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The reality behind dreams of glamour

Special to The Times

Tenderness isn’t a quality one generally associates with the so-called Young British Artists, a generation far better known for irreverence, audacity and headline-grabbing showmanship. It’s a palpable undercurrent, however, in the work of Gillian Wearing, whose third solo show at Regen Projects spans both the gallery’s locations.

Most of Wearing’s work over the last decade has revolved around the experience of the individual, whether alone or in the context of family. She approaches this theme with clearheaded sensitivity and compassion, often using the work to create neutral if tightly controlled spaces in which to allow her subjects to speak for themselves.

Such is the case in the two series on view here. “Pin Ups” consists of seven roughly poster-sized paintings, each depicting a single scantily clad (or in one case nude) model in an alluring posture. Wearing found these models -- two men and five women, all nonprofessionals -- through an ad she placed on the Internet.

In each case, she arranged for a makeover and a photo shoot, then commissioned science fiction illustrator Jim Burns to make a painting from one of the photos in line with the model’s own preferences. At a glance, the paintings suggest a suite of straightforward, soft-core glamour shots or some vaguely ironic meditation thereon.

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Look closely, however, and you will notice that the frames holding the canvases are actually hinged at one side, suggesting -- as most glamour shots implicitly do -- another reality beneath the surface. Each opens (with the help of a gloved gallery associate) to reveal, tacked to a board behind, snapshots originally submitted by the model as well as a handwritten statement explaining his or her reasons for wanting to be represented in this way.

The young people in the snapshots, needless to say, bear an imprecise resemblance to the doll-like figures in the paintings. Like most expressions of glamour, fashion or erotica, these are fantasy images in which the distinctive qualities of the individual are streamlined into a stock ideal. The contrast is poignant.

Whatever judgments one might make about why a person would seek such a transformation are quickly challenged, however, by the self-possessed voices in the statements. Their reasons are myriad and touchingly candid: Several speak of having been bullied as children, others describe recently overcoming weight problems, having too little money to buy nice clothes or feeling shy, out of place or otherwise uncomfortable in their own skin. The projection of a sexier, more confident image is not, as one might initially expect, a form of delusion -- of trying to be what they’re not -- but rather a confirmation, in visual form, of some confidence they feel they possess on the inside.

“Family History,” the second body of work, is more elaborate in its construction and less moving in its effect. But it touches on a number of similar issues -- namely, the methods by which we endeavor to represent ourselves and how these attempts may be thwarted or tinted by various climates of public perception.

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Conceived in response to the 1974 BBC proto-reality television series “The Family,” the installation includes a video that posits a childhood version of the artist commenting on her reaction to the figures on the show. Another video involves a present-day, talk-show-style interview with one of those figures (the teenage daughter with whom Wearing intensely identified).

Like the pinup project, “Family History” is a patient exploration of states of mind we all share at one time or another, distinguished by a generosity of spirit that steers well clear of sentimentality.

Regen Projects, 633 N. Almont Drive and 9016 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 276-5424, through Aug. 23. Closed Sunday and Monday. www .regenprojects.com

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There’s a certain uniformity in war

As subjects go, war is a big one: ubiquitous throughout history and universal across cultures, a vast lexicon of emotions and sensations containing root traces of all the great themes -- power, passion, love, death -- and endless fodder for discourse and debate.

Ace is also, fittingly, a big gallery, and Melanie Pullen has the run of the place with “Violent Times,” a body of work exploring, according to the show’s press release, “historical battle imagery and the social impact of conflict, combat, the stylization of war, and the viewpoint of victory.” But given the scale of the subject, the space and Pullen’s own apparent ambition, what’s remarkable is how little substance -- intellectual, political, emotional or philosophical -- she manages to make out of it all.

The photographs themselves are big -- about 5 feet high and 4 to 10 feet across, many of them presented in light-box form. They’re also exceedingly handsome, depicting for the most part attractive men in various examples of military dress -- Revolutionary War soldiers, Confederate soldiers, Russian soldiers, Nazi soldiers -- enveloped, typically, in fluctuating clouds of dry ice. (There are also a number of battle scenes.) Pullen enlisted the help of “set builders, makeup artists, actors, models, stylists, and stunt crews,” and it shows: The works are as clean -- and cold -- as big-budget film stills.

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It’s not clear, though, what all this logistical accomplishment adds up to. In a film, at least we’d have a story. Here, we have little more than a parade of costumes, whose impetus, one gathers, was a sly delight in how dashing today’s often slovenly young men look in them.

Pullen’s last series, “High Fashion Crime Scenes,” was a similarly elaborate affair, in which she restaged old police photographs with all the cleanliness and gloss of a designer shoe ad.

It left one asking the same question: Yes, and . . . ? There seems to be a step missing. In advertising, the skillful projection of the ideal image is enough in itself. In art -- especially when it deals with a theme of such gravity -- one is justified in expecting more.

Ace Gallery Los Angeles, 5514 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 932-4411, through mid-September. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.acegallery.net

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Beauty resides there, in the void

Mungo Thomson is adept at the clean, clever conceptual gesture: a series of car antenna ornaments evoking the head of John Baldessari; a video streaming landscape backdrops from Looney Tunes Road Runner cartoons; a series of ambient recordings made in one gallery and replayed in another. The economy of such an approach is admirable but delicate.

At best, the works strike a clear, incisive, even poetic chord. (The Road Runner piece was especially enchanting.) At worst, they risk coming across as insubstantial or flippant.

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In “Negative Space (STScI-PRC2003-24),” a large photo-mural installed in the Hammer Museum’s stairwell space, Thomson settles on a fruitful balance between conceptual economy and visual presence. As in many earlier works, the key dynamic is inversion: Imagery of a distant galaxy, taken by the Hubble telescope, has been flipped from dark to light, so that the blackness of outer space becomes the whiteness of the museum wall. (The series, according to the artist, “came out of reflecting on the color of nothing; in outer space the void is black, and in the art context the void -- the empty gallery -- is always white.”) Philosophically intriguing, the mural is also quite beautiful.

An accompanying sound installation extends such interplay into the aural realm, with a similar current of New Age mysticism. On the top floor, the artist has installed a recording of whale songs, sped up by a factor of 16 so as to resemble the chirping of birds, while on the ground floor, a recording of bird sounds has been decelerated by the same factor to approximate whales. It is a rigorous process, this conceptual whittling down, and it finds an appropriate scale in this illuminating installation.

Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 443-7000, through Dec. 4. Closed Mondays. www.hammer .ucla.edu

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Light so intense that it obscures

When the Beijing National Stadium exploded into fireworks during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games last week, it was a spectacle loaded with symbolic implications of the sort that Beijing-based artist Jiang Zhi appears to have been contemplating for some time. The photographs in “Shine Upon Me,” his intriguing if uneven show at DF2, all revolve around some vivid or violent display of light.

In one series, “Things Would Turn Simpler Once They Happened,” a beam of light shoots across each composition, swallowing the head of a single figure and subsuming his or her features in the glare. In “Things Would Turn Unbelievable Once They Happened,” similar beams seem to toss such figures into the air.

Another series -- the most elegant and enigmatic -- juxtaposes small, unexplained bursts of white fireworks with figures sitting or lying in the snow, their heads enclosed in what appear to be globes of glass or plastic. Two last series -- one involving illuminated views of Tiananmen Square and the other landscape shots with rainbows made from digitally composed clusters of neon signs -- are less compelling, with the latter tipping toward the realm of the corny.

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On the whole, though, the show is an engaging meditation on China’s swelling confidence and ascension to global prominence as channeled through this simple but rich metaphor. Light illuminates, the artist seems to point out, but it also obscures, it exposes but also distracts -- a paradox that seems much in play in the display of Olympic pageantry.

DF2, 314 N. Crescent Heights Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 782-9404, through Aug. 23. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.df2gallery.com


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