A feel for activism, a deft touch

Special to The Times

Taking a glance at the list of places where Caleb Duarte has shown his work, and the themes of the exhibitions he's been in, it's clear that the young artist from Oakland has a political bent, that he regards his work as an activist practice of sorts. Viewing his first show in L.A., at Gallery 727, it's also clear that he has a tremendous amount to offer, in terms of nuance and skill, toward broadening the category of socially informed artistic practice.

In Duarte's "sculptural paintings," materials speak as potently as images. Duarte draws and paints on pieces of drywall, then sets the panels within driftwood structures that protrude from the wall or construction-type frameworks. The drywall is scuffed and Duarte has stained it with sallow washes of acrylic. Puddles of watery brown and dull gray drip down the surface, mingling with scribbled notations and numbers.

The atmosphere is one of degradation, disregard, randomness and poverty. Within these amorphous settings, Duarte places figures, singly or in small groups. Much of the power of this work derives from the contrast between the integrity of these figures and the shabbiness of their milieu. In "Pisos de Tierra" (Dirt Floors), four young black boys press together tightly in a line, the momentum of their bodies leaning them forward at a slight angle. Duarte draws their skin in rich, full-strength charcoal and paints their shorts and shirts (perhaps a school uniform) in gleaming white. Their earnestness appears to be on a collision course with circumstance. The drywall panel on which they are so vividly drawn also contains snippets of ad copy, a symbol for equal housing opportunity and a sketch of a young black man pumping gas. It forms part of a framed wall of a downscaled house form, whose neatly demarcated floor is made of dirt.

Duarte has a light touch with commentary. In an image of a couple being married, he writes the word "pobre" (poor) across the groom's outlined head, but mostly he makes allusions to social inequities through the structures and forms of his work, through raw or eroded surfaces, skittered with graphic debris. In "Tabla," two young, barefoot children hold hands against a backdrop of distant threats to their innocence and safety: a silhouette of soldiers raising guns, the R-rating designation for a film, another row of soldiers, this time in video-game style pictographs.

Duarte draws with gorgeous facility and with an abiding sense of honesty. He brings to mind graphic artists like Kathe Kollwitz and Charles White, whose attentive renderings of the face and body in themselves express a kind of hope and faith in humanity. Duarte's figures have a purity about them, even as they navigate an impure world. The way they float among the scrap suggests vulnerability, but Duarte invests them -- as if wishing this upon the world -- with awareness of their innate self-worth.

Gallery 727, 727 S. Spring St., (213) 627-9563, through Sept. 30. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Acrylic paint and old lace

Mark Flood has devised a compelling method to make his recent paintings at SolwayJones, one that yields a loaded, unusual kind of beauty. He paints on sections of lace, imprints the shapes onto canvas, then removes the lace. The paintings are monoprints, really, one-of-a-kind impressions on painted grounds. Several aspects of the work are absorbing, though the total effect is somewhat less than the sum of those parts.

The interplay of textures and densities has immediate appeal. The lace impressions appear partially translucent, the pigments aqueous and variegated. The colors seem stained into the canvas. In contrast, the painted grounds they land on are opaque. Although the lace areas evoke dimensionality and sentiment, the grounds, however assertive their hues, are flat and functional, treated like leftover space. Small ridges in the paint, caused by pressing down on the lace, add some textural interest.

Flood, who lives in Houston, tears the lace that he uses, inviting a delicious tension into the works. Preciousness neighbors violation, the meticulous gives way to the hasty. In "Lantern," a lace tablecloth imprint, in soft tones of ivory, rust and mint, appears suspended like a makeshift curtain, hung by its edges. Its middle is ripped away, trailing scraggly threads and leaving a void of graduated blue in the center of the picture.

Their elaborate surface qualities belie the fact that these paintings are born of loss. The lace itself is steeped in nostalgic associations. Its being shredded intensifies those feelings. And however savory the visual results of the process, what's on the surface is a trace, the residue of what is now absent.

SolwayJones, 5377 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 937-7354, through Oct. 9. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Life-size illusionism

Fiction is a great delivery system for truth, even when that truth has to do primarily with appearances. Tracey Snelling, a Bay Area artist having her first L.A. show at Stephen Cohen, makes dark, playful, nostalgic work that pressures the boundaries between the real and represented.

Snelling builds miniature environments of old drive-in theaters, run-down motels and other tired-looking structures. Tiny light bulbs gleam inside, and neon signs blink on the outside. Recorded sound sometimes wafts through the spaces, and film montages play on the little TV and theater screens. She photographs the tabletop sculptures so that they appear to be in scale with the life-size built environment, and then displays the pictures and sculptures together. In one case, she also shows a photograph of a dusty Texas street that served as inspiration for some of the models.

The interwoven layers of illusionism amuse, to a point, but Snelling gets too self-consciously clever at times, like when she re-creates a San Antonio exhibition space that showed her work last year. She's filled the little building with miniatures of her miniatures and piped in a mix of ambient sounds and exhibition- opening chatter. An installation aiming to braid together an abbreviated landscape, a video projection and film snippets falls short too, failing to cohere as the "Psychological Thriller" its title promises.

Snelling is at her best in constructions like "Down," a small-scale re-creation of a corner of a scrappy building whose neon sign and graffiti broadcast its sorry condition. She keeps things simple, letting the miniaturized scale work its magic and allowing time's soulful patina -- however faked -- to unfurl narrative possibilities of its own, throwing in a whisper of wordplay to get the ball rolling.

The work has much in common with the dexterous, stage-set atmospherics of Michael McMillen. Snelling's nostalgia for vernacular architecture also recalls the photographs of Jeff Brouws, and her delight in the icons and textures of film culture (especially westerns, noir and thrillers) echoes the assemblages of Alexis Smith. With a tightening of focus and a bit more restraint, Snelling could snare the imagination even more.

Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., (323) 937-5525, through Nov. 6. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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Paintings epic in size and manner

Charles Garabedian devoted three years to making the two immense paintings now on view at L.A. Louver along with a few more moderate-size works on paper made later. Both paintings (12 by 24 feet and 13 by 25) are equally huge in emotional scope, epic and mythic in the Garabedian manner. Otherwise they complement each other, one a mildly frantic cinematic panorama, the other a more distilled, aching piece of poetry.

In "The Spring for Which I Longed" (2001-04), Garabedian positions two women, long-haired and naked, next to a sea of animate heft. The women come across as plain-faced sirens, alluring by nature, by gender, but not given to any special ploys of entrapment. The sea surges behind them, a fringe of cilia curling off a wave like eyelashes to the lone eye staring from the water. Fragments of a musical score are integrated into the water's white foam. Beach debris and artifacts (something that looks like ancient pottery, a sculpted stone head) litter the shore. Several island forms appear in the water nearby, while a craggy, head-like hillock rises on the horizon. A pale orb in the center of the sky doubles as a sun to the left side of the painting and a full moon to the right.

After the temporal and spatial combustion of "The Spring for Which I Longed," the other painting, "September Song" (2001-04) feels placid. It too is dense with energy, but of a more internalized sort. Here a nude man floats alone in a small boat. His eyes are closed, his one visible hand forming a fist. The sea around him buckles and crests, putting some distance between him and the fertile, hospitable island from which he may be exiled, or perhaps to which he is returning home. Along the distant horizon stretches a forbidding bank of ice, a glacier that emblematizes the man's stark solitude.

The smaller works on paper cannot help but look thin next to these deeply involving, physically embracing canvases. They have all of Garabedian's endearing clumsiness of style but little of his persistent eloquence, which so permeates the larger works.

L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-4955, through Oct. 9. Closed Sunday and Monday.

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