James Gobel at Steve Turner Contemporary

Special to The Times

James Gobel‘s big pictures of supersized guys have one foot firmly planted in the world of beefcake photography and the other in that of grandmotherly crafts -- needlepoint, quilting, knitting and other hands-on activities that transform houses into homes by making a place for warm-and-fuzzy feelings.

The combination of gay hunks and homespun Americana is just the beginning of Gobel’s smart, wide-ranging works. At Steve Turner Contemporary, the San Francisco artist presents beefy men as 250-pound cherubs: sweet, angelic creatures who have somehow fallen out of their mischievous places in religious paintings and landed in blue-collar bars, dime-a-dozen apartments and modest homes.

Down on Earth they hang out, whiling away their free time. Far from the spotlight of big-city fabulousness yet not free from the intoxicating glow of its intangible glamour, they seem to be suspended in a world between dreams and reality.

There’s a heartening innocence to Gobel’s vision. It’s accompanied by a savvy sense of worldliness that is neither wide-eyed nor naive. And unlike biblical innocence, which is tainted when it is not segregated from life’s seamy side, the innocence in these images is more forgiving, mysteriously fortified by the impure world to which it is tied.

In terms of materials, Gobel’s works are collages. Each is made of hundreds if not thousands of little pieces of felt. All of these small swatches, in a rainbow of primary and secondary colors, are precisely cut and glued into place on often-mural-size canvases. Larger-than-life images take sharper-than-usual shape.

The clean contours and simplified forms of a kid’s coloring book meet the coziness of hand-knit sweaters. The four figures in “Reel Your Heart In, Run Away With It” form a wall of flesh that is as meaty as a football team’s front line and as demure as a roomful of wallflowers.

A stickler for details, Gobel fills the gaps between his carefully cut pieces of felt with candy-colored lengths of yarn. Long, sinuous strands lead your eyes through his images as if following the traces left by a master draftsman. Shorter segments, laid out in taut patterns, deliver the visual kick of Op. Lowbrow luxuriousness awaits viewers who look closely, where Gobel’s light touch makes yarn seem as if it is just the thing for rendering wood grain, the filigree curlicues of flowery tattoos and the tiny stitches in sandals, not to mention eyebrows, buttonholes and the labels on whiskey bottles.

Gobel’s enthusiasm for pattern is abundantly evident. In each of his eight new works, supersaturated checkerboards, vibrant stripes, jaunty argyles and high-keyed camouflages collide in an eye-popping extravaganza.

The crazy-quilt inclusiveness flies in the face of staid tastefulness and thumbs its nose at highbrow restraint.

Just to make sure that no one mistakes him for a purist -- or a formalist, who is forever wedded to a single material -- Gobel paints on his patiently crafted pictures. Using acrylics and spray paint, he turns flat monochrome fields of solid color into plump rosy cheeks, the glowing orbs of light around strings of Christmas bulbs and the flames of cigarette lighters.

Gobel may be a dreamer, but he’s no pie-in-the-sky idealist. Pragmatism plays an important role in his wholesome, all-American art. Easier to make than tile mosaics or stained-glass windows, his pieced-together pictures of guys at leisure valorize manual activity as they serve up the satisfactions of a job well done as labor’s own glorious reward.

Steve Turner Contemporary, 6026 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 931-3721, through Nov. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Making many parts come alive

Three years ago, when Ken Price last exhibited his signature sculptures in Los Angeles, many of his best ones looked pulled in many directions simultaneously, as if their molten parts were not governed by a single principle.

Price’s new works amplify this impression. At L.A. Louver, each of his 10 tabletop pieces appears to have been made of at least six (but up to 50) parts, all of which seem to be animate beings -- simple critters with their own rudimentary nervous systems and primitive means of locomotion. The result is a stunning body of work that is darker and perhaps more profound than anything Price has made.

The imaginary creatures come in two basic shapes. Some resemble plump, underwater worms. Others look like bloated clams, their puffy, wafer-shaped bodies also recalling comic-strip flying saucers or inflated balloons being mercilessly flattened until they are about to pop.

The sizes and shapes vary, but no single part is too big to hold in the palm of your hand. Yet the associations the pieces trigger are far more wide-ranging.

“Spirit of ’08" looks like a big pile of scat, a mound of juicy sausages, a half-melted Christmas candle or a ball of writhing snakes. From different angles, “Gonzalo,” “Hotso” and “Argonne” appear to be abstract figures, their meaty lumps taking the form of the limbs and torsos of the Michelin Man, the Pillsbury Doughboy or the Venus of Willendorf.

“OG,” with a surface resembling the skin of a leopard with radioactive spots, looks like the offspring of an armadillo and a sea slug, or a sci-fi battle tank. “Yeow,” “Seven High” and “Vona” recall landscapes, some with crumbling ruins. And “Cocodo” has the presence of a macabre yet desperately optimistic still life. It seems to depict a hand, with fingers crossed for luck, sticking out from under a pile of rubble.

All of Price’s works generate loads of associations, no one of which tells the whole story. Getting viewers to see different things at different times in the same things, they expand our imaginations and enlarge our capacities for empathy.

L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-4955, through Nov. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Delicate girls with sad stories

In her second solo show at Roberts & Tilton -- in its new Culver City location -- Japanese artist Ai Yamaguchi creates a heavenly world suffused with such sadness that you won’t know whether to smile or cry. Extreme emotional ambivalence is the heart and soul of Yamaguchi’s powerfully stylized art, which transforms superficial cartoons into haunting evocations of lost innocence, lost hope, damaged lives.

On the stark white walls of the pristine gallery, Yamaguchi has hung eight curiously shaped panels that resemble puffs of smoke or clouds. Two larger ones lie on low tables, with padded tops made from old kimonos and eight spindly legs jutting out at awkward angles.

Each of her canvas-covered panels is impeccably finished, with up to 50 layers of gesso and endless hours of sanding. Its rounded edges and perfectly smooth face appear to be cast from porcelain and glazed to lily-white perfection.

The little girls Yamaguchi has painted on these exquisite surfaces are equally delicate: tender wisps of children who look like dolls dressed in colorful kimonos. The ones lolling around in loose-fitting pants or nothing at all look even more breakable.

Such subject matter is common to Japanese comics, where it usually fuels male fantasies. But Yamaguchi’s doe-eyed children are too melancholic to be consumed so easily. They comport themselves with such heartbreaking dignity that it is too painful to contemplate the tragedies that have sent them to the icy heaven they inhabit. The installation suddenly seems less like a refuge from suffering and more like a temporary respite from the spirit-crushing grind they will return to when their break is over. Bliss is out of the question.

A barrel-shaped chamber stands in the middle of the gallery, like a shelter from the storm. Wrapping around its masterfully crafted interior is a multi-panel landscape filled with beautifully painted blossoms and more delicately drawn girls, whose sad eyes betray their fragile stoicism.

Visitors are left alone to contemplate their place in the sad story.

Roberts & Tilton, 5801 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (323) 549-0223, through Nov. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Sensual nudes, bold flowers

Strange as it may seem to American eyes, the attractive nude woman who stands in the middle of five of the seven new paintings by Hubert Schmalix at the Jancar Gallery is not the most fascinating part of any picture.

Although she gets your attention as quickly as any sexy advertisement, what happens next is a lot more exciting than ogling a beauty.

With seemingly effortless ease, Schmalix gets you interested in the uncanny magic of paint on canvas -- its capacity to make you think of one thing while looking at another -- while never letting you forget that it is nothing but tinted goo smeared on and stained into tautly stretched fabric.

The backgrounds of the rooms in which Schmalix’s painted woman stands are wonderfully complicated, filled with enough twists and turns -- even leaps of faith -- to keep your eyes moving quickly and your mind racing to keep up.

Persian rugs appear to have been hung on the walls, like makeshift tapestries. But Schmalix is not a Realist. He plays fast and loose with the patterns and palettes, changing colors mid-pattern and shifting patterns mid-composition.

The controlled chaos is a pleasure to behold.

His two flower paintings, each measuring about 6 feet by 4 feet (like the largest nudes), are even bolder and more sensuous. They seem to be lighted from behind; their flat planes of rich tertiary colors and sharp, darkly outlined leaves make them look electric.

It’s easy to see why this Austrian painter lives in Los Angeles and commutes to Vienna, where he teaches at the National Academy. Southern California’s desert-meets-the-sea light suits his Matisse-inspired subjects.

And the long-standing love affair between hedonism and art in Los Angeles makes Schmalix’s paintings look right at home here.

Jancar Gallery, 961 Chung King Road, L.A., (213) 625-2522, through Nov. 1. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays.