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Changing face of Mao icon

Special to The Times

Beijing artist Yin Zhaoyang’s “Passing by Mao Zedong,” at DF2, is an elegant and curiously touching exploration of a globally ubiquitous icon.

Yin Zhaoyang was 6 when Mao died in 1976 and comes to the figure with a degree of ambivalence that would have been impossible in earlier generations, his sensibility forged in an era of Maoist revival -- “Mao fever,” as it’s been called -- rather than by personal experience of the leader’s administration. His tone is neither celebratory nor critical, exactly, but meditative, inquisitive and rather wistful.

His subject is not the person, or even the persona of Mao, but strictly the image. His approach suggests a man sorting through snapshots of a long-dead relative -- which, in a sense, he is, given that all of the works in the show are based on photographs. One imagines him peering into each picture, turning it this way and that, trying to penetrate a frozen expression to uncover some truth of the man’s vanished character. What he discovers instead is the truth of the image, which in this case is no less significant.

There are six large, monochromatic oil paintings in the show, as well as several bust-size ceramic works. Each portrays the leader at a different period in his life, usually with some element of manipulation or distortion. Gerhard Richter is an obvious influence on the paintings, and although Yin’s Zhaoyang’s technique falls well short of Richter’s profound precision, it carries a persuasive emotional resonance.

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“I,” an 8-by-6-foot painting rendered in shades of vivid indigo, is based on a famous 1936 photograph of Mao as a young, handsome revolutionary. In one example of the show’s deep personal undercurrent, however, Yin Zhaoyang has replaced Mao’s features with his own, pointing to the almost familial confusion of identity between leader and proletariat, icon and fan.

In another work, untitled and rendered in pale shades of gray, the artist portrays himself standing some distance from Mao, diminished in stature and holding his arm up in front of his face, as if shielding his eyes from the leader’s beatific radiance.

Other works are decidedly less flattering. The most intriguing in the show, “Later Years,” also predominantly indigo, portrays Mao shortly before his death, balding, slumped and slack-jawed, his vague gaze suggesting a Lear-like disintegration of majesty.

The gray-toned “Swimming” captures an aging Mao awkwardly mid-stroke, looking pitifully -- but also endearingly -- human and vulnerable. And “Passed Away” -- an 8-by-8-foot canvas, rendered in an unusually thick application of brilliant Communist red -- presents the leader at last on his deathbed, his ultimate mortality confirmed.

In the ceramic works, Yin Zhaoyang subjects several of the same images to fun-house-like distortions: dramatically elongating the body or comically compacting it; shrinking the head or tilting it unnaturally to the side. They’re elegant objects, with smooth, lustrous surfaces and rich red, black and white glazes, but pointedly irreverent, which lends an interesting counterpoint to the pathos of the paintings.

“When we look at a thing,” Mao once said (essayist Keith Miller includes the quote in the show’s handsome catalog), “we must examine its essence and treat its appearance merely as an usher at the threshold.”

When a face becomes an icon, however, as in the case of Mao, the appearance develops an essence of its own, and it is that essence that Yin Zhaoyang examines.

DF2, 314 N. Crescent Heights Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 782-9404, through March 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.df2gallery.com

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Hip, without forgoing tradition

In the au courant climate of South La Cienega Boulevard, the pair of exhibitions now at Kim Light / LightBox have an anomalously -- and appealingly -- old school air, with contemporary concerns grounded in decidedly traditional methods.

The two front galleries contain the paintings of Samantha Fields: dramatic skyscapes rendered in meticulous airbrush on mid-sized canvas-covered panels. Fields gathered the images with a camera -- storms, fires, sunsets and spectacular cloud formations encountered on a recent cross-country trip -- and reproduces them with lush, photographic accuracy, exploring the romantic tradition of the sublime as well as contemporary fears of environmental apocalypse.

Whether the works go so far as to “catapult landscape painting beyond the rehashing of art historical styles,” as the news release suggests, is questionable -- if anything, the thinness of the airbrush inspires nostalgia for the rich, choppy surfaces of a Constable or a Turner -- but they’re gorgeous paintings nonetheless.

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Equally rousing though far more modest in scale are the ceramic works of Adam Silverman, in the project room and back office. The roughly two dozen vessels, the largest of which is no bigger than a basketball, combine clean, thin-walled, traditional forms -- round with a narrow neck or columnar -- with thick, expressive, richly organic glazes.

The craftsmanship is exquisite. Some have smooth, dark surfaces, with pale drips running across at unexpected angles. Others have rough, crusted surfaces, resembling dried foam. Others -- my favorite -- are clean, elegant, matte gray vessels partially coated with a lumpy, earthy, glossy, green-brown glaze, thick enough to serve as a sculptural element in itself. The contrast between the high refinement of the vessels’ lines and the mad unruliness of the glaze brings two opposing veins of ceramic practice into a masterful and deeply absorbing balance.

Kim Light / LightBox, 2656 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 559-1111, through April 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.lightbox.tv

Enlivened by graphic mastery

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Steve Gorman brings a lively graphic sensibility to a rather tired handful of themes in “Learned Helplessness,” an exhibition of modestly scaled collage works at Milo Gallery.

The space race, advertising, pop psychology, the psycho-pharmaceutical industry -- Gorman’s principal subjects are all easy targets, and the mechanics of his critique rarely move beyond a rough patching together of signifiers: drug company logos, news photographs, instructional diagrams and snippets of mental health jargon (“Could it be ... Social Anxiety Disorder?”). There’s something interesting going on with astronauts, which appear often enough to suggest an element of genuine personal interest, and something perhaps less interesting with tribal African figures, but the connections feel banal and half-hearted.

Wound in with all the recognizable imagery, however -- which constitutes only about a third of each composition -- is an exceedingly dynamic vocabulary of blocks, dots, stripes, squiggles and other forms of pattern. The works, which began as sketchbook collages, have been scanned, digitally manipulated, printed onto paper or canvas, and further embellished with ink, paint and fragments of paper -- a process of layering that results in unexpectedly energetic surfaces, particularly in the paper works. The color schemes are clever and consistently appealing.

In the midst of this pictorial play, the “content” of the work comes to seem an unnecessary distraction. Indeed, one wonders if Gorman couldn’t make a stronger point about the state of the contemporary psyche by peeling it away and trusting the language of abstraction.

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Milo Gallery, 6130 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 935-3662, through Saturday. www.milogallery.net

Considering affairs of the heart

“True Love Always,” a group show curated by painter Rebecca Campbell, is a pleasantly idiosyncratic reflection on love, sex and the undervalued art of painting (or drawing) with feeling.

The most spectacular work is Campbell’s own contribution, “Said the Lady to the Man,” an 8-foot canvas depicting a young woman in a vivid red dress, lying in the foreground of a pastoral landscape. The piece is notable less for its rather romantic subject than as a showcase for Campbell’s peculiar but enchanting way with landscape, a curling, wind-swept sort of Cubism that is clearly an expression of love in its own right -- for trees, light and painting itself.

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As if more than happy to upstage herself, she has included an even larger (12-by-14-foot) and equally dramatic drawing by Marlene McCarty -- an unnervingly eroticized portrait of a young woman named Marlene Olive, held responsible, with her boyfriend at the time, in the 1975 slayings of her adoptive parents -- as well as a colorful 7-by-9-foot abstraction by Kristin Calabrese.

The two dozen other works are an unconventional mix: there are three touching portraits by Patty Wickman; a lovely painting by Kenichi Hoshine of a woman’s face buried in bed sheets; a pair of small Raymond Pettibons; and a curiously engaging painting by Alex Kanevsky called “Interior With Meat,” which is just what it sounds like. Also, a 1964 painting of Jean Harlow by Charles Garabedian and a beautiful pair of etchings by Paula Modersohn-Becker, dating to 1899 and 1902, among others.

The works look at love from so many angles that the sentiment of the show’s title comes to seem a touch ironic but no less heartfelt.

Angles Gallery, 2230 and 2222 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 396-5019, through March 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.anglesgallery.com

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