Optimism trumps failure

Special to The Times

There's not a lot of space for art -- especially sculpture -- at Concrete Walls @ Cafe Back Door. But Rochelle Botello has turned the tight confines to her advantage, creating an installation of mostly doll-size figures, made of duct tape, cardboard and fabric, that is dreamy and down-to-earth sweet, without being sugarcoated, and rough around the edges without being callous or unduly enamored of abjection, suffering and failure.

Empathy, not vengefulness, loads Botello's otherwise forlorn figures with a wide range of emotions. Titled "Wrestle My Tuesday," her tragically optimistic works make intuitive, mind-bending sense.

Five little drawings, in colored pencil and watercolor, and six small sculptures have been hung on the walls and placed in the window. They set the stage for the quirky drama that unfolds overhead.

Botello's drawings have the feel and flavor of Marcel Dzama's homemade cartoons, except that hers are a little less elegant and slightly less pointed in their storytelling. Most feature interactions between two creatures, often depicting moments when the tables turn and things don't go as expected.

Some of Botello's wall sculptures are structured like bookends -- paired things that do their thing by pushing in opposite directions. "Pretty Boy" and "I'll stay here as long as you need me to" capture the vicissitudes of lifelong relationships, when couples form wholes that are stronger and more resilient than either half is on his or her own.

The highlight of the show is the flock of five colorful birds and a trio of guys that Botello has suspended from the high ceiling. It's as if a daydream has taken on a life of its own.

The yellow bird is the only character with anything like superhero powers. A cascade of rhinestones spills from its backside.

The guys are far more ordinary. A boy, dressed in a cape and white underpants, looks less shocked than amused, despite the bird stuck in his mouth. A parachuting teen, whose briefs are being tugged off by a furry critter, appears to be similarly entranced. And a fat man who is stuck in a life preserver and sucking his thumb seems content, not embarrassed.

In the forgiving world inhabited by Botello's dyed-in-the-wool misfits, growing up -- otherwise known as resolving psychoanalytic conflicts -- is less important than wrestling a little pleasure from life's ups and downs.

Concrete Walls @ Cafe Back Door, 5484 Wilshire Blvd., rear, (323) 933-4020, through Oct. 11. Closed Saturdays and Sundays. www.concretewallsgallery .com

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Imagery meets abstraction

At Patrick Painter Inc., Sigmar Polke's paintings and photographs show a master in action. The preeminent German artist trots out the tricks of his trade, mixing and matching imagery and abstraction in ways that are flat-out inspiring.

Although paintings and photographs are made with different materials and by very different procedures, Polke treats the often-opposed media as two sides of the same coin. Forget arguments about the superiority of one or the other; his irreverently inventive fusions of hands-off technology and hands-on immediacy use both arts as equally effective tools for communicating with viewers.

The nine large paintings on paper in one gallery (all but two from 1999) look ghostly. From a distance, they appear to be painted on air, with faintly tinted currents and clouds of air. It's as if Polke has somehow managed to suspend his unnatural colors and luminous gestures in the space just in front of each piece's jet-black surface.

Close inspection reveals that he has done nothing of the sort, just deployed extremely thinned-down splashes, washes and drips of translucent color and then enhanced the mixture with swift emissions of spray paint.

In the other gallery, 16 photographs (all but one from the 1980s) fall into three groups. The first consists of blurry pictures of people searching, reaching and struggling to find something solid in their surroundings. Most of these have the look of faded prints from the 19th century, but two include scribbled lines and words, showing Polke's cheeky side.

The second group features unidentifiable light sources -- oddly organic shapes aglow with neon purples, gaseous greens and synthetic blues. In contrast to this group's post-industrial ethereality, the third group is all gritty tactility: similarly unidentifiable blobs of roughly textured nuggets that look malignant and menacing yet oddly comic.

With seemingly effortless ease, Polke coaxes loads of intrigue out of the chemical compounds that oil paintings, silver prints and Cibachromes are made of. Think of him as a contemporary alchemist -- an artist who turns ordinary substances into concrete mysteries.

Patrick Painter Inc., 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 264-5988, through Sept. 6. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.patrick painter.com

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Unsettling beauty in a hometown

Wilmington is not the sort of place tourists flock to. Home to more oil refineries than any other city in the United States, and gateway to the world's third-largest port, it helps keep the rest of the country going, transforming billions of barrels of crude into fuels that keep consumers on the move.

What Arnoldo Vargas' Southern California hometown lacks in sightseeing highlights, though, it more than makes up for with its surreal landscape of flaring chimneys, industrial architecture and chemically saturated skies. At Monte Vista, "Welcome Wilmington" presents 26 of Vargas' modestly scaled photographs.

The crisp, documentary-style pictures, selected by guest curator Shizu Saldamando, paint a sensitive picture of a place where individuals are often dwarfed by their surroundings and seem to be incidental to the brutal rhythm of its everyday functioning. Storage tanks, burn-off stacks, security fences, concrete roadways, high-energy cables, streetlights and locomotives are the stars of these smartly composed images, which also leave a little room for joggers, a lone pigeon and a couple of street-side shrines to citizens killed in officer-involved shootings, one in March and one in April.

A big, billowy cloud sits low in the sky in the show's centerpiece, a grid of 16 photographs titled "It's a Beautiful Morning." The layout recalls movie stills. But as you scan the images, you see that Vargas has shot the cloud from four locations, traveling around it like a wary moth around a flame to approach it from as many angles as necessary. That's just what he does with his multi-image portrait of Wilmington -- circle around it as long as it takes to get beyond the obvious and to give us a glimpse of its social complexity and unsettling beauty.

Monte Vista, 5442 Monte Vista St., through Sept. 17. Open Saturdays and Sundays. www.montevistaprojects.com

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Rambunctious group energy

"Sculpture, Part II" is about as boring a title as one could come up with for a group exhibition. Yet it suits the rambunctious energy of the four-artist show at Western Project, which leaves viewers free to make up their own minds about the freewheeling mixed-media pieces jampacked into the modestly sized gallery.

Just inside the front door, three works by Michael Reafsnyder set the tone. "Glossy Goo" is a glistening aqua blob that combines the wonderfully puffy look of cumulus clouds on bright sunny days with the scrappy tangibility of industrial spills swept up and on their way to the trash bin. Almost 2 feet tall, the shape-shifting figurine stands on a pedestal between "Squirt Lion" and "Baroque-a-Doke," a pair of handmade ceramic plates that feature smiley faces and spurts of glaze in a palette too wacky to believe yet too exuberant to take lightly.

The three Reafsnyders in the main gallery -- "Rococo a Go-Go," "Fab Nebula" and "My Glorious Mermaid" -- are even bolder and better. They pair perfectly with Wayne White's five little whittled sculptures and one 8-foot-tall stack of clay letters spelling out its title, "Porkgrease."

Like Reafsnyder's fun-loving works, White's seemingly naive pieces are wickedly sophisticated. They bring such folksy arts and crafts as whittling and wood burning into the urbane language games of Pop and Conceptual art. They also make strange bedfellows of Ed Ruscha and H.C. Westermann, artists whose works are not usually thought of as belonging together.

Michael Dee's trio of 3-D asterisks, each approximately 5 feet tall and built of partially melted plastic cups, makes a great first impression. But it lacks the deep love of funky absurdity that gives the other works their kick.

Two pieces by Heimir Bjorgulfsson, made of taxidermy birds, bone replicas, mirrored tiles, photographs and a beer bottle, strike a fine balance between melancholy and silliness. Like most of the works, they prefer going over the top with generosity to playing it safe or falling short with stinginess.

Western Project, 3830 Main St., Culver City, (310) 838-0609, Closes Saturday. www.western-project.com

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