In a 1506 drawing made as a study for an altarpiece in Venice, German artist Albrecht Dürer placed the dark pupil of an angel's right eye smack in the compositional center of the sheet. The eye of a mystical, mythological creature is the visual and conceptual pivot around which everything else turns, and it corresponds with the human instrument of visual perception.
Tom LaDuke is up to something similar in "A Gothic Plot," one of seven paintings and five sculptures, all recent, in a terrific show that inaugurates Angles Gallery's new home. (It's in the space vacated last fall when Blum and Poe Gallery moved across the street.) An orange disk with a glowing yellowish pin-spot at the center peers out from a gray gloom, between thickly painted tree branches. Slowly a second eye and a black beak come into view, suggesting the fragmentary features of an owl.
In fact it's an image borrowed from "Blade Runner," the 1982 cult-classic film loosely based on Philip K. Dick's science fiction novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" The branches, plus a thick slather of white oil paint at the lower left and other splotchy shapes, come from an 1818 Caspar David Friedrich painting -- a strange wedding picture in which the happy couple faces the transience of life in the form of a deep abyss plunging between chalky cliffs that overlook the sea.
The background for LaDuke's painting is a gray-toned studio interior, where a table holds a rudimentary still life. A dark, photographically painted tree branch in the still life rises up into the colorful, thickly painted branches that lie on the surface of the canvas.
All of LaDuke's paintings are similarly layered, shifting between abstraction and representation and with bits of suggestive visual information that don't coalesce. In one, a precarious stack of cardboard boxes is interrupted by elements of Jan van Eyck's 1434 "Arnolfini Wedding Portrait," in which the painter acted as a literal witness to the marital union. In another, a pack of hunters and their dogs from a wintry picture by Pieter Brueghel the Elder seems to descend onto Isabella Rossellini's luminous face in a still from the 1986 movie "Blue Velvet."
In all of these, a sinister (or at the very least melancholic) world lies just beneath the surface of perception. Light -- whether directly experienced, reflected, remembered or depicted -- is critical. Taking a page from Gerhard Richter, albeit in his own distinctive way, LaDuke exploits a painting's capacity for exposing handmade deceptions -- a useful tool in a culture awash in the slippery photographic phantoms of reproduction.
One of the nicest touches in these large-scale paintings is the little cliffs of oil paint that hang precariously off the edges of the canvas. LaDuke emphasizes materiality, even when his own deft handling suppresses the paintbrush's tracks. No wonder he's a painter who also makes sculpture.
LaDuke's best sculptures also reverberate between perceptual and material, as in a fragile veil suspended inside a plexiglass box. Made from eyelashes, bits of eyebrow and other short strands of body hair, it re-creates the network of surface cracks in a Northern Renaissance portrait painting.
The most arresting sculpture is a nominal "body bag" -- the ordinary black, polyurethane sack you might get at a hardware store. LaDuke's crumpled version was cast from an actual bag using an unlikely mixture of glue and graphite (you can still smell the materials). Horizontal and balanced precariously at one end, as if a piece of refuse blowing in the wind, the bag is carefully adorned with a painted logo for recycling, plus a date that corresponds to the artist's birth.
Peer inside the bag. At the far end, where the subtle contour of a phallus can be made out, tiny pinholes suggest a constellation of stars twinkling in a night sky. LaDuke is a latter-day Romantic, in full revolt against digital-age norms.
Angles Gallery, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 396-5019, through Feb. 20. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.anglesgallery.com
Watercolors and a short film
Joe Sola's watercolor, "a painting of a book of ridiculous paintings," is a witty bit of pictorial circular logic. Rendered simply, rather like folk art, its earnest sincerity is as square as the edges of the pink tome depicted. Exactly why an anthology of ridiculous paintings might be compiled between the expensive, labor-intensive covers of a book is a conundrum, but this particular ridiculous painting seems to yearn for inclusion. Rational proof never attends the proposition made by a work of art, no matter how outlandish.
Sola is an absurdist, as another watercolor at the Happy Lion Gallery attests. It shows him tangling with the late German art-prankster Martin Kippenberger. Facing each other, the artists have dropped their lederhosen and their penises are entwined in a knot. The very funny image upends the masculine viewpoints that dominate artistic discourse.
The seven watercolors are a coda to "A short film about looking," which is actually a projected DVD. In it, an unblinking artist in his scruffy studio and an equally unblinking art collector in his chic hillside house take turns being momentarily captivated by objects -- staring bug-eyed at raw materials (for the artist) and still life elements (for the collector). The men are brought together in an art gallery by an art dealer, who has set up two chairs in the center of the room.
The men sit, knees to knees, and stare at each other intently until their heads explode -- literally. (It takes only a few moments.) The dealer's head explodes too. The camera pans across the blood-soaked space to a percussionist, who caps the scene with a brief staccato drum solo.
Sola has wicked fun with art's pretensions, all the while partaking of its inescapable delights. Gender relations are an undercurrent -- artist and patron are male, the go-between dealer is female -- but everyone's fate is the same. That's the thing about absurdity: Acceptance is its only demand.
The Happy Lion, 963 Chung King Road, Chinatown, (213) 625-1360, through Feb. 13. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays. www.thehappylion.com
Whimsical and diabolical debut
A sparse but maddeningly enticing solo debut by Josh Mannis is anchored by "Variation," a digitally manipulated video that turns Pop whimsy into something bordering on diabolical. The repetitions start off playful, but as the unending loop continues you begin to understand why the man doing a calisthenics-dance on the TV screen appears to have blood rather than sweat running down his masked face.
Like Joan Jonas, whose 1972 "Vertical Roll" is a classic of early video art, Mannis begins with the relentless repetition of forms that mass media demands. An all-American man dressed in red, white and blue does an energetic series of choreographed movements to a percussive soundtrack.
Digitally multiplied, he maintains his high level of energy as a viewer gets steadily more exhausted just by watching. Jonas banged on the floor with a spoon as the image flipped, italicizing the structural deformity television exerts on perception; Mannis performs like a man endlessly running in a futile effort to catch up. It's very now.
The show also includes two works on paper and a nominal painting, made from floral-printed polyester stretched on a pair of diamond-shaped canvases. The floral pattern is identical on each side, but the stretching is slightly askew. Your mind tries hard to reconcile the small but mounting discrepancies between the side-by-side compositions, but it just won't coalesce. That's very now as well.
Thomas Solomon Gallery, 427 Bernard St., Chinatown, (323) 275-1687, through Feb. 13. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. www.thomassolomongallery.com
Turning logic on its ear
Eleven new drawings by Ginny Bishton continue her ongoing interest in tightly compressed images that do a 180 in your head, expanding far beyond immediate expectations. Numbered patterns burn holes in logical systems, rigorously rectilinear formats turn into impossibly curved spaces and sheets of graph paper covered with pencil notations obliterated by inked markings -- vertical, horizontal and diagonal -- become fields on which empty space looks like a gestural scrawl.
At Richard Telles Fine Art, Bishton manages a variety of engaging Conceptual maneuvers; they pay hommage to such forebears as Bruce Nauman, Sol LeWitt and Hanne Darboven.
The scrawl commemorates the obsessive counting and classifying works made by Darboven, who died last year at 67. A nod to Nauman's sculptures of knee-prints makes a witty genuflection. And a four-part grid turns a classic LeWitt into a profusion of green beans -- a garden of earthly delights.
Three pen-and-ink crosshatch drawings are marvels of formal and conceptual thoroughness. Rectangular patches are arranged as if the strips were piling on one another, although close perusal reveals that none in fact overlaps. The straight, linear formats are interrupted by circular spaces, while other optical illusions likewise appear to contradict the structure. Bishton has a marvelous way with fully integrating seemingly incompatible elements, while maintaining their independent integrity.
Richard Telles Fine Art, 7380 Beverly Blvd., (323) 965-5578, through Feb. 13. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.tellesfineart.com