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Invited into the abstract

Special to The Times

If America had a poet laureate of abstract painting, it would be Thomas Nozkowski. Born in 1944, the New York painter is making the best work of his life, intimate little pictures of simple geometric shapes set in fields of rich, sensuous color. In only his third solo show in Los Angeles, each of Nozkowski's 11 oils on paper or linen reads like a world unto itself, accessible to anyone who has looked at a cloud and seen something meaningful.

Nozkowski is a painter's painter: revered by those who know his work, beloved by first-time viewers surprised he's not better known and, like poets, deserving of a bigger audience. The humbleness of his work is not a pose struck to compensate for neglect. It goes to the heart of his art, which is approachable, comfortable with itself and generous. Less pretentious than the illustrations in many children's books, the quietly whimsical works at Daniel Weinberg Gallery contain passages that are as lovely and touching as anything being made today and as durable and tenacious as the work of Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis and Myron Stout, not to mention Paul Klee.

It has been said that no two of Nozkowski's works look alike and that solo shows appear to be group exhibitions. That's not true of this one. Although Nozkowski does not work in series, his untitled pieces here fall into two groups, which likewise divide into two subgroups.

The first split occurs between the works on paper and those on linen. Nozkowski's drawings are scrappier than his paintings, rougher and messier in revealing the decision-making process that went into them. In contrast, his paintings are more decisive and resolved — neither polished nor slick, but their planes of bright color are painted to perfection, and their washy expanses are fluid, smooth and seamless.

The drawings comprise two groups: those composed of Xs and those composed of O's. The three in the "X" group have golden backgrounds, each tinted with hints of lavender, rust or weathered copper. One features a checkerboard "X." Another recalls the crisscrossed girders of a railway bridge. And the third employs a delicate pair of lines to suggest demurely crossed legs, the fleshy intersection feminine and alluring.

The O's are set against red, brown and green fields. Two resemble cartoon lollipops, their concentric rings forming delicious little targets. The third shows a pair of O's smooching. Shaped like a cell dividing in two, its central form is surrounded by dozens of dots, which evoke the sparks that fly during romance.

Together, the Xs and O's add up to a Pop love poem: concise, loaded and jampacked with metaphor.

Nozkowski's paintings recall either architectural structures or landscapes. Straight lines and logically interlocked forms fill the former, with a few Gehry-inspired undulations keeping things playful.

Spatially, the three abstract landscapes are more expansive. Thematically, they recall pop songs ("Strawberry Fields Forever"), tepees along a deep blue river and rolls of hay perched on the horizon. But none of these associations or evocations exhausts the meaning Nozkowski manages to pack into his little pictures. All resonate in the mind's eye long after you stop looking, luring you back for another visit.

Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 6148 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 954-8425, through June 11. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Sober, steady, yet electrifying In terms of narrative, nothing much happens in Brian Calvin's seven great paintings at Marc Foxx Gallery. World-weary youth take in the scenery at state parks and beaches, conveying neither excitement before nature's groomed splendors nor jaded disdain for such packaged pleasures.

Their emotional tone is uniformly subdued: sober, steady and unsentimental. These skinny kids all have open eyes and closed mouths. But describing them as wide-eyed or tight-lipped exaggerates their intentions and willfulness. Placid but not detached, they marry "been-there, done-that" attitude with an earnest search for experiences new or different.

Calvin paints with similar flat-footed aplomb. Laid out in big blocks, his colors are subtle. Dry and chalky, like ancient frescoes, the tints are supersaturated and dense, like collector's edition comic books.

The compositions, which juxtapose soft pink, creamy yellow and faded orange, or flank pale green and sun-bleached turquoise, are electrifying. Either symmetrical or flat and frontal, they should have the static presence of icons. Instead they have the throwaway feel of bad snapshots, photos taken too soon or too late, or when the button was pressed accidentally.

The seeming shortcomings of Calvin's casually stylish works intensifies their effect, surprise and freshness. This is what hip serenity looks like. Calm, cool and collected, it's endlessly fascinating, inexplicably moving and almost — but not quite — embarrassing. Calvin is a master of keeping things simple, all the better to lay bare their plain beauty.

Marc Foxx Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-5571, through May 28. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Giving substance to a virtual world Dimitri Kozyrev's new paintings leave the freeways and back roads of the Western United States that his previous works toured for more vertiginous trips on the information superhighway. At Cirrus Gallery, three new diptychs and four single canvases take viewers around the world as fast as a computer can download images.

On one side of each diptych is a still image that could have been made with a camera. These depict a ruined bunker in Finland, a detail of a Dutch interior in a Vermeer painting and a roomful of monochromes by Malevich, in what appears to be a Russian palace that has been inexpensively converted into an art gallery. Things change. Often faster than we want them to.

On the other sides are dozens of sharply angled planes resembling shattered glass. Each shard depicts a bit of landscape, urban and country. Fragments of factories, freeways and fields pile up alongside unidentifiable splinters and abstract detritus. Imagine the interior of your computer's wastebasket — filtered through Cubism's dizzying deconstruction of the tactile world. Volumes flatten, things fall apart and chaos reigns.

Kozyrev's single-panel paintings organize this visual junkyard into sweeping compositions that suggest the giddy weightlessness of flight — of soaring, diving and swooping through the air without the burden of a plane or even a jetpack. Giving fleshy substance to the virtual world, the paintings by the Russia-born, Santa Barbara-based artist take viewers on flights of fancy filled with melancholic memories yet still optimistic about prospects.

Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda St., (213) 680-3473, through July 1. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Masterful use of the brush The svelte women and lithe men in glossy magazine advertisements are supposed to get our fantasies going. They are not meant to have fantasy lives of their own.

Elisa Johns' new paintings suggest otherwise. At Black Dragon Society, the six big canvases in the young painter's solo debut depict fluffy reveries in which striking a pose is as far as it goes. If advertisements could dream, this is what they would see.

Johns paints beautiful people in beautiful settings, with beautiful buildings and beautiful animals added for emphasis. Her subjects — lily pads, flowering cacti, errant nylons, flexed biceps, purebreds in profile — get boring pretty quickly. But that's precisely the point. It leaves the models free to their generic fantasies and viewers free to pay attention to the paint-handling, which is beautiful.

Johns gets flicks of her brush to stand in for a lot more than is actually rendered. She seems to know just when juicy brushwork is called for, when suggestive hints will do and when watercolor washiness is best. She also uses negative space effectively, making bright white expanses of unsullied under-painting resemble overexposed photographs or recall the hot, blinding lights of photo shoots.

Johns captures the drifting, groundless character of a time in which it's getting harder to tell the difference between ads and articles, and pleasure and business are increasingly difficult to disentangle. She's someone to watch.

Black Dragon Society, 961 Chung King Road, (213) 620-0030, through May 21. Open Wednesdays through Saturdays.

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