The Dog Days of January

Sometimes there's so much interesting art to see around the county that it's hard to keep up with it all. But this is not one of those times. A lot of local galleries have bolted their doors for a few weeks while they prepare for February's shows. Far too many have closed up for good—the general economic downturn is hitting the art world hard. And so this week, we're left with a lot of sorry-ass coffeehouse art shows and a few gallery exhibits featuring abstract canvases that look like somebody's toddler threw up on them. It is to weep.

At first, the new, multi-artist show at the Peter Blake Gallery looks about as underwhelming as the rest of them. There are plenty of canvases in this show that look like the artists just coated their butts with paint and rolled around for a few minutes, and a few that look for all the world like giant paint-sample chips from Home Depot. (I'm not going to name names because that would be mean . . . but seriously, people, who the hell thinks it's still cool to do a big, monochromatic canvas in 2008? There's minimal, and then there's just plain lazy.)

But then you notice that some of the abstract stuff here is kind of interesting—that Jimi Gleason, for instance, smears paint around in ways that keep the eye pleasantly occupied, or that Gregg Renfrow's acrylic-and-polymer concoctions are so enticingly reminisent of hard candies that you have to resist the urge to lick them so you can find out what they taste like. Maybe it's not the kind of art that excites you, exactly, but it's some genuinely good-looking stuff. Cheryl Ekstrom makes stainless-steel beanbags, though they're nothing you'd want to buy-and certainly nothing you'd want to sit on (that's a good way to break your coccyx)—but they are kind of neat. She makes stainless-steel castings of other furniture pieces, too, like an Eames chair with an ottoman. Hey, at least it's furniture you don't have to worry about your cat ripping up.

Ah . . . and then you notice the stuff that suddenly makes it all seem worthwhile.

Geoffrey Krueger paints some truly gorgeous landscapes, and I say that as somebody who doesn't usually go for landscapes in art. Sure, you got plenty of amazing landscapes out of guys like Van Gogh and Cezanne, but that was a very long time ago, and nowadays, landscapes are the stuff of intro-to-art courses taught by guys with crazy hair on PBS at 5:45 in the morning. It takes a special kind of talent to make a landscape look more memorable than something you'd see hanging in a hotel lobby, but Krueger has that special talent. Somehow, he infuses his landscapes with real passion. They're not photorealistic, but still, you almost feel like you're really there, walking down these country paths, listening to the creak of the mighty eucalyptus trees in the wind, only without the hay fever.

Donnie Molls excels at putting you inside a very different kind of scene. You don't have to have lived in Barstow to get excited about Molls' work, but it sure doesn't hurt. Molls captures the grim, dry, lonesome beauty of desert living. His canvases almost look postapocalyptic, with still, yellowish skies; endless, unforgiving stretches of dirt; and tiny people trying to live their lives in the middle of it all.

And from the glimpses we get, these are some very intriguing lives, indeed. In one painting, a man stands uncertainly next to a car that's smashed, ruined and flipped onto its back like a dead bug. Something terrible has just happened here, but now it's all over, and the Mars-like quiet of the Mojave has once again descended on the scene. The painting's perfectly succinct title: Everything Was Fine a Minute Ago. Malts N Shakes depicts a chubbyish female from behind, as she stands some distance from the nearest sign of life—a dusty little malt shop—and gracelessly twirls a Hula-Hoop around her waist. She is a frankly ridiculous creature, but a sympathetic one, too. The days are so hot and so long, and she is finding whatever joy in them that she can. We can relate.

Multi-artist show at Peter Blake Gallery, 326 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-9994; Call for hours. Through Jan. 31.

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