Realism, with a dose of whimsy

Special to The Times

Karen Liebowitz's paintings of pretty women mending fishing nets, riding leviathans and blowing up inflatable pool toys blend classical mythology and pop culture in an ambitious mixture of fantasy-fueled Realism. The combo is loaded: provocative, promising and pointed, yet a bit too pedestrian to get viewers to suspend disbelief and abandon themselves to the pleasures of these beautifully painted pictures.

Two gigantic oils on canvas anchor Leibowitz's exhibition at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery. The first features five bikini-clad babes perched in a sea cave, where they repair rips in an old-fashioned fish net. Bright sunlight pours in the heart-shaped mouth of the cave, bathing their bodies in a warm, sexy glow. Each appears to be lost in her own thoughts, like Penelope unraveling her daily weaving while she longs for Odysseus, or a world-weary twentysomething waiting for the sun to set and the clubs to open.

The second image depicts a young woman in a red negligee and black bra sitting on a barnacle-encrusted rock as the frothy surf licks her toes. A lightning storm blows in from the horizon as she parts her lips, closes her eyes, tips her head back and prepares to blow a lungful of air into an inflatable toy.

The toy is the best thing in the painting. At one end, it's a lump of crumped silver-blue plastic, gripped tightly by the light-headed heroine, who just might be in ecstasy. Its other end is a sea monster's tumescent tentacle, covered with rosy orifices and extending beyond the image's edges to suggest a beast as big as anything Jules Verne envisioned. Between the two ends, Leibowitz handles the transformation from inanimate object to monstrous mollusk with aplomb, using glistening, viscous pigments to bring fantasy to life in ways that are at once seductive and scary.

Two sofa-size paintings show the creature in action. In one, a surf chick dressed like a mod belly dancer blows a ram's horn as she rides the beast with the confidence of a rodeo champ. In the other, she hangs on for dear life, no match for the imaginary animal's awesome power. In both, the monster steals the show, its purplish hide pocked with flowery suction cups and dripping bits of golden kelp.

Thirty small studies -- in charcoal, watercolor or oil on panel -- reveal various stages of Liebowitz's process: tightening compositions, trying out different settings and refining the figures' postures, gestures and expressions. All lead to the four big paintings, where the 32-year-old artist has room to strut the stuff she does best.

It involves an ethos of earnest workmanship -- or painstaking craftsmanship -- married to a sense of campy preposterousness. Think Margaret Nielsen meets Carlo Maria Mariani. Or John Currin without the breathless reverence. Or Lisa Yuskavage with greater emotional range. Or Rebecca Campbell without the ambiguity.

Leibowitz has not worked out all the kinks in her attempt to make paintings that are heroic and both timely and lasting. But she shows herself to be a painter worth watching, an artist unafraid to take big risks and with the talent to meet them.

Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through Feb. 9. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.rosamund felsen.com

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An honesty that provokes empathy

Although Takashi Murakami appears to have cornered the market on high-end, designer cartoons, Neil Farber stands out among the funky, DIY versions of such seemingly adolescent imagery. At the Richard Heller Gallery, Farber's seventh solo exhibition in Los Angeles shows the Winnipeg-based artist, who was born in 1975, to be a master of the medium: a consummate storyteller whose tales of woe, suffering and death steer clear of morbidity and sentimentality to speak honestly about fear, vulnerability and mortality.

That's a tall order -- especially for an art form often given to juvenile delinquency and revenge-fueled fantasies -- and Farber pulls it off admirably. His eight whiplash drawings, one of which is nearly 15 feet long, invite viewers into stories of Everyman ordinariness and come-one-come-all accessibility. With great efficiency, Farber makes empathy contagious.

One page-size piece features an anonymous individual hanging his head and schlumping along as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders. In the background, colorfully printed phrases are piled atop one another. Each begins "So sad because of" and goes on with an endless litany of reasons for unhappiness: "the rain," "the lies," "my debts," "the news." All are good explanations, but there's something funny, paradoxically optimistic, about Farber's quirky cartoon. Its snappy graphics imply that sadness doesn't really need a reason and that depressed folks don't have to look very far to find causes for their despair.

In a trio of 5-foot-long drawings and the mural-scale centerpiece of the show, "It Is With a Heavy Heart," Farber shrinks his figures, adds schematic faces and multiplies their numbers by the dozens, hundreds or thousands. Ghosts, skeletons, animals and plants share space with the teeming masses, as do crudely outlined internal organs and a seemingly endless list of the various ways people die -- naturally and otherwise.

The idea that individuals are unique, like snowflakes, dissolves in Farber's poignant pictures of life's basic rhythms. His depiction of people -- as parts of species and cycles larger than anyone -- is heartening, sensible and oddly generous in its embrace of humanity's common links.

Richard Heller Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 453-9191, through Feb. 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.richardheller gallery.com

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Getting lost in a world of nuances

At first glance, Virginia Katz's mixed-media works on paper resemble satellite images of the Earth's surface. Tiny lines, complex shapes and organic colors seem to describe mountains, valleys and plains as well as rivers, lakes and oceans. The details are so exquisite and convincing that it's tempting to stand back and try to determine what part of the world is being depicted: The Baja coast? A Mesopotamian waterway? The Russian tundra? A Guatemalan jungle?

But too many loose ends -- or befuddling inconsistencies -- prevent you from matching any of Katz's 20 abstract images at the Jancar Gallery with a specific location. As you move in closer to the 22-by-30-inch works, it's clear that they are nonrepresentational. You get lost in a world thick with visual incidents yet unlike anything you have seen.

Katz's exceptionally nuanced works are monoprints she makes by crinkling up sheets of kitchen foil, dripping on colored inks and then running the shallow reliefs through a press, which leaves an imprint on a sheet of paper. After letting it dry, Katz draws with pencils, adds watercolor washes and gouache accents and then tops off the controlled chaos by dusting it with dry pigments.

The results have the intimacy of handmade artifacts and the unself-consciousness of serendipitous accidents. It's a felicitous fusion of taking control and letting go.

The surfaces of Katz's works have nothing in common with the slickness of digital imagery. Most impressive, her modestly scaled pieces are expansive. Each seems to bring more space into the room than its literal dimensions suggest. And each is so packed with scrappy happenstance and indescribable detail that no matter how long you look there's always more to see.

Katz makes mountains of molehills with eye-popping originality.

Jancar Gallery, 3875 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1308, (213) 384-8077, through Feb. 9. Open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. www.jancargallery.com

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Packed with colors and textures

In its heyday nearly 50 years ago, formalism took painting back to the basics: line, shape and color. At Western Project, Oliver Arms' oils on canvas go a whole lot further. They take painting back to basic states of matter: liquid, solid and gas.

Think of the L.A. artist's second solo show as an eloquent essay on the most elemental aspects of the organic materiality of oil paint. Simultaneously fluid, crusty and ethereal, his primal pictures have one foot firmly planted in the primordial ooze and the other in the cultivated world of modernist abstraction. It's a feat that balances furious energy and strange serenity.

Each of Arms' five abstractions is jampacked with so many colors, textures and forms that it looks like 10 or 12 paintings that have been run through an industrial-strength garbage disposal, compressed in a hydraulic trash compactor and then run over by an old-fashioned steamroller. Arms actually works with brushes and palette knives, piling on paint thickly and intuitively, letting it dry, obliterating many layers with a belt sander and then repeating the process, again and again.

Density is his forte. Yet none of Arms' riveting works seems overcrowded or claustrophobic. Part of that is due to the astonishing crispness of every square inch of his sediment-style surfaces, which are so vivid and sharply defined that they almost hurt your eyes.

Even more important is the light Arms captures in his brutally worked fields of fragmented gestures and broken marks. The laborious, even torturous process that goes into the construction of his works disappears in the palpable light that emanates from their fiery depths. Neither heavenly nor hellish, it's down to earth and gritty, the basic stuff of life.

Western Project, 3830 Main St., Culver City, (310) 838-0609, through Feb. 2. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.western-project.com

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