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It’s L.A. art to the world

Special to The Times

It’s difficult, at first, to pinpoint just what makes a room full of Dennis Hollingsworth’s paintings so very intoxicating, but it surely has something to do with the smell of oil paint. Lots of it. Handfuls at a time, applied in dollops and smeared across the surface of the canvas, or slathered in sheets like glistening slices of prosciutto, or shaped into tight, prickly mounds resembling the shells of chestnuts.

The paint -- presumably dry, but only recently so -- fills the room with a lush, heady scent that seems to seep into one’s very pores, enveloping the viewer in the work’s exceptionally visceral presence.

The effect, though largely incidental, is a fitting prelude to the many more concerted seductions contained in Hollingsworth’s current exhibition at the Michael Kohn Gallery, his first in Los Angeles in five years. There are 13 paintings in the show, ranging from 20 by 16 inches to 9 feet across. Each sports luxurious, almost decadent (but never quite gaudy) quantities of pigment, manipulated with supreme confidence and skill.

The forms are abstract but made, in large part, from a limited range of specific gestures, each with its own sculptural identity: the push-and-smear, the palette-knife slather, the spiky daub, the loose swirl of multiple colors. Each composition has the feel of a self-contained ecosystem, with these gestures interacting like so many individual species, the whole governed by a sense of organic, if somewhat chaotic, logic.

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The twists and turns of the pigment itself -- the glossy ridges, gouged furrows, smooth planes and prickly briars -- are endlessly absorbing: liable to draw a viewer to within a foot of the canvas and to tug the eye through a long series of close-range excursions, especially in the case of the larger works. Step back, however, and it’s clear that these details acquire their power from a formidable structural integrity.

The spontaneous clusters of small blots that hold one’s attention in the short term cleave barnacle-like to slower, heavier forms that keep the compositions firmly grounded. Seemingly decorative details are swept up in grander architectural gestures. Patches of dense, frenetic activity open up to broad swaths of negative space that lend each composition the balance and stability of a landscape.

Los Angeles has an unfortunate history of neglecting its midcareer artists, whether by ignoring them altogether in the glare of each year’s graduating class or by failing to provide the opportunities (and respect) they receive from institutions in Europe and elsewhere. As a result, entire generations of L.A. art are going unseen on their home turf, the influence of these artists under-acknowledged except by their students and peers. This exhibition -- only the seventh of Hollingsworth’s 35 solo shows to be held in L.A. -- is a prime example of what the city stands to lose in such a bargain: artists of proven commitment and consummate skill, whose work shapes the identity of L.A. art for much of the rest of the world.

Michael Kohn Gallery, 8071 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 658-8088, through May 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.kohngallery.com

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Animalistic wood sculpture dreams

“Bonsai” is Jared Pankin’s third solo show at the Carl Berg Gallery and a testament to the evolution of a formidably sophisticated formal intelligence, as well as to the maturation -- or at least potential for maturation -- of the scrap lumber school of young L.A. sculptors. Whether Pankin, who came out of UCLA in the mid-1990s, could be said to properly belong to that category in the first place is open to question. But to the extent that his work embodies many of its unofficial tenets -- the use of common, often found industrial materials; an affinity for the spontaneous and the (truly or apparently) slapdash; an approach to construction that walks the line between cohesion and chaos -- the new work raises the bar to decidedly grown-up levels.

In the two previous shows, Pankin built his sculptures primarily from small shards of splintered wood, cobbled together in disorderly clusters, topped with the occasional tree. Whether mounted on the wall or free-standing, they suggested craggy natural landscapes, futuristic cities or exploding architectural models. They were intricate, elaborate and often strenuously gravity-defying -- many pieces were cantilevered several feet from the wall -- but the consistency of materials gave them a monochromatic quality that, while elegant at times, still suggested a craft-y, wood shop sensibility.

In this show, Pankin mixes it up a little, incorporating elements of foam, metal, twine and what look for all the world like pieces of stuffed animals but are actually, I’m told, synthetic models of the artist’s own fabrication -- an impressive sculptural feat in itself, given their realism. Pankin also varies the size and shape of the wood and begins to explore a broader and more complicated array of spatial configurations.

It is the animal element that sends the work spinning into compelling new territory, breaking the nature theme loose from its reliance on the conventions of landscape, broadening the formal and textural vocabulary and introducing a tantalizing element of the just plain strange. One piece, “Split Hare,” involves the severed head of a rabbit suspended on a long cord from its body. Another, “Half,” involves the rear and tail of a fox, perched on the top of a slender precipice, as if its front end were slipping through some fissure in the time-space continuum.

“Hog Wild,” a wall-mounted piece cast in the manner of a hunting trophy, is a truly grotesque concoction of fur, shag carpeting, tusks, eyes and teeth -- the sort of creature you might encounter in a really bad dream, rendered with uncanny specificity.

Carl Berg Gallery, 6018 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 931-6060, through May 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.carlberggallery.com

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Weird tales at Honor Fraser

The discomfiting peculiarity of Toronto-based Andre Ethier’s “Vancouver Before Christ,” at Honor Fraser, begins with the size of its roughly two dozen paintings, which are neither large enough to carry the broad pseudo-historical narrative they appear devoted to nor small enough to be considered intimate or jewel-like, despite their often deliciously jewel-like tones.

This awkwardness of scale, whether deliberate or not, is certainly fitting: The paintings’ hold on the space of the gallery is as tenuous as their characters’ hold on the dimensions of their story. A naked woman with the head of a bird; a hairy Neanderthal bearing a cross; sagging old men smoking joints; an Indian chief; a guy in a canoe; a chorus of dripping, drooping faces -- it’s difficult to say what it all amounts to.

The aesthetics are weirdly engrossing, however: forms that seem ever melting and morphing; tones that shift from brilliantly vivid to sourly acidic and garish; and a unique manner of applying pigment -- in thin, textured washes -- that lends the surfaces the lush, almost velvety quality of horsehair. The effect is a sort of sad-sack, post-hippie, dystopic fantasticalness, redolent of James Ensor, Odilon Redon and William Blake, difficult to make sense of entirely but equally difficult to tear one’s eyes away from.

Cathy Akers’ “Hertopia: An Illustrated History of the New World,” in the gallery’s project room, offers another whimsical but vaguely sinister alternative reality: a prelapsarian utopia populated solely by tiny, nude, Plasticine women who cavort with abandon in wooded landscapes. Presented in three dioramic settings -- one encased like a museum model in a broad, round column, to be viewed from the outside; one that you access by poking your head through a hole in its floor; and another, contained in a large white box, that can be glimpsed only through a handful of tiny peepholes -- the scenes are a delight to encounter, not least for the decidedly primal behavior of their inhabitants.

Honor Fraser Gallery, 2622 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 837-0191, through May 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.honorfraser.com

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A punk take on visual culture

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the kid in high school revered by his male peers for the flawless manner in which he copied the logos of punk bands onto the covers of notebooks, he might, if he kept at it, have followed in the footsteps of Steven Bankhead, whose solo debut at the Circus Gallery combines an impressive knack for graphic reproduction with an ethos of punk-rock collage to explore the ramifications of life in an image-saturated society.

The drawings, all 30 by 22 inches, are hung in groups of six on strips of plywood paneling that encircle the perimeter of the gallery. Each combines a handful of seemingly discordant elements drawn from photographs: animals, rock stars and naked girls, among others.

Bankhead is hardly the first to use drawing as a tool of media excavation. Karl Haendel is one obvious precursor; Amy Adler and Mungo Thomson come to mind as well. There is an appealing tactility to Bankhead’s version, however. The drawings are sharp but not fastidious; they’re hung with staples and bear the marks of their handling. They also weave in an intriguing element of surrealism that, despite tipping occasionally toward the juvenile -- mating baboons inscribed with characteristics of Partridge family members, for instance, or predictably dull reproductions of porn -- clearly has the potential to evolve into something interesting.

Circus Gallery, 7065 Lexington Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 962-8506, through May 10. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.circus-gallery.com


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