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On a scavenger hunt

Special to The Times

NINE years ago, Chris Finley exhibited several paintings by hiding two in a corridor that was too narrow to enter and placing another behind a high wall. To see it, viewers had to bounce on a trampoline.

The 34-year-old Northern Californian is up to similar antics in a new installation at ACME Gallery, his 11th L.A. solo show since 1993. “The Friggin’ Curve” is a wacky scavenger hunt filled with silly surprises, mindful delights and Finley’s signature humor: an unpretentious blend of country-bumpkin charm and avant-garde savvy that is just the antidote for the world-weary.

From the gallery’s rafters, Finley has strung a crisscrossing system of pulleys and a long, taut cable. The pulleys allow visitors to raise five spindly wooden sculptures overhead by hooking the opposite ends of the strings behind little paintings hinged to the walls.

Raising the lightweight sculptures, which Finley has titled “Kites,” clears a path for “The Primary Compulsion,” a dirigible-like sculpture attached to the cable. A leash and a key dangle from the dirigible’s nose. To unlock the door to the second gallery, viewers must pull the sculpture from one end of the gallery to the other. (It returns on its own, descending the angled cable like a funicular.)

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The loopy, low-tech interactivity continues in the second gallery with “The Secondary Compulsion -- Sloth Arm Exposure Device.” A cross between a Maypole, beach umbrella and TV antenna, this work allows viewers to raise five other paintings hinged to the second gallery’s walls. Hidden behind them are five abstract drawings. Teamwork is required to see them up close.

The physical activity Finley’s art requires is the tip of the iceberg. As sculpture, “Kites” hold its own. Imagine the Russian Constructivists Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner collaborating with the Wright Brothers -- and then having their designs altered by Lee Bontecou and Santiago Calatrava.

Finley’s paintings are even stranger -- the misbegotten offspring of early 20th century Cubo-Futurism and early 21st century computer graphics. Marcel Duchamp’s biggest fans barely tolerate his early paintings, and only then because his later Conceptual works were based on their rejection. Finley upends such either/or thinking by making Duchamp’s abstract paintings the source of his own manically animated art.

Chunks of wood whittled by Finley’s father find their way into his works. So do gray hairs plucked from his own head. And the names of strangers he picks from phonebooks because they must have been picked on as children: Denise Cornfoot, Calvin Dang, Ellen Bolong and Mark Crapeau. In Finley’s world of far-fetched connections and far-out coincidences, there’s room for everything, including redemption.

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ACME Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-5942, through March 11. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.acmelosangeles.com

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Getting creative with smear tactics

Olivia Booth’s paintings are not much to look at: sheets of glass propped against the walls and smeared with what appears to be body ointments or machine lubricants. Think of a preschooler at the kitchen table, doodling in spilled milk and adding grape jelly and maple syrup just for kicks.

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But there’s so much to see in Booth’s weirdly beautiful works that you stop looking at them for how they were made and start seeing them for the ways they engineer delicious visual experiences that are ongoing and unpredictable. It’s quickly clear that looking at things and really seeing them are profoundly different. Booth’s supple art rewards viewers who take the time to do the latter.

At Mandarin Gallery, her solo debut consists of seven pieces, none of which behaves like any other. Each occupies space differently, sometimes leaning against the wall (or front window) from a tabletop, shelf or wedge of wood. One angles out from the wall, like a fragment of a revolving door, its bottom edge affixed to the floor by a gob of glistening silicone. Another is secured in a metal frame and still another is set in a clunky wood structure.

“Wilmarth Piece” is all flickering motion. Your eye flits between the clear acrylic smears on the glass and the shadows they cast on the wall behind. It’s difficult to see both simultaneously; the ricocheting movement charges the space with the visual equivalent of static electricity. If you move an inch or two, the play between light and shadow creates elusive forms, some resembling gigantic chrysanthemums and others seeming to describe a fly’s tangled flight patterns.

“Pink Piece” recalls works by John McCracken and Richard Allen Morris. Booth’s 4-inch-wide, 4-foot-tall abstraction is an upended landscape that moves from dawn to dusk. Its rhythms are graceful and delicate and wonderfully unimpressed with themselves.

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Each of her other works, including “Piranesi’s Gimbles” and “Square Dance Piece,” engages viewers differently, sometimes luring your eye into dense, vertiginous swirls and at other times inviting goofy gambols. Many young artists go out of their way to make bodies of work that look different from one another. It’s exciting to see someone stick to a set repertoire of materials and get so much out of them that you see something different every time you look past the surface.

Mandarin Gallery, 970 N. Broadway, Suite 213, L.A., (213) 687-4107, through Feb. 25. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays.

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Color and texture as playthings

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Alexander Ross’ big pictures of little blobs of carefully worked Plasticine make a terrific first impression. The colors pop. The surfaces luxuriate with the rich sensuality of exquisitely mixed oil on canvas. And the forms fascinate, creating endless opportunities for the imagination to romp around the padded playground of soft-core Surrealism while the mind nods at the brainy ideas and big-ticket painters Ross’ art invokes.

Considerable fun is to be had if you enjoy finding images in clouds. The four untitled paintings at Daniel Weinberg Gallery are super-realistic depictions of Martian green meteorites floating before baby blue backdrops, which resemble tidied up versions of the squiggles in yesteryear’s psychedelia. Lipstick red barnacles, meandering tendrils, numerous protuberances, more numerous craters and all manner of orifices cover the surfaces of Ross’ Play-Doh-like blobs. The seven drawings explore compositional details.

A second look, however, leads to second thoughts. One of the problems with Ross’ paintings is that they are overachievers. Both abstract and representational, they are based in sculpture and photography. They are organic and artificial, at once portraits and landscapes, microscopic and cosmic, benign and malignant. Every detail makes sense. There is no room for accidents or for happenstance, much less for chaos or confusion.

There is room for fun and there is room for seriousness. But the two experiences do not mingle. Neither informs the other nor fuels its fires. Instead, the physical pleasure of looking and the cerebral pleasure of knowing are segregated. What should be sexy comes off as cute. Think Terry Winters by way of Carroll Dunham by way of Jonathan Lasker. It’s a stifling pedigree, despite all the hard work.

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Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 6148 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 954-8425, through March 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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Able to capture invisible moments

Cole Case’s exhibition of nine little pictures at Western Project is an odd travelogue that takes viewers back to a time when cellphones weren’t cameras and people were not so likely to treat life as one big photo opportunity. Each oil on canvas captures a quiet little thrill, an unpredictable epiphany that comes too quickly to be photographed and is invisible anyway.

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There’s nothing special about Cole’s subjects: a stretch of freeway, a slice of beach, a lump of countryside and a slew of billboards advertising dopey roadside attractions. If these paintings were snapshots, most folks would not bother to print them, much less put them in albums.

But the way Cole paints makes his otherwise incidental pictures, like “Dish,” “I5" and “Achille Lauro,” stick in the mind’s eye.

He begins by simplifying: eliminating inessential details, streamlining forms and restricting his palette to a handful of supersaturated colors -- mostly radiant blues, dazzling greens, velvety blacks and sun-licked yellows. Next he sketches the contours of the objects in an image, as if he were making a paint-by-number diagram. He fills in these shapes, sometimes applying paint thickly, sometimes smoothly, sometimes with juicy brushstrokes and at other times dry-brushing one color over another to get a feathery effect.

The techniques Cole uses to depict concrete, foliage, water, sky, fences and electrical towers offer comically crude approximations of the actual textures and tones of these things. This gives his work the crystalline giddiness of Pixar animations and the offbeat feel of outsider art. In the image glut of modern life, Cole’s paintings provide a rare treat of lovely lumpen lyricism.

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Western Project, 3830 Main St., Culver City, (310) 838-0609, through March 18. Closed Saturdays and Sundays. www.western-project.com


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