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Mocking the commercial aspect of contemporary art

Special to The Times

At Gagosian Gallery, “Franz West: Sale” mocks corporate culture’s tendency to emphasize packaging and promotion at the expense of the goods and services being packaged and promoted. And on one level, the Viennese artist’s first exhibition in Los Angeles since 1994 makes pointed fun of the fact that galleries are stores.

West takes this honest idea and runs with it, transforming the stylish salesrooms of the Richard Meier-designed gallery into a setting that recalls a yard sale. Chairs, tables and lamps, many made from recycled materials, are casually arranged amid a sofa and a love seat upholstered in raucous mix-and-match patterns. Wickedly amateurish paintings depicting heart-shaped strawberries, picnicking nudists and a shark devouring a swimmer decorate the walls.

Abstract sculptures made of paint-slathered papier-mache adorn various tabletops. “Caiphas & Kepler” rests on a stack of wood shipping palettes and resembles a pair of upside-down dancers. Three sausage-shaped sculptures dwarf everything else, their fat forms and cartoon colors making you feel like a kid again. Go ahead and climb on the two horizontal ones; they also function as funky benches. (West calls them amphibious and claims they float -- like Fred Flintstone air mattresses.) And sit on the furniture. Unlike much modern design, it’s surprisingly comfortable.

The relaxed atmosphere West creates is a refreshing respite from the suffocating slickness of corporate culture and the conservative pretensions of over-serious art. But these pleasures are fleeting. They fade when you consider the other artists’ works West’s pieces package and promote as their own.

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In the early 1960s, Claes Oldenburg made messy, paint-splattered sculptures of household items and displayed them in a New York storefront exhibition called “Store.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, San Diego-based Kim MacConnel transformed yard-sale furniture and thrift store finds into scrappy domestic ensembles by painting them with garish patterns and wild designs. And from the mid-'70s to the present, Jim Isermann has handcrafted rugs, chairs and wall hangings or overseen the production of tiles, wallpaper and chandeliers, bringing his brand of sophisticated idiosyncrasy to utilitarian things. Jorge Pardo and Pae White carry on this California-centered tradition, conflating art and design with provocative aplomb.

In this context, West’s works look old-fashioned, nostalgic, sentimental. They are fun but too conventional and mannered to escape the marketing machinery they make tongue-in-cheek fun of. Stylistically, they belong to the school of designer grunge. They give new meaning to the term “Eurotrash” but bring little innovation to Los Angeles.

Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through Oct. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.gagosian.com

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Adults intrude into make-believe

For a couple of years, my nieces couldn’t get enough of dressing up like little princesses. And then they were done with it, their desires suddenly too complicated to be satisfied by such simple role-playing.

Amy Adler’s new works at Acme Gallery memorialize the time in a young girl’s life when a cardboard tiara, a pair of plastic slippers and a polyester gown were all that was needed for an afternoon of happiness.

On six huge canvases in the main gallery, Adler has used pastel crayons to draw larger-than-life-size girls in chintzy gowns. Some look unself-conscious and self-possessed -- and you forget that you’re looking at a version of childhood filtered through another adult’s memories. The awkwardness of Adler’s draftsmanship intensifies this impression, and the anonymous blonds on purple, orange and green backgrounds seem to inhabit their own worlds.

In the other drawings, on solid expanses of crayon red, yellow and blue, it appears as if the girls have been posed, that they are merely going through the motions of carefree childhoods. They become props for pushy parents or other immature relatives whose own needs and fantasies get in the way of the girls’ games of “let’s pretend.”

In the past, Adler emphasized the complexity of our relationship to images and the people they depict by making drawings from photographs, which she then photographed before destroying the original drawing and the negative from which the final photograph was printed. Her new works are more direct. But they still give play to a confusion between media and dramatize how various types of representation shape what we see.

In the back gallery, five smaller pastels on canvas depict 1980s beefcakes. Posing like economy versions of the Village People, the muscular men smile with all-American wholesomeness, their blow-dried hair capturing the era’s fashions. Sweet, campy and one-dimensional, these works lack the bittersweet vulnerability of Adler’s pictures of little girls, which resonate on many levels.

Acme, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-5942, through Oct. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.acmelosangeles.com

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Freewheeling yet taut sculptures

Since the 1960s, Lynda Benglis has worked with just about everything out there. Pouring puddles of multicolored plastic, extruding blobs of polyurethane foam, casting massive lumps of bronze and knotting wads of plaster-saturated fabric (often sprinkled with glitter), she has turned an impressive inventory of materials into sculptures that seem to be bursting out of their skins.

The ceramic sculptures Benglis made in the mid-1990s are no exception. At Frank Lloyd Gallery, 12 of these furiously energized forms, each about the size of a modest vase, show the veteran post-Minimalist at the top of her game, making mundane substances do things that excite the imagination. The mind scrambles to keep up with their antics.

“Apache Mojave” is a tightly wound work, its curved surfaces covered with grooves, gullies and roughly serrated edges. Some are slathered with glistening glazes: coral blue, vibrant lime and melted ice-cream white. Nooks and crannies reveal the baked clay, its muted tans sometimes scorched or burned black. The sculpture resembles the sun-baked detritus of a blown tire that has come back to life as a mutant snake, its treaded shreds slithering, coiling, preparing to strike.

Other pieces recall inside-out flowers (“Terracotta Rolled Helmet”), birthday cakes that have exploded in the oven (“Olla”), sea serpents (“Hanakwa”), discarded shells of strange crustaceans (“Warm Spring Band Knot Hat”), graceful meteorites (“First Flat Black Landscape”), bulbous barnacles (“Leaded Moss Knot”) and preliminary sketches for buildings by Frank Gehry (“Winner (Warrior) )” and “Ruptured Hat / Knot A”).

Benglis unleashes freewheeling yet formally taut works. Her first exhibition in Los Angeles since 1991 puts the awe back into “awesome” while never letting you forget that the just plain awful is at the bottom of the slippery slope across which her art dances.

Frank Lloyd Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 264-3866, through Oct. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.franklloyd.com

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Accessible riot of lines and forms

Pae White’s new mobiles, sculptures and wallpaper bring back a good deal of the cheesy goofiness that has been purged from midcentury Modernist design over the last two decades. As modest, inexpensively constructed homes have been transformed into pristine masterpieces, the oddball tchotchkes that originally adorned their tabletops and bookshelves have disappeared, swept away to reveal the streamlined sleekness of the architecture.

At 1301PE Gallery, the spirit behind the ceramic ashtrays, blown glass animals and funky bookends that once interrupted the geometric precision of Modernist homes is resurrected, bigger and better than ever before and tough enough to take on contemporary prejudice against quirky pleasures and loopy extras.

White’s two largest works consist of dozens of wires she has strung with hexagon-shaped panes of colored glass and hung from the ceiling so they nearly reach the floor. Like oversize wind chimes, these light-catching sculptures celebrate middle-class accessibility, do-it-yourself craftsmanship and the loveliness of wind-blown serendipity.

In five smaller pieces, White has woven and wrapped multicolored wires of various diameters around one another to form loose cubes and asymmetrical rectangles in which she has placed similar nested forms or paper cutouts of birds. These 3-D drawings recall Alan Saret’s post-Minimal sculptures -- light-industrial tumbleweeds that convey transience and fragility.

A riot of lines likewise make up White’s two samples of digitally printed wallpaper. “Farewell garland, so long” and “farewell garland, adieu adieu” spell out their titles so many times in so many fonts that the message gets garbled in the playful tangle. Like all of White’s works, the beauty is in the details, which are too rich, unpredictable and sensual to even think of streamlining.

1301PE, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 938-5822, through Nov. 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.1301PE.com


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