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R.B. Kitaj roams far and wide for complex works

Special to the Times

Trend-hungry participants in the art world of the 1980s bought into the idea that originality had exhausted itself, and all that was left for artists was to recycle what had come before. “Appropriation” became a buzzword and hyperbole a favored artistic strategy. Some pretty feeble art was made in the name of high-concept piggybacking. Appropriation seemed to have hit its peak and low point simultaneously.

In truth, artists have always borrowed from art that’s come before as well as life around them. They’ve quoted, misquoted, tampered with and paid homage to tradition. It’s a promising and never-ending path, rather than the dead end it was made out to be a scant generation ago. Just how rich an art of intelligent poaching can be is made abundantly clear in L.A. Louver’s deeply absorbing show of new paintings and drawings by R.B. Kitaj.

Kitaj is fearless in his appropriation of styles, figures and compositions made by other hands. His work is an overflowing cornucopia of cultural references, from Titian to W.C. Fields, from Weegee to the Talmud. He’s a self-proclaimed wandering Jew -- and not just geographically. All of these influences play host to his diasporic mind.

He wants to infuse his art, he says, with the Jewish tradition of exegetical argument. To do so, he occupies others’ territory and wrestles with his presence there, assimilating what’s useful, contributing what’s personal, all with the utmost integrity and brilliance, humor and humility. The results, as seen here, can be dense and complicated.

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On the other hand, they’re also pure manifestations of basic, familiar emotions -- love and longing. Born in Cleveland in 1932, Kitaj is most often associated with the painting giants of London -- Freud, Bacon, Kossoff, Hockney -- where he settled in the early 1960s. In 1994, his second wife, artist Sandra Fisher, died suddenly, and a few years later he moved to L.A., where they had met in 1970.

In returning to Los Angeles, Kitaj re-encountered his “angel,” and his work here testifies to her enduring, vital presence in his life. She stands by his bed, in one painting, his arm sleepily nestled into the comfortable warmth between her legs. In another, a composition informed equally by Giotto and Barnett Newman, they kiss, their faces joining to unfurl a streak of divine energy.

One wall of the show serves as something of a shrine to Fisher, bearing her photograph ringed by small canvases she painted, but throughout Kitaj’s own work, she returns as angel and avatar. On canvas, time and space are malleable and cooperative. In one painting (most are titled “Los Angeles” and numbered), Kitaj represents the realm in which their outstretched arms touch as an inky swath between his corporeal world and hers, more shadowy and spare. The tragedy of their distance and the beauty of their connection overwhelm.

Kitaj’s is an art of massive intelligence and deep feeling. There are ample moments of humor in this extensive show, but even they are multilayered and, ultimately, serious. A tenuous equilibrium holds it all together -- the present with the past, memory with reality, the models of others and Kitaj’s own style of “drawing-painting,” in which line and color are equally vigorous and important but rarely synchronous in a conventional way.

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The work is fascinating to travel through with the eye and reconstruct in the mind. It serves as a generous, captivating host to our own wanderings.

L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-4955, through July 5. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Surprises in irreverent clay

Kathy Butterly’s ceramic sculptures at Shoshana Wayne Gallery are slippery little things, not just to the touch but conceptually. They dodge back and forth between beautiful and clumsy, refined and pedestrian, sweet, sly and sensual.

What they remain, throughout, is marvelously amusing and technically impressive. Each of the 14 small works (6 inches or less) in porcelain and earthenware looks like some kind of cup or vase that has collapsed in on itself. Its walls buckle and fold like heavy drapery. The undulating form sits on a small base and shifts personality at Butterly’s will.

In “Push My Button,” it’s nakedly sexy. In “Okay,” it’s endearing and slightly pitiful, a gnarled lump of dark caramel wearing a Band-aid. Butterly is a meticulous illusionist, conjuring up a wealth of textures and common objects from the same basic ingredients of clay and glaze.

Bamboo, twine, rubber bands, sponges, grass and wood all make appearances as if they belonged here, and strangely, they seem to. Butterly’s cleverness at bridging the high and low, the funny and the wise, calls to mind Ron Nagle, who’s been practicing a similar craft, deviously and delightfully, for 40 years.

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In addition to the clay pieces, Butterly also makes works on paper that combine pencil drawing with gouache painting and collaged objects. They have a similar spunky irreverence but aren’t as distinctive as the sculptures. They are to the floral still life what the ceramic sculptures are to the fine china vase -- extrapolations, distortions, humorous twists, hybrids of Pop art and Surrealism.

Butterly calls one of her sculptural pieces “Hat Trick.” In it, a cotton-candy-colored blob (a bunny, presumably) seems to be emerging from the mouth of a collapsed green hat. It’s the perfect metaphor for what Butterly’s doing all throughout her terrific first show in L.A. -- springing spectacular surprises from modest means. That’s a trick that never gets old.

Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 453-7535, through June 14. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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One hit among the many misses

“Momentum,” the second show at the new Keller & Greene, hasn’t much of it. All of the work on view, by gallery artists from Britain, mostly, is accessible and likable without being distinguished. Several of the painters focus on the banal, assuming (rightly) that thoughtful scrutiny and careful technique can boost the ordinary into a realm of greater significance.

Unfortunately, neither Anselmo Swan’s crisply painted portraits of dress shirts and ties, nor Greg Rook’s inkjet and oil images of himself deliberating options at the frozen food section of the supermarket are transformative. They simply are what they are, quiet moments amplified.

Raymond Yap presents small, slick pattern-paintings in a vivid palette of cherry, grape, raspberry and lime. John McCarthy photographs people behind textured glass, then competently replicates in paint the woozy dissolution of their features. Duncan Bullen paints near-monochrome canvases with luminous accents flaring in from the edges. Contributions by Thomas Watson, Renny Tait and Dwayne Moser round out the show.

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Technique verges on gimmickry in too many of the works here, with the exception of Larry Williams’ paintings, which are technically unusual as well as visually compelling. Williams, from Canada, paints on glass, then transfers the pigment, monoprint style, onto canvas. The paintings consist of scumbled and scraped white pigment on indigo grounds, but their surfaces are deceptively smooth, and the images bring to mind satellite pictures of vast glacial landscapes, smooth patches of sea framed by brittle, ice-encrusted shores. Williams reinforces this association with titles like “Ice on the Bay Southwest” and “Above Samikilvaq.” Equally sneaky and alluring, Williams’ paintings are standouts in this otherwise thin show.

Keller & Greene, 158 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 525-1576, through June 28. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.

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Asawa mesmerizes with organic forms

At Tobey C. Moss Gallery, Ruth Asawa’s first solo show in L.A. since 1969 gives reason to both celebrate and castigate. Why hasn’t this elegant work been shown more often?

Asawa was born in Southern California in 1926, attending school and working on her parents’ farm until the family’s internment in relocation camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. After high school, she studied to be a teacher, but career options for her were limited in the years immediately following the war.

After attending a summer course at Black Mountain College, she decided to stay, studying for three years under Josef Albers, among others, and developing a distinctive method of creating sculpture from wire.

Several sculptures here are spectacularly simple in form and yet complex in their integration of line and volume, inner and outer, translucency and density. One from the 1980s is mesmerizing, its continuous form rewarding continuous attention. Working in crocheted copper wire, Asawa formed an hourglass shape whose surface turns inside out to enclose the initial shape in another, larger, and then repeats the pattern once again. One form births another, which births another. Echoes come to mind, and seed pods, rhythms that recur, cycles that perpetuate life.

In 1949, Asawa moved to San Francisco (where she still lives), and in the next two decades received broad attention for her work while, remarkably, raising six children with her architect husband. A group of interesting ink drawings on wax-coated paper is included in this show, as well as prints and drawings from Asawa’s career of more than 50 years.

Organic forms and patterns -- many, she says, observed as a child on the family farm -- have generated nearly all of her work, which suggests (and sometimes directly references) gourds, nests, egg sacs, trees and plants. Nature’s great economy of design has been her greatest teacher.

Albers with his lessons on the unity of “head and heart and hand” has been another, and her Zen Buddhist upbringing, another. Asawa’s glorious sculptures, with their swellings and contractions, replication, symmetry and growth, resonate with her contemporaries of the 1960s, Eva Hesse and Alan Saret, and serve as honored ancestors to younger sculptors like Anne Mudge. Southern Californians would do well to get to know her work better.

Tobey C. Moss Gallery, 7321 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 933-5523, through June 28. Closed Sunday and Monday.


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