If only Ace had already opened its forthcoming third L.A. space (due in October), we could have had a John Millei trifecta. But as it is, between its two locations, Ace is offering up a massive (if not totally complete) survey of Millei's art of the past decade, with works from multiple series, and series within series. Each location is anchored by bodies of work as ambitious in their scale and undertaking as in their historical reach. The Beverly Hills space features a baker's dozen from the much, much larger series, previously exhibited en masse at the space, of "Procession" paintings — abstractions based upon the groupings of figures and objects in Giotto frescoes and Morandi still lifes. But these serve as a warm-up act for the main event, a total of 27 paintings on view here, from Millei's 2009 "Woman in a Chair" series, inspired by Picasso's 1938 painting Portrait de femme (Dora Maar). As much as Millei likes to borrow from and spring from historical precedents, his paintings are neither empty retreads nor dull, coattail-riding homages. Ranging from big to bigger, all of the canvases include the same Picassoid outlines of a woman in a chair, but what happens within the limits of that silhouette, stylistically, compositionally, imagistically and technically, is surprisingly varied. Portions and aspects of some seem "true" to Picasso, with Millei trying to work through how the old man put together a painting, but elsewhere, small fragments of Picasso's original seem to inspire approaches to abstraction and brushwork that take over the whole painting, and many of the paintings seem something like the painting equivalent of musical mashes and remixes, with Millei negotiating the integration of multiple stylistic programs into the Picasso template. Some are quite expressionistic; one seems as if it lifted its graphic sensibility from a '70s vintage Coppertone tanning oil bottle. Similar moves, but quite different results, play out in the Miracle Mile, where Millei takes up all but a couple of rooms in Ace's city block–sized space, much of it dominated by his Maritime series, which in scale alone harkens to epic and heroic painting — an endangered species. These pull together stylistics at once suggestive of Franz Kline, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol and Sigmar Polke, and vague imagery and allusions that call to mind Turner, Ruisdael and Friedrich, as well as Crusoe, Treasure Island and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Grays, blues, blacks, whites and metallic silvers are doled out in combinations of hazy atmospherics, slick surfaces and stark lines on canvases that sometimes get so big you wonder if they weren't painted on the premises, while visuals range from suggestions of air and horizon to highly stylized waves, to sails and rigging. Including subseries like the "White Squall" paintings (all froth and shimmer) and the "Queen Anne's Revenge" paintings (the most overtly nautical), the Maritime group is backed up by examples of other series by Millei — "Matador," "For Surfing," "Quick Silver" — which are positioned, and are convincing, as precedents from Millei's own oeuvre. They also show the beginning of a turn, more clear in the most recent work in both Ace locations, from an artist who has at times seemed like someone coming to grips with having arrived too late for the party that was modernist painting, at other times an artist who has found a way to seize upon the historical and stylistic promiscuity of the postmodern, but with an ambition and investment in painting heroics. Millei's painting suggests neither a quest for the pure and original nor an art of pastiche in the sense of imitation or hodgepodge, but rather an art of the mélange, of painterly, stylistic and historical mixology, with a kick.
ACE GALLERY: 5514 Wilshire Blvd., 2nd Floor, L.A.; Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; through August. (323) 935-4411, acegallery.net.
ACE GALLERY: 9430 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; through April. (310) 858-9090, acegallery.net.