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Going, bit by bit, to a big effect

Special to The Times

Kathleen Henderson’s drawings feel like a spray of BB fire on the psyche. Each image induces a flinch, a wince. Each hits its mark and makes a dent. Cumulatively they launch an assault of surprising force.

Surprising, because Henderson’s line carries no aggression. Laid down in densely pigmented oil stick, it has a nervous urgency. It moves in jerks and halts, driven through bare white space by raw, uncalculated energy.

The drawings -- more than 40 of them -- are reason enough for a visit to Henderson’s first solo show in L.A., at Rosamund Felsen, but the Bay Area artist is also a sculptor, and her work in paper pulp, tar, wire and wax is just as strangely compelling.

Violence seeps through Henderson’s work like poisoned groundwater. There are images of blatant threat -- one figure holding a gun to the head of another -- and images of fear -- a lone figure huddling beneath a folding table. And throughout, there are drawings of that arena of sanctioned violence, the military, that exude unease.

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Soldiers march in stiff-legged goose step. Others, walking in sloppy formation, carry rifles against their bare chests. In one drawing, Henderson renders herself in military garb, her figure repeated four times as if constituting her own small brigade. The self-portrait is unusual for two reasons: It is drawn in ocher while the rest are drawn in black or blue; and its subject has an ordinary, exposed human head. In nearly all of the other drawings, the figures (who appear male) are masked or hooded.

Benign costumed play? Not likely. References to the military, to latent violence and armed confrontation bring to mind darker purposes for the concealment, something to do with shame and self-protection, detachment from deeds done. The mind leaps to hooded knights of the KKK and the dehumanized torture victims at Abu Ghraib. And yet Henderson’s masks and hoods are not ominous in themselves. They’re more cartoonish. They sport stumpy rabbit ears, eyes too big and round and mouths overfilled with teeth. They have a bit of the abject about them, like Mike Kelley’s stuffed animals.

This oscillation between innocence and danger, childlike simplicity and innate human brutality electrifies Henderson’s drawings. Even those with tender subjects, such as a figure stroking a lamb, have a disturbing edge. The figure’s hands extend like dumb paddles, his fingers too fat and long, and his hood’s googly eyes registering an un-evolved blankness. In Henderson’s BB-like issue, there is something of the toy but definitely also something of the weapon.

Her sculptures exude a similar crude, primal energy. One hundred small bird heads look as if they were worried into being by nervous fingers. Black as the tar they’re made of, the little faces (some no bigger around than a thumbprint) poke out from one long wall, beaks gaping, distended or bent. They are to birds what the drawn hooded figures are to humans: caricatures that capture something of the essence of the beast.

Many of the sculpted figures are injured, presumably war victims, their wounds wrapped in thin strips of white fabric. One tabletop figure hovers on crutches, each hand bandaged, and his chest cut off abruptly beneath the neck and wrapped like a severed stump. The crutches support a bare trace of a man, damaged and incomplete, topped by an uncomprehending rabbit head.

The attenuated lines of Henderson’s sculptures recall the forms of Giacometti, but mostly they resonate with her own starkly powerful drawings, those blunt scrawlings, sketchy indictments, unsettling war-time laments.

Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through March 10. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.rosamundfelsen.com

Disparate styles brought together

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The spirit of Kurt Schwitters’ “Merzbau” lives on. The total makeover of the Weimar-era artist’s Hannover home was formally feisty and politically engaged, infused with an urban energy brought indoors and just barely contained. New Image Art has undergone a similar transformation. Its neutral gallery walls, sheathed in words and images both created and found, pulse with raw dynamism.

The installation is the collaborative work of Swoon, David Ellis and the collective Faile. Each is involved in some way with street art, and each has a distinctive style and method of working. The individual strands of the installation can be pulled apart and credited, but the densely collaged and layered whole works so powerfully that attribution becomes secondary.

Titled “The Burning House,” the installation oscillates between references to destruction -- there is, indeed, an image of a burning house, as well as another of a burning, sinking ship -- and the insistent sex- and satisfaction-driven clamor of everyday life. Posters, both contemporary and a generation or two outmoded, hawk products and politics. Buzzwords from conflicts in the Middle East punctuate the scene: Hezbollah, attack, Al Qaeda, cease-fire. President Bush, Prince Charles, Mao and Nixon make appearances among the printed, painted, cut out and torn imagery, which looks as though it was created by both building up and tearing away.

The artists paint across shipping crates, stack painted panels atop static-screening televisions, and stage a macabre dance between drawn characters beside a faux junk heap. Pop art, anime, pulp fiction, advertising, comics and illustration blend and clash, Ellis’ sinuous swirling strands (simultaneously suggesting smoke, water and pure motion) acting as mortar for the disparate bits.

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Swoon’s elegant linocuts also anchor the chaos with images of women at work or at rest, their forms incorporating adjacent architecture, strands of barbed wire, laundry lines, escalators. The space is charged with presence and possibility.

New Image Art, 7908 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 654-2192, through March 17. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays. www.newimageartgallery.com

Hirst’s new works are taking wing

What is one of contemporary art’s bad boys doing with thousands of butterflies? What else but plucking off their delicate wings and using them as the building blocks of his latest grand statement.

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Damien Hirst’s new work at Gagosian looks glorious at a distance. That first impression is the best part. Once you look at the work closer up, consider Hirst’s titles and the nature of this latest enterprise, the paintings lose quite a bit of their luster.

At first, though, spectacle (the British artist’s chief medium) wins out. What look like large, luminous stained glass windows are actually collaged paintings of butterflies (whole and segmented) aligned in ornate, symmetrical patterns. Round, like rose windows, or shaped in pointed, Gothic arches, the pieces aspire to cathedral-worthy grandeur and carry appropriately high-minded titles: “The Importance of Elsewhere -- The Kingdom of Heaven,” “This Be the Verse -- Mount Zion,” and so on.

Wings of ruby red, kingfisher blue, iridescent purple, milk white and dozens of other radiant hues gleam with transcendent beauty. But step closer and the effect withers. The wings look distressingly earthbound, as if stuck to huge sheets of viscous flypaper. These paintings might celebrate sensory life, but they are fashioned from death. Playing awe against repulsion has long been Hirst’s game, and he now has a new, loaded set of tools to play it with.

Works of similar format in the upstairs galleries are slightly less pretentious. Huge circles, squares and rectangles using a brighter background palette and framed in white, rather than black, they feel more akin to the secular ecstasies evoked by Fred Tomaselli. They conjure psychedelic visions and kaleidoscope views, even mosaics of precious stone and fine tapestries. They are just as ebulliently decorative as the work below but less burdened by Hirst’s yearning for the epic.

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Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through April 5. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.gagosian.com

Flaunting his technical expertise

Tony Marsh’s new work at Frank Lloyd is, in turns, elegant, reverent and charmingly fun. A longtime professor of ceramic arts at Cal State Long Beach, Marsh puts his exquisite technical facility to multiple uses in still-life groupings and single vessels.

In his “Radiance and Abundance” series, Marsh conjures the methods of assemblage, filling large pod-like vessels with what look like found objects. The shapes are either vaguely organic or vaguely mechanical, but all have skins that appear worn by time and experience, suggesting chipped paint, rusted metal, cracked shell, crusty lead, dry bone. Marsh offers these humbly beautiful relics with an air of quiet celebration, as if reveling in the variety and ingenuity of the tactile world.

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In another still-life series, Marsh attains a different kind of graceful sobriety, borrowing from Morandi, Brancusi and turned wood furniture. The seven vessels in each grouping are all swells, curves, ripples and attenuations, extrapolations of vase and chalice forms. Here the surfaces are eggshell white and porous, perforated with thousands of tiny clean holes.

Single perforated sculptures have the same monochrome austerity married to pure whimsy. One piece resembles a child’s stacking toy with graduated doughnut rings. Another by the versatile and imaginative Marsh looks like an elegant goblet stuck with golf-ball-size burrs.

Frank Lloyd Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-3866, through March 10. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.franklloyd.com


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