative reverence that underpins it. The stones retain their organic form despite their unnatural arrangement, and one is compelled to appreciate -- as Davy clearly does -- the simple beauty of their shape and texture. In this sense, the works function much like a Zen rock garden and will no doubt be better off in an environment more conducive than an art gallery to the practice of contemplation.

Also on view in the exhibition are several striking works on paper made with watercolor, oil sticks and smoke. Based loosely on underwater forms observed while scuba diving, the images are spidery abstractions cast in thin layers of black and gray. If the sculptures seem to liberate stones from the bonds of gravity, these drawings manage the opposite: to pin down the weightless and apparently intangible character of smoke.

Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-6410, through April 5. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Delicately made instruments of war

As history repeats itself in the Middle East, so too at Jan Baum Gallery with Bella Feldman’s “War Toys: Redux,” the updated edition of a series created by the Bay Area sculptor on the occasion of the 1991 Gulf War. Assembled here is a second generation of imaginary military machines that are, like the first, less notable for their destructive potential than their superb craftsmanship and diminutive charm.

There are 26 sculptures in the fleet, all made from steel or bronze and blown or cast glass, and all about the size of small dogs. They sit directly on the floor of the back gallery, much like a pack of robotic house pets that might begin buzzing around one’s feet at any moment.

Each creature is unique and rather bafflingly intricate in design. A few contain recognizable forms -- such as “Missiles I, II and III,” which look something like cannons, and “Homeland Security I, II and III,” which are miniature glass houses mounted on small carts. But most seem a fusion of vague biological and technological influences, with metal armatures of various shapes containing balloon-like glass bellies.

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Perhaps the most striking quality of the fleet is its utter -- and clearly ironic -- impracticality. Any menace implied by the objects’ steel spikes and bronze armor is undercut by the fragility and strange sensuality of the glass. They have wheels, but no mechanism of locomotion. Each is specific enough to suggest specialization, yet they have no conceivable function.

Ultimately the work is less a critique of war than a playful muddling of its terms: an exalting of form over function, beauty over power and creativity over militarism -- which doesn’t, actually, sound like such a bad idea.

Jan Baum Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 932-0170, through April 26. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Sacred? Profane? Just sentimental

The title of Ruth Weisberg’s current exhibition at Jack Rut- berg Fine Arts -- “Love, Sacred and Profane” -- is from a 16th century allegorical painting by Titian, in which the eponymous qualities are represented by two women, one clothed and one nude, seated on a well in a lush, pastoral setting. These two figures weave intermittently through the more than two dozen paintings, drawings and monotypes on view here, mingling with images of contemporary men and women dancing.

In the two largest works, Weisberg reproduces the painting in near-entirety but superimposes an embracing couple at the center. It is disappointing that despite the lofty allusion, the sentiments ultimately expressed in the work are neither sacred nor profane, but only shallowly romantic.

Weisberg’s reproductions of the painting are competent but unremarkable. It’s dangerous business for a contemporary painter to sidle up so close to the work of an Old Master; it only invites what is sure to be an unfavorable formal comparison. But it seems particularly misguided here, in the absence of any but the most sentimental conceptual reasoning.

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Indeed, it’s unclear what purpose the painting serves at all, except as a pretty signifier of vague romantic qualities. The contemporary images also suffer from lackluster definition. The women lack personality, and the men -- nearly always fading into the background -- are unconvincing. As a result, the erotic charge is mild, giving the entire series the feeling of a rather benign paperback fantasy.

The most appealing moments in the show are notably the most abstract, in which Weisberg indulges her clear fascination with the sensual movement of female bodies and fabric without concern for narrative -- in the image of a woman’s back twisting in the grip of an otherwise unseen man, for example, or a seated woman in a draped dress pulling a sweater over her head. Also appealing are Weisberg’s expertly handled monotypes, which convey a bodily substantiality that the paintings somehow fail to capture.

Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, 357 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 938-5222, through April 30. Closed Sunday and Monday.


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