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Harrowing, hallucinatory visions

Special to The Times

Sex and death pretty much did it for Sigmund Freud. When the good doctor boiled life down to basics, those two experiences explained the most important aspects of human behavior. They formed the bedrock of our myths -- religious, historical, literary and visual.

The unholy alliance of sex and death -- and its representations in the news and movies -- is not enough for Wangechi Mutu, a young artist whose gorgeously horrifying collages stir all these elements into a stew that is as fresh, raw and fascinating as it is harrowing, hallucinatory and hard to swallow. At Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 11 riveting works on paper and one collaged directly onto the wall make up a stunning solo debut. It’s among the best in recent memory.

Mutu is a force to be reckoned with. Her collages combine image fragments clipped from fashion, porn, motorcycle and travel magazines with colorful puddles and translucent washes of ink. She paints with casual ferocity, letting the inks mix in dappled patterns that recall the hides of fabulous animals or the ravages of terminal diseases.

Her large works, which measure 3 to 5 feet a side, look like illustrations for the nightmarish fairy tales the Brothers Grimm might write if they were alive today. In “A Lilliputian Haunt,” an airborne three-legged, one-armed, two-horned demon pesters a nubile, blue-eyed, pink-skinned beauty balancing precariously and vulnerably on an antique African stool.

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Ecstasy and anguish dovetail in “The Bourgeois Is Banging on My Head.” An alien with a large cranium stabs at the head of a kneeling supermodel, whose multihued, elaborately patterned skin makes the X-Men and the mutants in “Star Trek” look as proper as the Amish.

In Mutu’s freakishly realistic art, prosthetic appendages are the norm, as are mix-and-match faces that suggest plastic surgery gone horribly wrong -- or perhaps skillfully practiced by back-alley renegades. Her pain-addled figures recall Thomas Pynchon’s chilling descriptions of the makeshift prostheses that tinkerers and handymen cobbled together to repair some of the bodily damage of war. These loaded pictures are the futuristic offspring of Hannah Hoch’s scathing collages from the 1910s and ‘20s.

Mutu pastes sequins onto some of her works and cuts ordinary contact paper, printed to resemble marble or hardwood, into long, sinuous blades of grass in others. All are on Mylar -- the synthetic version of vellum, an ancient surface for writing and painting made from calf and lambskin. The medium creates a cloudy, atmospheric background that invites daydreams.

Such blood-and-guts physicality mixes with Mutu’s delicate touch and impressive formal sophistication to yield dazzling pieces that simultaneously attract and repulse. Her exhibition is an operatic extravaganza in which sensationalism is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath its surface are buried legions of undead, with more terror and humanity than we’re used to seeing on TV or in the street.

Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 5363 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 933-2117, through Nov. 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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A painter shifts into high gear

Bart Exposito’s new paintings make his earlier ones -- which are terrific -- look like old Volkswagen Microbuses bumbling uphill in the slow lane. Picture a Ferrari whooshing by in a blur of color and sharp angles and you’ll have an idea of the serious changes that have taken place in the 33-year-old painter’s work since his last show in Los Angeles, 18 months ago.

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Back then, Exposito coaxed lumpy shapes with rounded edges into funky forms that felt cozy. Their nesting components seemed to have been massaged into position, where they snuggled comfortably. Their rich earth tones and high-keyed accents added to a sense of patchwork organicism.

At Daniel Weinberg Gallery, eight new paintings show Exposito turning away from stability, security and solidity toward breakneck speed and delicious, often delirious, intangibility. He does this formally, by dispensing with his earlier compositions’ reliance on closed shapes. In their place are line and color, elements notorious for precision and emotional appeal -- just like high-end sports cars.

Exposito’s new acrylics on canvas are fine-tuned machines that deliver sizzling visual workouts. Perfectly straight lines race around their surfaces with whiplash energy. Decisively guided by a sure hand and sharp mind, they evoke Space Age lariats, simple tools of an outdated trade catapulted into the future, where they perform dazzling stunts without getting tangled up in logic.

The colors Exposito uses are odd but not extraordinary: highlighter yellow, spring-bonnet pink, khaki and olive drab. He just combines them as if he’s been mixing colors for decades, splicing in various icy whites with warmer tints, along with a supple spectrum of off-blacks. Black and white never looked more lush or supple.

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While Exposito’s lines scream “keep up if you can,” his color combos slowly draw viewers into his art’s quiet complexity. The fun kicks in at the get-go. The elegance emerges later, like a casual afterthought that’s all the more potent for being understated.

Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 6148 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 954-8425, through Nov. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Big questions in the tiny details

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Sharon Lockhart specializes in indirection. Her discreet films and photographs sneak up on a viewer slowly. Some startle, as abruptly as an ambush by someone you trusted. Others seduce, as temptingly as a trap you want to get caught in.

The best ones do both, playing cat-and-mouse with viewers by zeroing in on tiny details and expanding to ask profound questions about time’s passage and how we live through it. At Blum & Poe Gallery’s new location, Lockhart turns art against itself by turning trendy photography inside out.

In the largest room, four 6-by-10-foot color pictures present four views of two workmen from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art installing a super-realistic sculpture of three workmen taking a lunch break. At first, the men and the manikins are indistinguishable.

The setting, a plain gray floor and pristine white walls, looks unrealistic, like a bad movie set. The whole scene seems to be an elaborately staged setup whose payoff isn’t worth the effort. But Lockhart has included enough evidence to clue viewers in to how her photos were made.

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As you distinguish Duane Hanson’s life-size plastic sculptures of workmen from the real thing, creepy similarities between human beings and inanimate objects come into focus. Questions about the relationship between leisure and labor follow. And art, the result of artifice deployed skillfully, is central to the dialogue that begins in your head.

Lockhart’s other works elaborate on these ideas. A diptych shows a young woman and a girl making a jigsaw puzzle. One figure is live, the other plastic. Puzzling over the differences between the two -- and the two nearly identical pictures -- yields poignant pleasures.

Four groups of photographs of a Brussels sprout ikebana arrangement are less captivating. But a 30-minute film of a Japanese couple diligently spreading mulch in a field is a fascinating meditation on the rhythms of work and the ways they sometimes make their way into formally rigorous works of art.

Blum & Poe Gallery, 2754 La Cienega Blvd., L.A., (310) 836-2062, through Nov. 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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The past’s view of the past made new

Aaron Morse’s solo debut delivers a lot and promises still more.

At Acme Gallery, the 30-year-old artist’s acrylics on canvas, with a little oil paint and pencil thrown in, travel back to an era when entertainment was a big fat book filled with adventure stories and full-page illustrations of their dramatic high points.

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Morse’s fantasy of what that era’s fantasy of the past was like is filtered through computer software. He begins with images lifted from long-forgotten historical epics. Before painting a picture, he subjects it to all sorts of distortion, sometimes enlarging, elongating and distending its redcoats, colonials, whalers, frontiersmen and Indians, or compressing, collaging and compacting them into dense clusters. The results can recall class photos or team portraits.

Sublime pine forests, awe-inspiring waterfalls and deep blue seas are the backdrops for Morse’s strangely engaging pictures. So too are the panoramic scenes that catalog an area’s flora and fauna in natural history textbooks, as well as diagrams and timelines from geological manuals.

Comedy and tragedy commingle. Morse paints with the light touch of a watercolorist and the quickness of someone in a rush to get the story out. His clever works bring a sense of urgency to the art of storytelling, without giving so much away that viewers are prevented from putting their own imaginations into action.

Acme Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-5942, through Nov. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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