Motion, mind and mystery

Special to The Times

New drawings by Dean Smith are the centerpiece of his engrossing show at Christopher Grimes Gallery, but "labyrinth," his short video playing in the back gallery, is in itself worth the trip. A mesmerizing haunt, the grainy black-and-white film (shot on Super 8 film and transferred to digital video) consists of a sequence of images of spaces opening up to us and seeming to close behind us. The motion is continuous and strong but not always directed forward. Instead, the rhythm -- of both the movement and the synthesized score -- feels like a pulse, thrumming and throbbing without a distinct beginning, middle or end.

Smith names the video after the labyrinth in Greek mythology, an underground maze built to imprison the half-human, half-bull Minotaur. In the video, the setting is a cross between underground parking garage and stark temple. Pillars and smooth walls define spaces but only vaguely and briefly. The scene shifts continuously, so that the sensation of passage is irrevocably bound with the feeling of disorientation, akin to the urgent navigation of a dark maze.

In just under six minutes, Smith's video effectively positions us inside a place that evokes both the recesses of the body and the channels of the mind. Smith thrusts us, midstream, into a process with primal undertones. Through the video, he's also enveloped us in the spaces of his own drawings.

Smith's drawings and video share essential qualities of geometry, depth and mystery, and they build momentum from rhythmic repetition and reverberation. At their best, the drawings also have a mesmerizing effect.

In one, Smith has drawn a pattern of tiny lobes in metallic ink. They repeat to form a circle about 3 feet in diameter, a shimmering blossom of minute silver petals. In two other pieces, the Bay Area artist densely fills triangles of different sizes set within each other with small, stabbing strokes of graphite that radiate outward. The sense of motion is palpable, like a pulsating electric current.

The networks that Smith conjures bridge the macroscopic and microscopic. Whether composed of angular facets or looping lines, they feel organic in origin -- plant forms, neurological patterns, cosmological visions. The effort Smith puts into them straddles the meditative and the obsessive.

Smith taps into an old and constant human impulse here: to render the invisible visible. His earlier drawings reference scientific phenomena like black holes and mathematical concepts such as the Fibonacci sequence. He titles several of the new drawings "thoughtforms," suggesting provisional maps of the patterns of consciousness. They bring to mind Wassili Kandinsky's theories regarding the spiritual in art and the power of abstract forms to speak directly to the soul.

Smith has accomplished that in this largely remarkable show. He's closed art's miraculous loop, reaching the internal mechanics of the mind through the exacting efforts of the hand.

Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Nov. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Comfort in a time of great challenge

To call Wayne Thiebaud's art likable may sound like damning with faint praise, but it's also a way to set it apart from much else filling the galleries these days. It's not uncommon to find work that challenges, startles or confuses. Art that pleases, purely and simply, is harder to come by, and Thiebaud has long been a reliable provider.

His work, which so often depicts pies, cakes, gumballs and other goodies, is comfort food for the eye. An enjoyable show at Tasende Gallery offers 15 examples in various print media. The subjects -- still lifes and landscapes -- are the same as in his paintings, but without the tactile intensity of his luscious, frosted-on pigment.

One of the most moving pieces here is, in fact, a relatively sober image of a bowl of cherries, a drypoint and aquatint etching from 1984. The fruit's naturally seductive color is gone, but in its place Thiebaud has balanced soft, inky black lines and the crisp white lip of the bowl against a creamy beige ground.

The show leans toward this quieter side of Thiebaud, the elegance of his compositions and the subtlety of his use of light. Not all the works are as pure and fine as the print of cherries. A few are unremarkable, and the color aquatint "Beach Glasses" is particularly clumsy.

Some, like "Tied Ties," in which rows of bow ties mimic brightly wrapped candies, work their classic Thiebaud charm. In another, a San Francisco street cascades down the page like a fine gray waterfall. And in the most recent print (2002), a single, sickly slice of pumpkin pie exudes such a sense of abandonment that it's easy to imagine it being served up to one of the diners in Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks."

Tasende Gallery, 8808 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 276-8686, through Dec. 20. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Figure painting, strings attached

Carlos Estevez calls his beautifully poetic show at Couturier Gallery "Human Transparency." But its real subject is the densely layered motivations, instincts, freedoms and restrictions that constitute human behavior.

Working in watercolor, the Havana-based artist paints the contours of his figures with crisp red or black lines that recall the flat, frontal, elegant concision of Greek vase painting. He leaves the figures transparent, often filling in their forms with indicators of meaning and structure.

In several of the paintings, the outlined bodies are ornamented with schema resembling architectural cross-sections -- the body as dwelling or temple. In others, renderings of landscapes double as flesh and skin -- the body as site or juncture.

Estevez depicts the figures as universals, without identifying characteristics. They generally have blank eyes and are only generically male and female. They read as emblems rather than individuals, though their predicaments are familiar to each of us.

Painted as marionettes, with strings rising to an unknown source, the figures struggle with purpose and free will. They juggle multiple identities. A figure in one painting balances 10 heads across his spread arms as he stands upon a spherical map of the cosmos. In "La Vida Es un Transito" (Life Is a Passage), the winged figure is repeated five times, first suspended, then launched, flying, tumbling and finally fallen, the strings connecting it to its life source now snapped loose.

"The Theater of Life" was the title of Estevez's last show here, and that theme continues to prevail: This is a serious and marvelous carnival that we participate in daily, and its physical performances all bear metaphysical implications.

Couturier Gallery, 166 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 933-5557, through Nov. 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Brush, emotion are in control

The power in Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin's work at L.A. Louver Gallery is derived from several sources. First, and maybe even most enduring, is the artist's formidable technical facility.

Rubin, who moved from Southern to Northern California in 1989, paints with precision, rendering textures, masses and light with veracity. She has successfully harnessed the power of illusion.

Second, she capitalizes on the powers of suggestion and surprise. In her still-life compositions, she brings together onto neutral ground objects that don't relate in a conventional, logical way: bones, straight pins, eyeglasses, wooden matches and dice, for instance, or headphones and a wasp's nest. The objects' proximity implies a connection or relationship, maybe even a narrative, but Rubin lets us wander there on our own. Only in her series on color -- 12 small, chromatically keyed canvases -- does she assert some familiar coherence.

These varieties of power add up, but not synergistically. The energy in these paintings is safely (too safely) contained within their borders. They're pristine, deliberate, seamless works. Playful elements crop up occasionally -- like the ketchup and mustard dispensers that serve as characters in one tabletop scene -- and violence and fragility arise as themes. (In one painting, a sledgehammer is paired with smashed light bulbs.) But control always wins out. The tone of these paintings overall feels emotionally muted, in spite of the power of Rubin's brush.

L.A. Louver Gallery, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-4955, through Nov. 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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