Never odder, never better

Special to The Times

Marcelo Pombo's paintings have always been strange: luscious, labor-intensive hallucinations in which every blade of grass -- and every molecule in every blade -- is abuzz with so much visual energy that it becomes a world unto itself, well worth a visit and a thrill to get lost in.

At the Christopher Grimes Gallery, Pombo's nine new paintings are flat-out weird. Trippy, exquisite and sophisticated, as well as hokey, haunting and lovely, they are the best works the 47-year-old Argentine has made.

In the main gallery, the five large ones (each is about 40 by 60 inches) have the presence of tole ware on steroids. Pombo paints with enamel on panel. The sheen of his vividly tinted pigments makes the surfaces of his meticulously wrought pictures shimmer.

He applies paint in layers, sometimes mixing various colors in swirls that resemble the offspring of melted ice cream and toxic spills.

At other times, he uses syringes to drip individual droplets atop one another, forming concentric rings of color that resemble microscopic versions of the planet Saturn.

And, new to this body of work, Pombo combines the two techniques. Using fine brushes, toothpicks and tiny beakers, he paints, draws and pours his viscous liquids to create dense and delicate patterns that make his panels seem to be embossed, more like low-relief sculptures than two-dimensional images.

Described in words, Pombo's pictures are too corny to take seriously. But in person, they are too devoted to detail to be dismissed as silly.

In one, a cartoon-style deer stares you in the eye, a benign smile on its innocent face and six gorgeous floral paintings growing from its antlers. In another, a stylized owl, which seems to have been drawn by a child or a folk artist, is depicted in flight, every speckle on every feather unbelievably sharp, as if caught by a stop-action camera. Its talons wrap around an empty picture frame made of woven vines that seem to be alive -- and growing by the minute.

The other three paintings show a block-headed phoenix with plumage more glorious than a fireworks display; a leafless tree afloat on a gigantic ice cube, its branches holding six nests, each with an abstract painting in place of an egg; and a gigantic fence made of garishly gorgeous jewelry, each glistening bauble a symphony of visual delight. If Henri Rousseau had collaborated with Faberge, these are the paintings they might have made.

The four smaller works in the back gallery are even nuttier. Two depict what seem to be intergalactic ghost ships drifting over alien landscapes. Each fantastic vessel is a jumble of masts, antennae and rigging, its sails replaced with a cornucopia of garlands, party streamers, beaded necklaces, decorative lights, grinning flowers, coral reefs and picture frames.

The other two paintings are the bluntest and most unnerving. Each is a portrait of a masked figure -- or an alien with no nose, mouth or ears -- wearing an elaborate headdress from which fanciful ornaments and dazzling mandalas emerge symmetrically. These images are curiously engaging, both endearing and off-putting, primitive and futuristic, vulnerable and potent.

All of Pombo's paintings converse with a wide range of similarly obsessive contemporaries, including Michael Lazarus, Lari Pittman, Wendell Gladstone, Sharon Ellis, Bruce Conner and Kevin Appel. Pombo's uniqueness is to fuse what feels like the strictness of arcane rituals with the loopiness of cartoons, making odd pictures that capture the emotional complexity of the present.

Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through July 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Paintings intended to be savored

If diminished attention spans and knee-jerk reactions define the times, Tom Knechtel is a throwback to an earlier era. His three new paintings at Marc Selwyn Fine Art are among today's slowest.

Each mid-size oil on linen requires viewers to pause and look closely, committing lots of information to memory and retrieving it as their eyes weave around the serpentine story lines Knechtel has laid out with the precision of a miniaturist. His exquisitely detailed images disclose their meanings even more slowly, requiring viewers to think long and hard about such big ideas as pleasure and suffering, revenge and forgiveness, mortality and its consequences.

Slower still is Knechtel's pace in the studio. His last solo show was five years ago -- a magnificent 25-year survey organized by Anne Ayres. By normal measures, the number of works in his current show -- three paintings, six pastels on paper and six preparatory drawings -- would suggest laziness or artist's block.

But that's not the case with Knechtel. He not only marches to the beat of his own drum but packs so much enchantment into its deliberate rhythm that every one of his paintings is well worth the wait. Think of them as unhurried bandwagons jampacked with long-lasting thrills.

"The Cart" depicts four orange horses pulling a massive black cart with more compartments than a transcontinental train. There's room for a zoo; a raucous tea party; an indolent horseman; a giant tiger festooned with Christmas lights; four pistols firing skyward; an octopus sinking a steamship; a garden of fanciful, gravity-defying trees; a couple of desktop computers and much, much more.

"The Walled City" packs an even larger number of stories and styles into its composition, layering and juxtaposing silhouettes, diagrams, linear patterns and 3-D illusionism to form just the right balance between chaos and freedom. "Baba Yaga Yuga" leaves lots of loose ends as it tells the tale of a man who is crushed by a walking house, transformed into a fish and reborn as a man who then shoots the house and starts the story over.

Knechtel's pencil drawings reveal some of the steps involved in the evolution of his paintings. His pastels portray horses so sensitively that it's hard not to see them as equals: sentient thinkers doing their best to make sense of life's absurdities.

But his paintings are the stars of the show. A far cry from the win-lose simplicity of much public discourse, they hold out the promise of better times and places.

Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 101, L.A., (323) 933-9911, through June 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Creating intimacy amid anonymity

Brian Calvin is a master of exaggeration and restraint. His seven new paintings at the Marc Foxx Gallery show that he knows just what to play up and what to play down to get the most mileage from seemingly simple pictures -- acrylic on canvas caricatures -- of infinitely complex things: women.

Cliches pile up like train wrecks in "Thing (I)," "Sky" and "Coatcheck." Each depicts a slender, doe-eyed Asian woman of indeterminate age with a delicate chin, loads of face powder and a basic hairdo adorned with an elaborate arrangement of flowers, feathers, ribbons, baubles, shells, sequins, beads and what appears to be a stuffed dove. Each woman stares stoically, pressing her full lips together, not quite in a frown but exuding a mixture of sadness, resignation and grim determination that makes her otherwise inexpressive eyes come alive with the slightest glimmer of hope, vulnerability, fear.

The young Western women in "Sunny," "Straight Up," "Guard (I)" and "Guard (II)" look like slacker supermodels, pretty women too world-weary to bother with the rat race, and all the more attractive for it. Fewer accouterments and simpler setups distinguish these paintings from Calvin's modernized geishas. But their closed-mouth, doe-eyed ennui links the two groups in spirit and sensibility.

At once flat-footed and deft, Calvin's Pop pictures manage to transform stereotypes into opportunities for empathy. The standard opposition between individual and type -- which once determined the success of a portrait -- disappears in his uncanny pictures.

These are the most substantial works Calvin has made, in terms of both the solidity of their figures and the emotions they trigger. Their subject is not individual identity but social intimacy. That is art's enduring subject, even if it seems, these days, to be in short supply.

Marc Foxx Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-5571, through June 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

A view through peripheral vision

Jeff Gambill's new paintings give concrete form to elusive experiences. But unlike a lot of abstract art, his quietly captivating works are subdued and cool. For the inaugural exhibition of the Sam Lee Gallery, titled "... and out of the corner of my eye

Peripheral vision is better equipped to discern motion than texture, color and shape, so Gambill has minimized the latter and emphasized the former. Light flickers across his surfaces. Blurs occur frequently, and to significantly different effects.

Sometimes it seems as if you are peering into the dark. Other paintings have the presence of overexposed photographs, of sunlight bleaching a landscape, flattening objects and making depth perception difficult.

To get viewers to start looking more attentively out of the corners of their eyes, Gambill has painted over large sections of many canvases, so only snippets can be glimpsed, replacing the blink-and-you-miss-it urgency of modern culture's image glut with a more serene sensibility. Abstract painting rarely looks so ghostly, gentle, meditative.

Sam Lee Gallery, 990 N. Hill St., No. 190, L.A., (323) 227-0275, through June 30. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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