Freeways connect and divide

Special to The Times

The story of the freeway system in Los Angeles is a story of technology, progress and efficiency, but also destruction, displacement and dissociation, as homes were uprooted and neighborhoods severed to clear the way for those swift, ostensibly placeless corridors of concrete.

This concrete has since become an ecological force in its own right, directing the currents of urban life and upholding social boundaries, so ubiquitous as to be virtually invisible.

"Extracted," a shrewd, three-pronged project by Ruben Ochoa, explores the politics of concrete by playing with its visibility. Employing trompe l'oeil effects in a number of unexpected places, he encourages viewers to look more closely at the urban structures they may otherwise take for granted.

For the exhibition component of the project, at LAXART, Ochoa dropped what appears to be a massive chunk of freeway wall -- a slab of concrete 15 feet high, 18 feet wide and 14 inches deep -- directly in the viewer's path, propping it against one of the gallery's walls at a roughly 45-degree angle. Filling the space between the slab and the opposite wall is a tall mound of reddish dirt that blocks passage to the back of the gallery except through a precarious-looking tunnel beneath the slab.

It is an impressive and surprisingly elegant presentation, recalling Richard Serra's trademark slabs of steel and Walter de Maria's "New York Earth Room." Tempering brute force with a delicate sense of balance, the piece makes a strong case for including Ochoa in the venerable lineage of muscular Minimalists.

Or so it would seem. Proceed under the slab to the back of the gallery and you'll find that the entire structure is hollow, built around a wood and steel frame, covered in chicken wire and burlap and just enough dirt and bonding cement to convincingly coat the surface. It is a startling discovery that raises the curious question of which is ultimately more impressive: the macho wherewithal to drag all that dirt and concrete into the gallery or the elaborate engineering involved in faking it.

The second prong of the project is a billboard above the gallery featuring one of Ochoa's photographs -- an image of a cement barrier in a residential neighborhood -- covered with simulated graffiti, the most prominent example of which reads "disrup." (Related freeway photographs by Ochoa are also on view a few doors away at Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery.)

The third is a public work due to appear in a few weeks -- it's awaiting final city approval -- in which Ochoa will drape a 60-foot section of a retaining wall along the eastbound 10 Freeway (beneath North Soto and Marengo streets) with a photographic mural portraying the same wall with two large portions extracted to reveal the hillside beyond. An edition of lithographs based on the same image also is included in the LAXART exhibition.

It's heartening to see a public work that aims not to celebrate, decorate and pacify but to interrogate and challenge. Like the gallery installation, the piece illuminates the ideological power of these architectural structures only to undermine that power by gutting them. These are walls that shape the life of the city, protecting the rich from contact with the poor, dividing ethnic and cultural enclaves, exacerbating the alienation of commuters. To posit for even a moment, in just one spot on the long, bland stretch of the eastbound 10, the possibility of looking beyond these walls opens up an exhilarating opportunity for imagining the city differently.

LAXART, 2640 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 559-0166, through Oct. 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.laxart.org

Somehow, it's all connected

Inspired by a recent journey to Papua New Guinea, the paintings in young Oakland artist Tiffany Bozic's second solo exhibition at BLK / MRKT Gallery present glimpses of a fantastical ecosystem in which mammal, bird, insect and plant not only coexist but literally intertwine.

Superbly rendered in thin, almost translucent acrylic on smooth maple panels, the paintings have the air of Audubon-era nature illustrations but with a surrealist twist. Limbs and vines, bones and branches, roots and veins, flowers, fur and feathers mingle and morph into dense, organic clusters, set against stark, empty landscapes.

One of the finest examples is an untitled painting, roughly 2 feet square, of a white owl with a bloodied white mouse in its claws, hovering, wings spread, against a snowy white backdrop. A ribbon of feathery red blood vessels issues from the body of the mouse to wrap around the owl's claws; two additional ribbons spill from the owl's eyes, winding around each wing. Despite the shock of blood, it's a curiously peaceful image, pointing to the profound connectedness, even harmony, between predator and prey.

Also on view is a series of works made on black paper with white watercolor pencil and gouache, each depicting an elaborately arrayed tribal mask. Though equally skillful, these haven't the resonance of the animal paintings, feeling at times rather cartoonish.

Taken together, however, they speak to an impressive combination of imagination and talent, marking Bozic as an artist to watch.

BLK / MRKT Gallery, 6009 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 837-1989, through Oct. 21. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.blkmrktgallery.com

Hovering just at the periphery

It's difficult to pinpoint what makes "Interior Designer," Sterling Ruby's dizzy jumble of an exhibition at Marc Foxx Gallery, so appealing.

The initial draw stems largely from a few particularly seductive materials: red nail polish on foil paper and tinted Plexiglas in the paintings that line the perimeter of the gallery, and swirling red pigment frozen in blocks of resin in a handful of sculptures at the center.

The sculptures, which share the irresistible title "Absolute Contempt for Total Serenity," are particularly beautiful, as is a video in the back room that captures a similar process in motion. Blood is the ultimate eye-catcher, and Ruby plays up the suggestion of it here.

Step closer, however, and the appeal is more elusive, like something you're perpetually catching in your peripheral vision but that dissolves when you try to pin it down. Confronted individually, the paintings have a precocious air, as if refusing to live up to any particular expectation. They feel simultaneously calculated and haphazard, cluttered and spare, ponderous and slight. Their forms waver uneasily between linear and expressive, geometric and organic.

Equally precocious is the addition of four tall, pale Formica-covered monoliths that look like they were rescued from long neglect in the basement of a high school theater department. Defaced by the artist's graffiti-like scratchings and crowded unceremoniously into the already full gallery where they block sight lines to the other work, they are Modernist icons knocked off their pedestals -- or, you might say, reduced to pedestals themselves.

The effect is that of a project held on the verge of cohering -- and therein lies its charm. Despite a dozen solo shows already under his belt, Ruby is only one year out of grad school at Art Center College of Design and appears to be balancing between anything-goes enthusiasm and the development of a concrete conceptual cosmology, reluctant to give in either direction. The thrill of perpetual becoming underlies all of this work: the geometric/organic shapes, the swirling pigments, the snapshots of transvestites that grace some of the smaller paintings. This thrill draws the viewer through.

Marc Foxx Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 857-5571, through Oct. 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www .marcfoxx.com

Like a plunge into rippling blue

The image on the invitation for Peter Alexander's seventh solo show at Craig Krull Gallery is an iconic 1972 photograph of the artist in swim trunks, sailing through the air in a perfect swan dive. The picture, taken by Bryan Hunt, doesn't appear in the show and doesn't look anything like the paintings that do, but it gives you a pretty good sense of how it feels to encounter them.

Water has been the central theme of Alexander's work since at least 2001, when a residency at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica gave him three uninterrupted months to contemplate the essential nature of the swimming pool. Initially, this work focused on the effects of light across the surface of water -- a project that culminated in "Blue," the spectacular 48-foot painting hanging in the lobby of Walt Disney Concert Hall.

In the two large paintings that make up this show, however -- 8 by 8 feet and 5 by 12 feet, respectively, installed on opposite walls of the gallery -- Alexander moves beneath the surface to explore the effects of light filtering through the water. The result is equally dazzling. Made with oil paint and ink on aluminum, dusted with flakes of glittering metal and coated in glossy urethane, the works present rich, peaceful, seemingly bottomless pools of pigment.

One of the most accessible of L.A.'s 1960s-era pantheon, Alexander continues to prove himself one of the most rigorous -- if in a leisurely, poolside sort of way.

Craig Krull Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave. B3, Santa Monica, (310) 828-6410, through Oct. 14. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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