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Lari Pittman’s fantastic dreams

Special to The Times

Lari Pittman’s new paintings leap off the deep end. They take viewers into a subterranean, silent, slow-motion realm in which odd shapes, semi-recognizable objects and inescapable conundrums swim in and out of focus. It’s a dream world that’s neither frightening, like a nightmare, nor soothing, like a reverie, but flat-out strange. The sense of murky menace is both timely and out of step with just about everything else.

During the last 20 years, Pittman has established himself as L.A.'s preeminent Pop painter, churning out -- like a one-man factory -- dazzling panels jampacked with flash, amped up with manic palettes and crisscrossed with cacophonous narratives. Think of his earlier works as rebuses pumped up on designer drugs and buffed out for display in exquisite boutiques, each more lavish, extravagant and operatic than the last.

In contrast, Pittman’s seven huge panels (each measuring more than 8 feet by 7 feet) and 23 small drawings at Regen Projects abandon the brashness of Pop for the hokeyness of Folk. Their palettes are darker, creating shadowy nooks and crannies where scary scenarios unfold and embarrassing sentiments are hidden.

Flat graphics have been replaced with atmospheric depth. Translucent objects open onto worlds within worlds. Other passages recall woodblock prints, their rough-and-tumble surfaces seemingly cut by quick slashes of Pittman’s brush.

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The byzantine story lines -- once Pittman’s trademark -- have been simplified. Not much happens in his dreamscapes. Many evoke the aftermath of traumas -- loaded moments right after the damage has been done but before one knows what to make of it. Others suggest post-apocalyptic laboratories, cramped quarters in which odd concoctions are cooked up to remedy inconceivable maladies.

Not as many recognizable things are present. And it is hard to say if the larger-than-life-size fruits are tomatoes or pumpkins. Pitman’s monstrous pixies might be marionettes or circus acrobats who have fallen into a toxic world that is equal parts Cirque du Soleil and Abu Ghraib. These paintings dwarf viewers, making us feel as if we have stumbled into situations bigger than us.

More abstract elements appear. Many resemble ghostly organic forms, such as bone fragments and bodily organs. Patterns frequently break down, disintegrating before they provide structure or familiarity.

And the written messages that once spun Pittman’s stories in many directions have become an unintelligible babble, a mixed-up mélange of letters and syllables, in Cyrillic and English and gibberish, that makes easy reading impossible. If a story co-written by the Brothers Grimm and Fyodor Dostoevsky were illustrated by Charles Demuth, it might resemble these melancholic paintings.

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In a sense, Pittman has turned his back on the age of instantaneous communication and gone underground, making haunted pictures of a netherworld. But he is no backwoods mystic. Simplicity is nowhere to be found in his ruminative paintings. Neither is the angry bitterness that often accompanies reactionary rejections of modern life.

His brand of “nouveau folk” includes cheeky urbanity and cosmopolitan sophistication. A testament to individualism at a time dominated by streamlined lifestyles, prefab culture and predigested ideas, Pittman’s dissent-fueled art is attuned to nuance but unwilling to fiddle while Rome burns.

Regen Projects II, 633 N. Almont Drive, (310) 276-5424, through Oct. 20. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.regenprojects.com.

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Reconciling Picasso, Matisse

Throughout their illustrious careers, Picasso and Matisse spent lots of time looking at each other’s paintings. Each even made images in response to his competitor -- countering, criticizing and sometimes making fun of the other’s compositions. Never did either giant of Modern art paint anything that complemented the other’s works.

Kim MacConnel has taken it upon himself to turn the 20th century antagonists into 21st century collaborators. At the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, the San Diego-based artist’s white-hot exhibition combines the structural solidity of Picasso’s flip-flopping compositions with the sizzling color and cool gracefulness of Matisse’s swiftly brushed shapes.

MacConnel makes what historians call radical revisionism look easy. Each of his 4-foot-square panels seems to have been made by someone without a worry in the world -- and even less concern for established canons of taste.

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His colors are garish and wonderfully vulgar: Screaming yellow, blazing tangerine, mint green, electric lavender and luxurious turquoise slam against one another as they slip up against such standard tints as red, white and blue. Black is thrown in to mediate the chaos, and a few shards of white provide just a crack of open space.

MacConnel’s colors may not be subtle. But what he does with them is sophisticated. Transforming jarring messes into jazzy symphonies, he makes color sing.

MacConnel’s compositions are even nuttier: Sawtooth zigzags, fat stripes, skinny crisscrosses, irregular diamonds, pinched lozenges, out-of-step checkerboards and skewed circles line up loosely in his 15 canvases, forming wacky banded patterns that pack loads of action into compact dimensions. Each painting has the presence of a close-up. Together, they demonstrate that zeroing in on the best details is more inspiring than surveying the overall context.

MacConnel’s paintings are about being in love -- in love with seeing, in love with art history and in love with art. So what if he has to turn manly competition inside out to get to the good stuff?

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Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through Oct. 6. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.rosamundfelsen.com.

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Keeping her new works in line

Allison Miller follows her eye-opening solo debut from last year with new works that are meatier, more vigorous and -- despite being abstract and utterly free of imagery -- in- creasingly open to narrative. At ACME., eight canvases tell moving stories about perseverance, self-doubt and stubbornness. They draw viewers into dramas whose consequences have as much to do with the ways we live our everyday lives as with the artist’s capacity to wrangle charged compositions from the simplest of elements.

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The heart and soul of Miller’s art is line.

Each line in each painting is clearly handmade, without the help of a ruler, masking tape or stencils. Every inch of every line embodies the shaky uncertainty of explorations made by go-it-alone individuals who are neither brave nor foolhardy -- nor sensible enough to resist setting out on adventures that are as likely to end badly as well.

Made with paint and pen, Miller’s lines proceed cautiously. Their anxiety-riddled tentativeness is palpable as they creep across broad swaths of canvas. To follow one closely is to travel back in time to the moment it was made. It isn’t difficult to imagine the quivering brush or pen, or the smallness of the gesture in relation to the 4-by-5-foot canvases on which Miller always works. That’s the size John McLaughlin (1898-1976) settled on after experimenting with other dimensions, and it serves Miller well, a sort of default setting -- and bodily scale -- that focuses attention on what is visible.

As Miller’s lines accumulate, almost always by following alongside one another, they form concentric triangles, diamonds and other shapes. They recall cross sections of tree trunks, pebbles splashing in ponds and sound waves echoing toward infinity. The oddness of Miller’s shapes increases as incidental details grow into substantial forms -- like hard-to-break habits.

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Miller then takes such shifts in shape to the next level, playing blocky sections, serpentine segments and geometric fragments against one another to construct off-balance compositions that are tense with visual energy yet sufficiently freewheeling to leave viewers plenty of room to maneuver.

ACME., 6150 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-5942, through Oct. 20. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.acmelosangeles.com.

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Centripetal forces of color, texture

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If you like color, its abundance will make you feel like a kid in a candy shop when you visit Andrew Masullo’s second solo show in Los Angeles. His first was in 1990.

At the Daniel Weinberg Gallery, “Andrew Masullo: Paintings 1992-2007" makes a great first impression. Joy, delight and unmitigated happiness spill from the glowing rainbow of luscious colors the New York artist has arranged in basic shapes, snappy patterns and lovely clusters on very small canvases. It’s a supersaturated sampler of visual pleasures: exuberant in their high-keyed emotions, no-nonsense in their decisiveness, intimate in their nakedness.

And the exhibition gets even better when you look closely at its 47 paintings, beautifully hung in two galleries. Some are not much bigger than business cards. Most are smaller than ordinary sheets of paper.

Among such pint-sized neighbors, the biggest, a 2-by-2-foot diamond, has the presence of a compressed mural. Its interlinked strips of color pull your eyes into its empty center with centripetal forcefulness.

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All of Masullo’s works are titled with a number in the order they were finished -- like a store’s inventory. The ones here range from “2811,” a cut-rate mandala, to “4782,” an abstract still life with architectural solidity.

Masullo combines colors and shapes (not to mention textures) with such inventiveness that it’s hard to find more than two works that seem to be cut from the same cloth, much less that resemble one another. Many have the presence of paintings within paintings, with each tiny part doing its own thing, regardless of what’s going on around it.

There’s more to these works than cheerfulness. Their gleefulness is complicated by their equal and opposite familiarity with failure, regret, sadness.

The overall impression they make is not of an avant-garde artist going out of his way to break rules, like many self-conscious careerists, but of a passionate tinkerer trying to hold it together long enough to get the job done. That combination of humility and ambition is profoundly human, and it gives Masullo’s paintings their poignancy.

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Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 6148 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 954-8425, through Oct. 13. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.danielweinberggallery.com.


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