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Summer sampler has a dark side

Special to The Times

“Rogue Wave ’05: Nineteen Artists From Los Angeles” is a potent show loaded with sculptures, videos, paintings, drawings and digital prints by well-known artists and others just out of graduate school. Efficiently installed indoors and outdoors on the first and second floors of L.A. Louver Gallery, its 52 works include more hits than is typical of such summer samplers. Los Angeles is too big an art center to be defined by movements or "-isms,” but “Rogue Wave” puts its finger on the pulse of much of contemporary art, here and elsewhere. Call it the apocalyptic carnivalesque.

On the ground floor, the mood is set by the sounds of helicopters and sirens, which spill from Joe Sola’s video projection in a darkened back gallery. “More Cinematic Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire” shows black smoke billowing from the institution, crowds gathering outside, news helicopters circling and firetrucks arriving with lights flashing and sirens blaring.

Sola’s cleverly engineered spoof has the look of reality TV. It updates Ed Ruscha’s famous painting “The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire” (1968). Like that barbed picture, the young artist’s looped scene brings a grin to your face that is anything but innocent. Humor and horror dance through the mind.

Grim fascination is elicited throughout the first-floor galleries. It’s embodied most provocatively in Tanya Batura’s extraordinarily realistic heads made of clay and painted so impeccably they seem untouched by human hands. Designed to disturb, the three lifesize sculptures are too beautiful to do only that.

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Drew Dominick’s model-size sculptures of a snowmobile, a chieftain on horseback and a pierced jackrabbit bring a Mad Max sensibility to art and history. Made of scraps of cardboard, foam core, drywall, lumps of clay and what appear to be giant spitballs, these grungy works treat sculptures by Joseph Beuys as the mirror image of those by Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington, who mythologized the Wild West in the same way the German artist made up wild stories about life in Western Europe.

Kelly McLane’s 16-foot-long painting on paper surveys a wasteland of worn tires, abandoned aircraft, ruined buildings and log bridges. Inhabited by cougars, elephants and pit bulls, her futuristic world is also filled with painterly flourishes and lightning-like draftsmanship, suggesting that art is not a hothouse flower but an indestructible weed.

An undertow of anxiety tugs at the abstract works. The burnt edges of Mark Bradford’s silvery collage seem elegiac. The bright colors and playful shapes in Mindy Shapero’s crafty sculpture cannot keep obsessiveness or compulsiveness at bay, transforming even simple activities into traps.

Upstairs, a circus sideshow atmosphere dominates, but it does not eliminate the darkness. You hear it before you see it: Rhythmic drumbeats spill from a side gallery, where “Parade Video Installation #1" plays continuously. Created by a duo who call themselves B&T;, this trippy video-in-a-tent harks back to the 1960s but without the high hopes of the Summer of Love. Chilly, mesmerizing and clear-eyed about the inroads corporate culture has made into the soul of creativity, it pounds out a frightening and fascinating vision.

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Nathan Mabry’s two fired-clay sculptures resemble the offspring of an ancient fertility figure and a frat-house prank. Lucas Reiner’s three paintings of trees trimmed to within inches of their lives have the pathos of circus freaks and the stubbornness of survivalists.

In this context, stylish images by Sean Higgins, Violet Hopkins and Christopher Pate (the gallery’s chief preparator and co-curator of the exhibition) look more ominous than they would on their own. They’re not quite threatening but too in touch with destruction to be merely pretty pictures.

Not so long ago, art seemed to be either dark or light -- dedicated to exposing life’s ugly underbelly or celebrating its joyous highlights. In contrast, “Rogue Wave” captures the complexities of the present, when events are often the opposite of what they are made out to be, and nothing is as simple as it looks.

L.A. Louver Gallery, 45 N. Venice Blvd., (310) 822-4955, through Sept. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.lalouver.com

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She really knows how to fill a room

Sometimes less is more, although not in the ways Modernist architects claimed when they sought to eliminate ornament and reference from their minimalist buildings. At Regen Projects, Liz Larner’s abstract sculptures flirt with ornamentation and hint at storytelling. But rather than wallop visitors with such overburdened effects, her new works prefer the delicacy of the light touch.

A master of suggestive gestures, Larner has fabricated fragile, physically slight objects that command every cubic inch of the massive gallery while occupying a very small percentage of its literal dimensions. Think molecules and atoms, not slabs of steel or chunks of concrete.

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As every schoolkid knows, the objects around us are made up more of empty space than anything else. The same goes for Larner’s works, all of which have emptiness at their centers.

They come in three sizes. The smallest consist of interlinked ellipses made of gold and silver-plated steel. Eight medium-size pieces, all titled “Smile,” resemble boats kids used to make by folding newspapers. One of the two largest works, titled “RWBs,” is an approximately 7- by- 10-foot tangle of bent aluminum tubing festooned with red, white and blue bunting, bandannas and handlebar pads.

Indebted to Nancy Rubins’ heavyweight assemblages of used airplane parts and Cady Noland’s sculptures of addled Americana, Larner’s Medusa-like piece has the presence of a tumbleweed from outer space -- forlorn, synthetic, suggestive of a world beyond anyone’s control. The largest piece is more menacing -- a swath of pure blackness that runs across part of the floor, up the wall, across the ceiling and down the middle of the gallery, forming a circuit of light-absorbing nothingness. Made of rubber, paint and ink-saturated paper, “Diamond Deserts” tugs everything toward its center, where Larner has installed most of her other works.

Sculptures within a sculpture build upon Constantin Brancusi’s elegant blurring of the boundary between pedestal and the art atop it. Larner takes the logical next step, luring the imagination into action with works that seem to be parts of larger structures.

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Regen Projects, 633 N. Almont Drive, (310) 276-5424, through July 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Angst may hover, but fun prevails

Sebastian Ludwig’s new paintings purge the excesses of German Expressionism without losing any of that style’s visual energy or emotional high jinks. Born in 1977, the Dusseldorf-based painter has a lot to live up to: The angst-ridden gestures of Expressionism have been recycled so many times that their charge has expired.

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Ludwig manages to make fresh, vibrant paintings by embracing decorative patterning (once anathema to Expressionist authenticity). An ethos of make-do adaptation also suffuses his ingenious works.

At Patrick Painter Inc., Ludwig’s first solo show outside of Germany gets off to a great start with a big horizontal image of a farm boy in the foreground of a barren field. Standing with hands in pants pockets, the Tom Sawyer-like figure surveys the aftermath of a cataclysmic disaster; two concrete turrets rest at odd angles, having fallen to Earth from an enormous warplane or distant explosion.

In the main gallery, seven larger paintings go to the dogs. Ludwig has painted packs of hounds running, hunting and howling. He has compressed illusionistic space into densely packed planes. They form fantastic landscapes filled with abstract scaffolding, geometric patterning and sturdy fencing.

But the way Ludwig lays down paint and rips it up steals the show. He masks off sections of each canvas with ordinary tape, splashes paint freely, then tears off the tape. Repeating the process several times, he builds images that resemble rough-and-tumble etchings or woodblock prints. The crudeness of the process disappears into paintings that look as if they have been to hell and back and are wiser for it.

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Patrick Painter Inc., 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 264-5988, through July 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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A pattern to his patternlessness

One way to insult a painter is call his work wallpaper. But if you dismiss Miller Updegraff’s new paintings as innocuous decoration dispensed by the roll, the joke’s on you.

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At Gallery 825 Bergamot Annex, 13 deceptively simple acrylics on canvas turn elements of domestic interiors into fascinating forays into the mind’s capacity to see order where there isn’t any. Updegraff’s paintings resemble swatches of wallpaper in a high-end store. But something uncanny catches the eye.

Despite a restricted palette of ivory, russet, gold, vermillion and midnight blue and a limited number of stylized plant silhouettes, no patterns or repeated clusters of stalks, leaves and buds can be found in Updegraff’s art.

He has managed to beat pattern at its own game, transforming its absence into a supple organizing principle that’s experienced as expansiveness.

Gallery 825 Bergamot Annex, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bldg. E-2, Santa Monica, (310) 652-8272, through July 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.laaa.org

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