‘Smoke,’ an exhibit of works by Gary Simmons, at Margo Leavin Gallery

Art Critic

Gary Simmons is adept at traversing intersections of art and popular culture in ways that pry open otherwise overlooked meanings. His five new paintings and four drawings at the Margo Leavin Gallery continue this long-standing practice. They also deftly insert the result into a political season disturbingly marked by the contradictions between the election of the first African American president and the coded racism of much of the opposition to him.

“Smoke,” as the body of work is collectively titled, shows schematic linear renderings of Modernist skyscrapers and office buildings as well as some cultural edifices. Most are in Century City, but the familiar curve of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles is easy to identify. One 7-foot-square canvas features just the first 1 1/2 letters of the Hollywood sign, which is so distinctive it’s immediately recognizable. The fact that the Chandler is the former home of the Academy Awards floats into mind.

The inspiration for “Smoke” was the 1972 movie “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” in which Century City was a prominent set. The hyper-violent “Conquest,” fourth in the series of “Planet of the Apes” films, has been interpreted as a general metaphor for racial alienation -- of the rise of the black liberation movement in the late 1960s, which generated anxieties among white liberals -- and specifically for the 1965 Watts rebellion. (Eric Greene’s well-received book, “Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics and Popular Culture,” is the classic analysis.)


Simmons has slightly altered his signature technique in these paintings. Known for his erasure works, in which chalk drawings on racial themes in popular culture are partially erased as a metaphor for cultural forgetfulness, he smears paint in these works to suggest a fiery conflagration.

“Where there is fire, there is smoke,” exclaims the movie’s simian rebel leader, Caesar. “When we hate you, we’re hating . . . the dark side of ourselves,” intones the persecutor, Gov. Breck. Simmons memorializes these lines in smeared drawings, as Century City burns.

He makes his surfaces rich and dense -- like mottled asphalt in several paintings, whose structures are white or yellow on monochromatic, black backgrounds. Dark green is mixed into the black ground of a six-panel drawing of a single office tower. The upward smears of white or yellow paint make them seem to dissolve -- up in smoke, like a mysterious apparition.

The most resonant work is “Landmark” -- the fragmentary Hollywood sign -- which ricochets in multiple directions.

It obviously recalls Ed Ruscha’s iconic paintings and prints of the sign. More obliquely, its flaming imagery recalls Ruscha’s https://:// a painting finished in 1968 but begun in 1965, the year of the Watts rebellion. Ruscha’s imaginative assault on authoritative cultural histories and assumptions is apt for Simmons’ current project.

Simmons has mixed wax into the black pigment, sweeping the background paint into the broad swirls of a tempestuous storm, against which the chrome-yellow sign flashes like lightning. The burning of Los Angeles evokes the apocalyptic violence of Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust,” with its bleak Depression-era vision of marginalized people suffering from unrealized hopes. In this timely show, the disarming topical references keep piling on.

Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 273-0603, through Nov. 15. Closed Sundays and Mondays. /gallery/174240/margo-leavin -gallery.html.

Monochrome: the color of funny

“Witty” is not a word frequently applied to monochrome paintings. Their nearly 100-year legacy in abstract art is more often associated with such sober notions as purity, clarity and spiritual aspiration. Yet it fits to a proverbial T an elaborate and compelling new work by Morgan Fisher.

At China Art Objects, “Alien Pendant Pair Paintings” is a group of six single-color canvases, each 4 feet square, installed as one work. Building on organizational systems familiar from Minimal and Conceptual art, Fisher has constructed the installation according to a simple structure derived from the color wheel. Then he’s given the wheel a couple of unexpected yet savvy spins.

The flatly covered surface of each painting is red, orange, yellow, green, blue or violet. Rather than pure colors, however, Fisher has used fluorescent paints -- not unlike those employed for very different purposes in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the formalist abstract painter Frank Stella.

These ultraviolet-sensitive pigments seem to give off an inner light -- though the effect is purely scientific rather than that of a metaphysical glow. They are also kind of cheesy, more attuned to associations with popular and commercial art.

The paintings are paired into standard complementary colors -- yellow and purple, red and green, blue and orange -- but they are not installed side by side. Instead, the pairs are hung back to back, with the wall between the gallery’s two rooms dividing them.

That means three paintings are in one room, three in the other. These are pairs that, like bickering couples, cannot occupy the same space, yet they rely on each other for completion. The wall that divides them becomes a critical presence.

This is a deft assimilation of architectural space into the domain of painting. It’s impossible to see the entire work at once, so a viewer must instead surrender to its divisions or else choose sides.

Monochrome abstraction isn’t supposed to make you laugh, think about interpersonal relationships or feed on actual space. Fisher’s does that and more, and the cheerful discombobulation is invigorating.

China Art Objects, 933 Chung King Road, Chinatown, Los Angeles, (213) 613-0384, through Dec. 13. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays.

Mobilizing images of war

Darren Hostetter‘s 15 mournful paintings on aluminum panels at the Sam Lee Gallery merge nature and culture. Weapons of war assume a condition as humanly unmanageable as the fickle weather.

Flat or slightly modulated fields of color are arrayed with small, meticulously rendered images of fighter jets, cargo planes, surveillance satellites, surface-to-air missiles and the like. Hostetter arranges this military hardware in compositions that suggest natural phenomena -- a swarm of insects, snowflakes, a flock of geese, ice crystals on glass, a galaxy in deep space or a school of fish in the deep sea.

Perhaps it’s a combination of the subject matter and the metal sheets, which stand an inch or so away from the wall, but the paintings suggest the solitary aura of a model airplane enthusiast. (Hostetter studied illustration before finishing his master’s degree in fine arts.) The quiet tension between destructive weaponry and human nature -- between the machinery of death and the miracle of life, here fused into a single entity -- is at once gentle and threatening, pretty and bleak.

Sam Lee Gallery, 990 N. Hill St., Chinatown, Los Angeles, (323) 227-0275, through Dec. 6. Closed Sundays through Tuesdays.

Flourishing on their vines

Four new paintings by Mary Weatherford at Sister show nearly identical tangles of grape, wisteria or another vine, close up and after most of the leaves have fallen. Rendered in muted gray, green, ocher and off-white hues, the autumnal beauty of the image melds with a fecund profusion of linear marks to carve out remarkably deep layers of space.

Weatherford paints on linen using Flashe vinyl-based colors, whose opacity seems to absorb light the way velvet does. The vines’ inescapable references to Jackson Pollock’s abstract skeins of poured color are risky and audacious, which makes the payoff in these small and lovely paintings that much greater.

A few blocks away at Cottage Home, seven large paintings from the last decade focus on two themes: brick walls, which repeat horizontal rows of multicolored rectangles at once vaporous and impenetrable, and actual starfish glued to the surface of canvases brushed with color. (One starry field is storm-tossed like a seascape from J.M.W. Turner, while another is like wallpaper for a child’s room.)

They also allude to formidable artists such as Jasper Johns and Vincent van Gogh, yet always in a manner that is singularly inventive.

Weatherford works in series that, judging from the dates, she apparently sets aside and returns to later -- sometimes many years later.

It’s easy to see why. The modest repertoire is surprisingly compelling, like a quirky set of self-imposed limitations that demands continual reinvention.

Sister, 955 Chung King Road, and Cottage Home, 410 Cottage Home St., Chinatown, Los Angeles, (213) 628-7000, through Saturday.

christopher.knight@latimes .com