Free expression

Taking in John Millei's unguarded new paintings — plus a guide to open studios

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Detail of "through the field" (2013) by John Millei
George Lawson Gallery San Francisco

arts@sfbg.com

VISUAL ART Los Angeles painter John Millei is mostly known for muscular abstraction writ large, either because he usually applies his cerebral mark making to wall size paintings, or because he produces works in very large series.

So it's a bit of a switch to see his suite of six new, small paintings made specifically for George Lawson's pocket-size Tenderloin gallery. Each of the works in "Recent Paintings" is titled by a prepositional phrase that sets out various ways to begin a journey, and the titles down by the stream, past the gate, out the door, and so on refer as much to Millei trying out responses to the size of the space as framing an interpretation for the images. Whatever it is, the architectural constraint is very good for the work — these are some of Millei's most offhand and unguarded paintings, and colors press and slide against each other with something approaching intimacy. In most of the suite, marks become indistinct from color fields presented in slim, tightly compressed layers, held together by off-balance, looping gestures.

You can't help but think that these were lots of fun to paint.

In conversation, Millei remarked on how these new paintings were informed by a long-running dialogue with area painter Mel Davis, who coincidentally has a show, "Start Here," up now at Eleanor Harwood Gallery. It's probably a stretch to draw too thick a line between the two bodies of work, but knowing about the interplay between them does tease out a sort of common concern.

Davis' work, semi-abstracted, and knowingly winking at Matisse and Gauguin — especially the way that those two painters in particular have been filtered and lensed over the last hundred years by weekend painters and amateurs — presents a slowly unfolding narrative about the difference between loving painting and trying to love painting. There's something both subdued and lovely in these floral abstractions, especially ones like Space Between the Trees which layers flat, flesh-colored light on top of tropical blues and greens. Where Millei's paintings use a variety of visual devices at the service of fairly direct and aggressive compositions, Davis is more ruminative about the burden of expertise, and the possibility of reclaiming a beginner's naiveté.

John Millei, "Recent Paintings"
Extended through May 18
George Lawson Gallery
780 Sutter, SF
www.georgelawsongallery.com

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