An untitled group show organized by painter Kristin Calabrese gives viewers plenty of insights into her sensibility without giving anything away. You have to do a fair share of work to figure out what links the paintings, sculptures and one outdoor installation by the 13 artists, but that's part of the pleasure of this free-form show at the Honor Fraser Gallery.
At a time when multi-artist exhibitions regularly divide into two groups -- tediously meaningful theme shows that use art to illustrate big ideas and laissez-faire mishmashes in which meaning takes a back seat to test-the-market salesmanship -- Calabrese's show stands out because it makes a place for confusion.
Rather than treating doubt and uncertainty as problems to be eliminated, her nameless show emphasizes the physical nature of visual experience. It invites the imagination into action and demonstrates that intuition is as powerful a force as the logic of rational argument.
Conventional wisdom holds that if artists want to be taken seriously as curators, they leave their own works out of the show. That's the first rule Calabrese breaks. The show starts with "In Between the Cracks," Calabrese's approximately 3-by- 4 1/2 -foot painting of a blue sky seen through cracked glass, perhaps a windshield or a picture window. Along some of the spider-webbed fissures Calabrese has painted crocheted strands of red yarn.
Intellectually, the beautifully rendered image doesn't make much sense. Why would someone crochet a pattern that echoes the cracks in safety glass? To repair the damage? Suggest bloodshed? Soften the blow? Create a silent echo?
And what holds gravity at bay, keeping the yarn from sliding down the transparent glass? Contemplating an answer to that question is disturbing: The yarn rests on the glass because both lie horizontally, which may well mean that you are lying on your back, like Sleeping Beauty, looking up toward the heavens through a glass-covered coffin.
The physical tension between expansive summer sky and a sense of deadly confinement creates the odd poetry that gives Calabrese's piece its edge. Her picture calls to mind works by Peter Alexander, Joe Goode, Vija Celmins and Louise Bourgeois, all of which bring mystery within arm's reach without diminishing its power. None of the other works in the show looks like Calabrese's. But like hers, the best ones create complex spaces that pull your eyes and mind off the beaten path.
Brenna Youngblood's spray-painted collage of color photographs looks like a 3-D assemblage by Robert Rauschenberg that has been run over by a bus. Its deliciously sensual stew of imagery, including an illuminated light bulb and several small fans, is both down-to-earth and otherworldly.
Katie Grinnan's "Nitrogen Narcosis" is a spindly totem made of bamboo, laminated particle board and resin-soaked swaths of canvas that she has cut and folded to resemble the fronds of fan palms. The 8-foot-tall sculpture, complete with photo-collage backdrop, has the presence of a miniature windmill or a set of oversize, homemade Tinker Toys. Its post-apocalyptic menace is tempered by its nutty joyousness.
Nikko Mueller's acrylic-on-canvas ricochets between abstraction and representation, sometimes taking the shape of a benign decoration and at others seeming to be a creepy picture of suburban sprawl. Theme parks, industrial warehouses and tidy backyards conspire to create an Orwellian atmosphere of poisonous beauty.
Mary Heilmann's two-tone painting and Glenn Goldberg's 7-foot-tall picture of a 7-foot-tall flower look simple: flat, diagrammatic, even dumb. But each manages to pack loads of intrigue into its crude marks, suggesting the presence of worlds within worlds that leave viewers ample room to maneuver.
Nina Bovasso, Heather Brown and Mark Grotjahn likewise strive try to make works that have their feet firmly planted in more than one world. But their paintings feel forced. They lack the delicate touch that lets the magic happen as if by accident.
Rebecca Morris, JP Munro and Matt Chambers are even less successful, their works too aggressively focused and visually unified to be more than illustrations of ideas -- some good, some bad, but all of them too self-consciously controlled to leave room for serendipity.
Susie Rosmarin's precisely painted geometric abstraction shares so little with everything else in the show that you can't help but think that Calabrese included it as a sort of monkey wrench -- as something thrown into the mix to ensure that it doesn't come off as formulaic. The show has a life of its own, an unpredictable give and take that compels viewers to see the world with fresh eyes.
Honor Fraser Gallery, 1337 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 401-0191, through Sept. 27. Closed Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. www.honorfraser.com
No distinguishing traits on display
"Mongrel" is a four-artist exhibition that doesn't live up to its name. Most of its works at the Sixteen:One Gallery are so focused on establishing their pedigrees -- by flaunting direct references to artistic forebears -- that they leave themselves too little room to be mongrels: boldly independent critters whose street savvy more than makes up for their lack of breeding.
Chris Lipomi's 8-foot-tall sculpture, made from big pointed sticks, a little spiral of illuminated neon and an inflatable pool toy, shows promise. But the artist has painted this blown-up lobster in the manner of Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose looming shadow overpowers Lipomi's otherwise wonderfully weird work.
One of the pieces by Kathryn Andrew, who organized the show, features a framed advertisement for a Haim Steinbach exhibition at the Sonnabend Gallery and a pair of slickly painted pieces of wood leaning against the wall in the manner of John McCracken's planks. Andrew's sources are far more interesting than what she does with them.
The same goes for her other two works. "Naked Woman -- Pole Dancer #4" is a neon sign she rented and hung in the gallery. "Response to Naked Woman -- Pole Dancer #4" is a neon abstraction, five vertical blue "poles" affixed to a glossy black panel.
Stephanie Taylor's silk-screened image of five redheads is a generic version of San Francisco skateboard graffiti, its rough edges tidied up. And her sound piece, played over two speakers in the courtyard, gets lost amid the traffic noise.
Donald Morgan's sculpture is indebted to works by Evan Holloway and Jason Meadows. But Morgan's idiosyncratic piece, made of Formica, foam, cement and cork, plays positive and negative space against each other like no one's business, wrestling enough space to make its own mongrel mark on the world.
Sixteen:One Gallery, 2116 Pico Blvd., Unit B, Santa Monica, (310) 450-4394, through Sept. 8. Open Thursdays through Saturdays. www.16to1.com
Comforting in its mediocrity
If you're downtown and need some respite, head over to the gallery at SCI-Arc, where an installation by the internationally renowned architectural firm Hodgetts + Fung provides a soothing escape from the heat, noise and craziness of the street.
The darkened room, adorned with back-lighted wall treatments whose sizes range from Frisbee to garbage can lid, is no deluxe refuge. There's no furniture, but the smooth floor is cool and clean. The soundtrack, by Seth Weiner, is muted: A cut above white noise or the hum of air conditioners, it muffles more annoying sounds without calling too much attention to itself.
And the array of 168 gray aluminum ovals that Craig Hodgetts and Hsin-Ming Fung have affixed to the walls in rows and columns functions similarly -- as innocuous decor that sets a perfectly pleasant mood.
Their work, whose title is a play on the word "chiaroscuro," refers to that artistic technique of using light and shadow to suggest volume. But instead of creating spatial illusions, their monochrome installation remains flat. It recalls the soothing glow of computer monitors and the emotional detachment built into such streamlined tools.
As art, the virtual Light and Space installation falls flat. It neither requires nor rewards the perceptual acuteness needed to appreciate, say, a Robert Irwin disk. And it embodies none of the rigorous optimism of Jim Isermann's groundbreaking works.
Hodgetts + Fung's installation mixes design and art ineffectively. Like Baroque Minimalism or an elaborately decorated sensory deprivation chamber, it is a neither-fish-nor-fowl hybrid that is far from innovative -- and all the more comforting for its mediocrity.
SCI-Arc, 960 E. 3rd St., L.A., (213) 613-2200, through Sept. 28. Open daily. www .sciarc.edu
If you like to be treated like a kid
The centerpiece of Minerva Cuevas' half-baked exhibition at the MC Gallery is a wall-size video projection of a handsome little boy reading a children's book about a rich man, a poor man and a mosquito that bites both.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the moral of the story: that no man is an island, that every member of society is connected to everyone else and that the health and welfare of all humanity is inextricably bound up with the health and welfare of its poorest members.
But if you're no longer a preschooler, you will probably be put off by Cuevas' well-meaning work -- unless you like being condescended to. That's the beauty of the art market -- it serves every type of taste, the naive alongside the sophisticated.
The book in Cuevas' video is a terrific work of art. Made for children, it combines images and text, the good and the bad, to challenge their understanding of their surroundings and those around them.
The video pales in comparison.
Treating adults like kids is no way to get a message across, no matter how laudable it is.
MC Gallery, 6086 Comey Ave., L.A., (323) 939-3777, through Sept. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.mckunst.com