Southern Exposures 

Eleven LA artists move painting forward.

The Oakland Museum of California is back on the scene with L.A. Paint, an eclectic show of paintings from LA selected by curator Phil Linhares. Four themes seem to apply: Folk-art/Assemblage (The Date Farmers, Esther Pearl Watson), Cryptic Narrative (Steve Galloway, Loren Holland, Robert Williams), New Abstraction (Brian Fahlstrom, Hyesook Park, Steve Roden), and Conceptual Figuration (Don Suggs, Linda Stark).

Naive art-school art is of course a paradox, but a viable one these days. The Date Farmers (Armando Lerma and Carlos Ramirez) are enthusiastic collectors of Mexican pop culture. Signs, stickers, poker chips, booklets, packaging, and other cultural detritus (Spider-Man, Malcolm X, Mickey Mouse, Geronimo, and Jesus) are combined and juxtaposed in their multi-painting installations. Watson relives her childhood in Garland, Texas, in mixed-media paintings that imitate folk art. Her eccentric father built spaceships in his garage; she commemorates them in works like "Kids Beat Up the Saucer."

More overtly fantastic are the magic realists. Galloway's tableaux defy analysis: a chimp, a headless mummy, a chicken woman, a putto, and a skeleton speedboater enact a private drama somehow connected with High Art in one painting. Less abstruse are Holland's dark-skinned heroines, scantily clad and nubile, set amid lakes or forests like nymphs, albeit surrounded by junk food, bleach bottles, cigarette butts, condom boxes, etc. — Sex and the City meets Henri Rousseau. Williams, the éminence grise of "lowbrow" pop surrealism, exhibits images of gleeful weirdness, e.g., lab-coated Martian brainiacs monitoring real-time broadcasts (nude and x-ray channels) of a tight-skirted woman ascending a nearby staircase.

Abstraction here claims loftier art precedents. Fahlstrom's still lives and landscapes suggest the modernist achievements of Braque and Masson, but also the postmodern uncertainties of Chia and Salle. Park seems to have the odd couple of Twombly and Kiefer in mind instead: her ambitious, large-scale monochrome works play collaged elements against gestural painterly space. Roden, a musician, transcribes his atonal musical compositions into assigned paint colors; his iconic symmetrical images resonate like sustained chords.

Intellectual resonance is the aim of Conceptual Figuration. Suggs examines famous paintings (e.g., "Mona Lisa") and chooses an "emotional center" from which to plot subsequent colors radiating outward. This sequence in mind, he paints banded circular canvases rotating on a turntable — it's art-historical spin art (reminiscent of Sherrie Levine's monochrome "Meltdown" paintings, color-averaged, osterized versions of masterpieces). Stark chooses subjects for their beauty and danger (cat, cobra, spider) and centers them on fields of textured, tactile oil paint; Ruscha's word drawings come to mind, here given a personal spin. L.A. Paint runs through March 15 at Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St., Oakland). MuseumCa.org.

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