A sort of spin cycle

ART CRITIC

In the Middle Eastern folk tale of Aladdin, a sorcerer tricks Aladdin's unsuspecting wife into turning over a wondrous magic lamp by posing as a merchant who offers a deal that's too good to be true. He'll exchange new lamps for old. Something of that enchanted storytelling is at work in a quietly engaging show by Camilo Ontiveros at Steve Turner Contemporary Art.

For his solo gallery debut, Ontiveros posted street signs offering to buy new or used washing machines and dryers, operational or not, for $15 apiece. A lime-green sign is posted in the gallery window, together with two beat-up machines that he bought.

Inside, the gallery looks like a used-appliance store, albeit with a twist. A total of 20 washing machines -- Maytag, GE, Whirlpool and, especially, Kenmore, the popular Sears brand -- are on display, most in varying states of rusting decay that mars their white, off-white and almond enameled surfaces. They're clustered in groups, the repeated boxy shapes suggesting the serial forms of Minimalist sculpture -- except for one anomaly: Near the center of the room, an ancient drum-shaped machine, complete with old-fashioned wringer and vertical agitator, stands in splendid isolation.

Four other machines are also isolated, although each of these is pushed up against a different wall. Ontiveros sent these four to an automotive body shop for exquisite paint jobs. Bright green, rich eggplant, hot pink (tellingly, a Lady Kenmore) and burnished gold -- the machines have been transformed into hybrids of sculpture and painting.

Specifically, they've been endowed with the surface glamour of a 1960s-era Finish Fetish work by John McCracken, Ron Davis or Craig Kauffman. The industrial tools those artists put to the service of making excruciatingly pristine, techno-futurist art are here embodied in broken-down domestic machinery.

Juxtaposed with beat-up machines that might stand a chance for functional rehabilitation or, at the very least, eco-friendly salvage, Ontiveros' beautifully painted works assume a strange aura of suspended animation. They've been plucked from one familiar commercial system of economic exchange and inserted into another -- the market for durable goods detoured into the market for durable art.

Ontiveros doesn't elevate one system over the other; instead, he deftly positions them side by side. The resulting friction lights up different value systems. The battered machines face a dilemma, which is not without practical, social and even spiritual dimensions. Which is a more valuable path to take: restoration, transformation or sanctification?

In the rear gallery a set of three artist's books is placed on shelves. Their format is plainly meant to recall Edward Ruscha's classic 1966 artist's book, "Every Building on the Sunset Strip." On long sheets of accordion-folded paper, Ontiveros has printed photographs of metal-scrap salvage, appliance repair-shop business cards and loaded salvage-trucks.

Ruscha's famous chronicle of the low-rise commercial strip along Sunset Boulevard between Fairfax Avenue and Doheny Drive was made by mounting a motorized camera on the back of a pick-up and photographing every building he passed in one drive-by going East and one going West. The result dismantled the precious aura of refined imagery and exquisite printing that had deadened camera-work, desperate for legitimacy as a fine art; instead, Ruscha offered a witty, scrappy riff on "street photography."

As his washer-dryer installation does for the Finish Fetishists, Ontiveros' book trio does something similar for the Pop Conceptual strategy Ruscha pioneered more than 40 years ago. A keen homage to a master, it knocks "Every Building . . ." off the reverential pedestal on which it now stands and hauls it off to the salvage shop. The savvy installation in the other room cleans up another tired legacy, giving it a crisp, new sheen -- while also announcing the arrival of a sharp young artist to watch.

Steve Turner Contemporary, 6026 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 931-3721, through Aug. 15. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. www.steveturnercontempo rary.com

Cross sections of life's travails

Visually, Aaron Morse's paintings on canvas and paper can be hard to read. That turns out to be a surprising asset. To see them requires slowing down.

The 13 works from the last two years at ACME gallery feature epic subjects, such as oceanic exploration, fierce buffalo hunts and awesome mountain treks. Often they nod toward episodes from history or myth. But the ways in which they're painted don't let you get caught up in the action or nostalgia.

Instead, Morse paints a kind of equilibrium. He mixes acrylic, watercolor and oil paint, which don't always chemically blend; subtle iridescence arises from colors reminiscent of an oil slick or a solar burn, and brush strokes pile up. Everything sits on the surface -- interlocking shapes, mottled colors, painted daubs.

Submarines, alligators and fish; rearing horses, running cattle, soaring vultures and weapon-wielding hunters; mountain peaks, trekkers and evergreens; oil tankers and sea swells -- everything occupies a shallow, cramped, even clotted space. Some figures warp, as if twisted on a computer program or compressed by the shallow space.

The compositions are like a cross section taken from a landfill (the actual subject of one work), or a crosscut from a mighty tree ("The Savage World" is backed by concentric black curves, like an abstraction of tree rings). The image overload that these paintings describe is less a flashy and seductive spectacle than an inescapable reality with intimidating overtones.

In one work a moose stomps a wolf, a kitten toys with a mouse, a cartoon couple gorges on a fancy meal and a sloth idly munches on leaves. Aspects of the seven deadly sins might come to mind, but instead of a moralizing treatise Morse offers a frank evocation of life's perfectly ordinary travail.

ACME, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-5942, through Aug. 15. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.acmelosangeles.com

Word murals by Lawrence Weiner

For his first L.A. gallery exhibition since his retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art last year, Lawrence Weiner is showing five word-murals and four drawings at Regen Projects II. None breaks new ground, but all continue the high level of conceptual engagement we've come to expect from the New York artist.

The drawings employ mostly red-yellow-blue text against white space in a manner reminiscent of Russian Suprematist and Constructivist artist El Lissitzky's architectonic designs from the 1920s. One reads, in part, "Sailing along toward heresy as a port of call," asserting the poetic necessity of staying in the present moment, open to constant flux.

That words form Weiner's building material demonstrates his long-standing commitment to language as a structural device. They locate you in space and time, lyrically if not physically.

For instance, given a few graphic twists on the wall, the words "placed/just below/above the horizon" asks where the horizon actually is. In nature, "out there"? Or, in the threshold of perception, "in here"?

And where, exactly, is "just below above"?

Given that a horizon divides heaven and Earth, Weiner's inquiry assumes dimensions larger than the wall on which the words are inscribed. And that's an investigation that has productively engaged artists for centuries.

Regen Projects II, 9016 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 276-5424, through Aug. 15. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.regenprojects.com

Sci-fi edge on dark visions

A body grows from a tree stump. A cumulous cloud floats above a mountain. A tornado -- or maybe it's a mushroom cloud -- rises from a slate-gray boulder. Yo Fukui makes ambiguous sculptural forms that allude to elements in nature, but then he pushes them beyond straightforward organic description. There's a darkness to these visions, a sense of mutant evolution and decay.

For his L.A. solo debut at David Salow Gallery, the New York-based artist shows six sculptures with a science fiction edge, made from unexpected materials -- especially paper pulp and bits of brightly colored felt. These materials are like something from a crafts shop or a child's playroom, which enhances a sense of imaginative escape. But there's no avoiding their grim sense of malformation.

The strongest work is "My Battleship in 3003," a mountainous form in sickly green, dotted with blood-red sores, hovering just below a multicolored cloud and several inches above the floor on a puddle of cold fluorescent light. The forms, which recall the eccentric work of sculptor Victor Estrada, yield one part fetid landscape, one part fabulous spaceship.

The weakest piece is "Rain," an anomaly composed from black ink splashed across 170 rolls of floral-printed toilet paper, precariously balanced against a wall on three chrome towel rods. A jokey riff on traditional Japanese scroll paintings, the wall relief is so different from the show's other pieces as to appear to have been made by an entirely different hand.

David Salow Gallery, 977 N. Hill St., Los Angeles, (213) 620-0240, through Aug. 15. Closed Sunday and Monday. www .davidsalowgallery.com

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