A game of show and tell

Times Staff Writer

"Painting by Letters," rather than by numbers, is the appealing theme of a curious group show at Cirrus Gallery. The title is actually a bit misleading, since photographs, videos, installations, sculptures and drawings together far outnumber paintings here. But guest curator Eve Wood, who is an artist and a writer, has assembled an easygoing selection of work by 11 artists for whom the visual and the literary overlap.

The show makes quiet fun of the emphasis on art theory in the last two decades, by using "show and tell" as a witty metaphor. Two fine drawings by Julie Zemel depict demonstrations of making abstract images, taken from descriptions in a 1960s "How To" book. "Pour a Few Blobs of," shows a hand holding a jar of paint and doing just that, while another hand holds the paper in place. "Let the Paint Run or," shows a hand with a small roller smudging pigment around a surface. Both "demonstration drawings" are little halls of mirrors, which oscillate in your mind between depiction and abstraction.

Show-and-tell is also the format for two videos. Tyler Stallings records the popular hobby of reenactment common at heritage festivals (think of Renaissance fairs or re-created Civil War battles), while dubiously suggesting that painting follow suit. In "Psychology for Living," Andros Sturgeon reedits 1950s high school instructional films, intercutting them with snippets of period pornography in a manner that makes squeaky-clean social mores seem downright obscene.

Words are physical materials for three other artists. Alexandra Grant's large, rather conventional abstract painting "Pink Palimpsest" layers writing with brushy color. Todd Feldman applies press type to clear sheets of Mylar suspended from the ceiling and tangles the alphabet with webs of wispy black acrylic. And Buzz Spector's "Freeze Freud" is a large-format, two-panel Polaroid showing books by the Viennese psychologist frozen inside blocks of ice, like Paleolithic dinosaur bones.

In a funny, sexually shaded drawing by JonMarc Edwards, clear acrylic mixed with dust, grime and floor sweepings is poured on paper to spell out the words "dirty love," which neatly (or not so neatly) describes the activity of making art.

Appealing ink drawings evocative of landscape mounds by Mark Strand and small schematic sculptures that split the difference between architecture and furniture by Rachelle Rojany seem only tenuously linked to the show's admittedly loose theme. The same goes for two colorful digital prints by Mary Anna Pommonis, which show the insides of homemade kaleidoscopes. (A gallery handout explains that they were assembled by friends.) The show-and-tell quality here gets stretched pretty thin.

The most compelling works in "Painting by Letters" are two little oil paintings and two lovely drawings (on found sheets of paper) by Steve Roden. He's made numerous works based on spoken words and alphabets in the past, and one of the paintings here -- "The Silent World" -- derives from Jacques Cousteau's book of that title about undersea exploring. Roden's abstractions, made from marks and patterns that seem like mysterious yet decipherable codes, manage to exert an imaginative pull where meaning is yet to be discovered.

Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda St., Los Angeles, (213) 680-3473, through Jan. 10. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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A sumptuous take on painting noir

"Nightfall," a savvy group of 14 figurative paintings by Mark Stock, constitutes a tone poem on themes of anticipation and ennui, rendered with subtle wit. Nominal outtakes in a noir cinematic narrative, the paintings in fact tell a story of the seductions of art.

A female protagonist, variously dressed in luxurious satin, velvet and brocade, is shown in scenes carefully imbued with mystery. She sits alone in an immense Victorian lobby. She waits at the top of a stair, glimpsed through a curtain. She peers over a window's sill at the nighttime carpet of lights spreading out in the L.A. Basin below, as if expecting an unidentified visitor. She spies through a knothole in the floor or hides a letter in the glowing alabaster bowl of a chandelier.

These scenes of anxiety and suspense are interrupted by three small still lifes, each rendered in the manner of a trompe l'oeil painting by John Haberle or John F. Peto. Innocuous notes taped to wooden panels announce "Be ready by 8" and "Took the dogs for a walk." The third features a sealed envelope in robin's egg blue.

In the largest painting -- whose size alone suggests a denouement -- the mystery woman sits on the floor idly holding a glass of red wine and leaning against the carved leg of an ornate library table. At her side, a pair of men's shoes peeks out from the end of a rolled up Persian rug. Unspeakable things have happened -- which, of course, is one of the salient virtues of the visual medium of painting: Language is defied. Your eye is easily drawn into the rapturous color and brushwork, distracted from murder by flashes of olive and purple on the pleated brown-satin evening dress.

Stylistically, Stock marries the shadowy look of 1940s noir Hollywood melodrama with its closest visual cousin in the European canon -- the candlelighted inscrutability of 17th century followers of Caravaggio, such as Georges de La Tour. Where Caravaggistes used atmospheric light as a tender metaphor for spiritual illumination, however, Stock employs it to decidedly different ends: Light performs as a character in his paintings, where it makes distinctive promises of discovery. But finally nothing is revealed beyond the sumptuous surface of oil paint on canvas -- which turns out to be more than satisfactory.

Earl McGrath Gallery, 454 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 657-4257, through Dec. 6. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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The method is cartoon madness

Gudmundur Gudmundsson, the Icelandic Pop artist who goes by the name Erro, has a particular knack for restoring the essential element of shared insanity so commonly drained from the cartoon genre. His paintings are ... well, nuts.

He also asserts cartooning's all-American brand of cheerful queasiness. The dozen paintings from 2002 at Louis Stern Fine Arts -- the 72-year-old artist's solo debut in Los Angeles -- mash together characters from Walt Disney, R. Crumb and Matt Groening to create a raucous free-for-all. The familiar is successfully rendered strange.

Industrial paint creates bright, flat colors mostly devoid of nuance. Canvases are jampacked. In a typical scene, Minnie Mouse scolds Pluto for poking a hole (with his head) through a Picasso painting of a weeping woman, while in the background Boris Yeltsin presides over dueling genies that have erupted from exotic bottles.

Elsewhere, Mickey Mouse's kids use the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock for bow-and-arrow target practice (they miss). Meanwhile, just outside the window, a riot is underway.

In "World Deposit," citizens line up like sheep to turn stacks of cash over to a grinning teller inside a globe. Nearby, caricatures of Laurel and Hardy, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Laughton, the Marx Brothers and other period stars of the old Silly Symphonies cartoon "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood" spill out of the pages of a book. Cartoons are here recognized not as mass culture distractions from worldly wickedness, but as manic pictures of it.

Cartoons, because they are partly addressed to children, aim at a less rational, more demonic part of the brain. They speak to viewers from a madhouse, as art critic Amy Goldin once put it, "inmate to inmate." Erro deftly locates us in an adjoining cell -- a zone of senselessness that can be just as meaningful as reason can.

Louis Stern Fine Arts, 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 276-0147, through Dec. 20. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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At play in the postindustrial

Thomas Burke is not afraid of pop fashion. In a fine solo debut at the new Western Project Gallery in Culver City, the young Las Vegas painter shows seven Hard Edge abstractions. Their titles -- borrowed from underground and mainstream rock 'n' roll, cult films and clothing labels -- suggest a determination to position art squarely within an arena of enthusiastic sensuality and playful indulgence.

The paintings come in two formats. Their sizes are somewhere between an album cover and a movie screen: small squares (the smallest just 8 inches on a side) or big panoramas (the largest, assembled from four panels, reaching 6 feet high and 16 feet wide). Their painted geometric patterns appear to have been computer-generated. Brightly colored grids, rendered in interlocking designs, either swell like a bubble or ripple in waves.

These "pixel-ated" acrylic patterns were made the old-fashioned way, using a labor-intensive spray gun and masking tape. Burke paints with crisp, clear colors on very thin sheets of metal, which together emphasize the image as a surface skin. Burke gets a surprising visual effect of mechanized movement -- of pieces falling into place with an almost audible clink. Inspired by pre-Conceptual art precedents as diverse as Bridget Riley's Op art, Lorser Feitelson's "space forms" and Frank Stella's protractors, the paintings nonetheless possess distinctive zip.

Western Projects Gallery, 3830 Main St., Culver City, (310) 838-0609, through Dec. 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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