Illuminated in gas station’s fluorescent glow

Times Staff Writer

Robert Olsen is a nighthawk. His small oil paintings on panel, none more than a foot high, show fragments of a city after dark. Like Edward Hopper, he finds the artificial glow of electric light consoling in the silent emptiness of the wee hours. Unlike Hopper, he depicts the machinery of modern living without the men and women who are threaded through it.

Instead, Olsen threads viewers through his paintings. A third solo show by the young L.A. artist deepens and complicates the resonance felt in his earlier outings at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Then, the shows featured “portraits” of soda vending machines, ATMs, parking meters and bus shelters, each one illuminated from within and surrounded by forbidding darkness. This one concentrates on a single gas station on Sepulveda Boulevard: eight pumps, eight paintings -- one pump each.

The eight small panels are lined up in a row on the wall. Like Monet’s views of Rouen’s cathedral, but with cool fluorescent light standing in for the dappled differentiation of sunshine, Olsen’s finely wrought serial images isolate their mechanical subject from the surrounding context. He erases all advertising and instructional text from the pumps, which are seen up close and fill the frames, saving only the numbers 1 through 8 in the pumps’ upper corners, used to identify each.


As a group, the paintings establish a weird visual logic. When you scan from left to right, the numbers and the pump configurations orient you in space. Sometimes a second pump can be seen peeking out from behind the machine that dominates the foreground. Odd-numbered pumps stand behind one another, receding into the darkness; even-numbered pumps advance toward you. Nos. 2 and 7 stand in grand isolation, like archaic sentinels at some latter-day Luxor in an urban desert.

The others show a glimpse of the gas station’s sheltering canopies above the pumps. These umbrella-like canopies contribute to the struggle between dull utilitarianism and disciplined poetry that characterizes Olsen’s bracing aesthetic approach. Awkward in design and visually ugly, they’re a testament (if one were needed) to the worst indifference that typifies modern vernacular architecture.

As machines, Olsen’s gas pumps nostalgically recall cinematic robots. Their location wittily alludes to the black silence of deep space. Would that a gas station designer might generate such clever amusements.

Olsen uses elements of composition, lighting and abstraction (including the numbers) to render a fully dimensional space. The abstraction is italicized through painterly technique, in which each pump (and each painted panel) becomes a careful composition of geometric shapes. Color is cool and tamped down -- ochre, blues, brown, silvery gray -- punctuated with black and white. You scrutinize this otherwise familiar, thoroughly mundane island of tranquillity as if it were an alien landscape.

Which is, of course, what one wants from first-rate landscape painting -- the capacity to see it in a fully wrought experience, rather than to merely look at it. The last time a painter accomplished that feat with gas stations as subject matter was 40 years ago, when Edward Ruscha painted L.A.’s petroleum plazas in dramatic high style as blaring word poems. “Standards!” declared Ruscha’s graphically acute paintings of Standard gas stations, even as they broke every art standard in the book.

Olsen replaces Hollywood glamour with homeliness while retaining finely tuned specificity. His gas stations are very different from Ruscha’s, but they are also self-assured and eloquent.


Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5363 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 933-2117, through Oct. 11. Closed Sunday and Monday.


Mastering the mass media

A pair of solo shows at the new Carl Berg Gallery demonstrates complementary but differing views of the strange numbness that surrounds violence in a media-saturated environment. Kristi Kent makes her debut in the front room with shadow boxes and a motorized sculpture; in the rear gallery, veteran painter Megan Williams makes a welcome return after a four-year hiatus.

Williams shows four works whose manic energy derives from a beautifully rendered mix of Futurist iconoclasm and mass media cartoons. Marinetti meets Mickey Mouse.

One shows a nearly abstract blast, as if a cannonball had ripped through the thickly woven canvas trailing clouds of smoke (and, given the trajectory, whizzed just past your head). Another shows a spurting garden hose, gripped by half a dozen hands in a gesture suggestive of masturbation -- nurturance merged with solipsism. A third follows the wreck of a toy train, which shatters into 33 progressively smaller canvases, the smallest lying scattered on the floor.

Williams’ most compelling painting shows a swirling puddle of ochre color invaded by four arms. A flurry of hands furiously wrestles a tangled length of rope. It’s a strange work -- an aggressive form of pictorial bondage, which ties your vision up in knots.

Kent’s shadow boxes focus on the representation of delirium in fine and popular art. In the wittiest, a pair of the grumpy, apple-wielding, anthropomorphic trees from “The Wizard of Oz” flanks a view of the Taj Mahal -- history’s most fantastic mausoleum. A shower of soldiers and women under beauty-parlor hair dryers gently falls over the hallucinatory landscape. If there’s such a thing as morbid euphoria, this is it.

The centerpiece of Kent’s debut is “Scream Tunnel,” an 8-foot-long, seven-sided cylinder that rotates horizontally when a visitor steps on a pedal. Distorted, stretched-out photographs of famous screams -- from Edvard Munch to Alfred Hitchcock, Sergei Eisenstein to Marlon Brando -- slowly twirl inside the homemade fun-house tube. A mirror at the back puts your own image at the tunnel’s far end.

Whether from politicians, talk-radio hacks or academics, our modern media miasma is a common target of manipulative hand-wringing from all sides. Kent’s work will have none of it. Rarely has that tedious horror looked so winningly foolish.

Carl Berg Gallery, 6018 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 931-6060, through Saturday.


Under cover in the abstract

Four new abstract paintings by Eric Niebuhr exploit the abstraction of camouflage in a provocative -- and suitably crafty -- way. If the individual works in his second solo show at Mary Goldman Gallery don’t quite add up, collectively they’re in stimulating territory.

Camouflage is an illusionist’s survival trick, a way of disappearing into a hostile environment. The institutionalized hostility toward painting, especially abstract painting, may have lessened dramatically in the art world over the last decade, but bad habits are hard to shake. Niebuhr turns the disappearing act around, using aspects of camouflage to stand out in plain view.

Niebuhr’s dappled patterns don’t mimic camouflage so much as obliquely suggest it. Onto smoothly painted fields of solid color he brushes vaporous, atmospheric patches, which open up an illusion of deep space. He also pours thick areas of paint, which read as positive forms in negative space. The palette is most often muted -- taupe, violet, khaki green, periwinkle.

There are no discernible people, places or things in any of these works, which a gallery handout says were inspired by scenes from movies. But, like differentiated protoplasm, they seem to contain the possibility for transformation and growth -- as if people, places or things might come into view if you look hard enough. They feel subterranean, like secrets lying in wait.

Mary Goldman Gallery, 932 Chung King Road, Chinatown, (213) 617-8217, through Oct. 11. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.


Stopped in the face of progress

Miles Coolidge’s new color photographs at Acme begin where a lot of such large-format work has in the last 25 years -- with the industrial typology of the German duo, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and their dispassionate, black-and-white views of water towers, grain elevators, blast furnaces and such. Where Coolidge takes it, though, is distinctive and unexpected.

Each of the 10 works (one in two panels) shows a highway drawbridge in the upright position, head-on and nearly filling the frame. The roadbed is steel mesh, so semitransparent. Whatever ship might be passing by cannot be seen. Instead, the matching upright on the other side of the roadway can be glimpsed beyond.

In medieval times, drawbridges were protective devices to keep invaders out. Today, they’re emblems of industry and the global traffic of goods. For all the dazzlement inherent in our high-tech world, it’s disconcerting how cumbersome, even clumsy a solution these arduous contraptions appear in Coolidge’s deadpan photographs.

A path becomes an abrupt wall. Your progress is stopped by someone else’s. These peculiar photographs interrupt the headlong journey in order to examine it -- in all its inventive, heavy-handed strangeness.

Acme, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-5942, through Saturday.