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Connect the Dots

When it comes to Marco Villegas's abstract paintings, the protractor is as important as the paintbrush

Apparently some people like geometry. Marco Villegas is one of them. His exhibition at Lawndale Art Center, "Flat latex paint on raw stretched canvas," has its origins in the obtuse angles and parallelograms of your ninth-grade math class. The title of the show is as direct and matter-of-fact as the work itself, which seems too nice to have anything to do with math.

A lot of art making is about sorting through your interests and finding the ideas that resonate with you. Villegas, whose early work had a gestural abstraction, has made his way back to the angles, shapes and lines that appealed to him in beginning geometry. Starting out with simple compositional principles, he has, over time, expanded into more complex ideas. These works are primarily black on raw canvas, with subtly contrasting areas of white and some flashes of lime green in the paintings toward the end of the series. The works look like details from site plans -- frustrating ones at that, with awkwardly shaped spaces and paths that seem blocked at every turn or run ineffectually off the corner of the canvas.

Villegas designs and lays out his compositions on the computer. Using one-inch-to-one-foot proportions, he creates five-inch by six-inch computer drawings, which then are realized as five-foot by six-foot paintings. For Villegas, the computer is a tool like any other, a quick and effective way to manipulate forms; plus, he admits, "I'm kind of a geek." Whatever his geek tendencies, Villegas is first and foremost a painter, and as such he wants a human hand involved in the final rendering of the forms. The most direct solution, once you have created an exact and proportional drawing, is to project the image, tape it off on the canvas and paint in the forms. For Villegas, the act of tracing the shapes doesn't hold any interest. Instead, using his drawing as a guide, he plots the forms onto the canvas using a huge T square and the x and y axes that most of us last encountered in high school. For Villegas, most of his satisfaction is derived from this very process, the plotting and connecting of dots into shapes.

The paintings are untitled, simply numbered 1 through 12 and hung in the order in which they were painted. You see ongoing exploration of forms, fluctuating between simple and complex. 1 and3 focus on the raw canvas itself; Villegas marks the canvas with only a couple of slender vertical stripes. By contrast, other paintings feature dense black chunks of form; the painted areas are beautifully matte and smooth, bearing no trace of a brushstroke, the pigment rolled on in smooth layers. It is a straightforward and workmanlike approach to creating visually compelling images. Villegas has a day job painting decorative finishes -- faux marble and the like. The solid structural black has to be a welcome, down-to-earth respite from the intricate fakery.

The shapes of 5 remind you of a high-contrast satellite photograph, an intense close-up of a much larger image. Your eye tries to create white pathways between the dark forms. A tiny triangle with a lopped-off end is either isolated within the large, dense black form, or the form itself is pierced by the triangle. There is that pleasing flicker between positive and negative space as you try to decide which is form and which is background.

12, the last painting in the series, presents a black shape that runs off the canvas on each side and in two places at the bottom, like a pair of pants. Villegas somehow has managed to create an abstract form, wonderfully awkward in its very shape and placement, that feels goofy and genial. Other works look like floor plans of bizarrely skewed suburban tract homes. Although the paintings possess individual strength, the series hangs especially well together as the forms feed off and relate to each other.

Looking at these paintings, it is doubtful you could divine the exact method used to create the forms on canvas, but Villegas's careful plotting of the shapes affects them on some subtle level. The paintings can't completely conceal their mathematical origins -- the counting, measuring and calculating that, in this exhibition, are somehow made not only palatable but pleasurable. Even to those who hate geometry.

 
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