“Contrary to the Laws of Nature” at Sarah Lee Artworks & Projects brings together five L.A. artists preoccupied with the social perception of the natural environment, ranging from Mitchell Friedman’s painterly expressionist-symbolist rhapsodies — the individual’s romance with nature — to the altered photographs of Manfred Menz, subjecting familiar topographies to conceptual interventions that remove the landmark from the land. Lothar Schmitz’s sculptures at once present nature as science (i.e., knowledge) and subject nature to science (i.e., economic exploitation), while Carrie Ungerman’s large drawings, composed of “natural” ciphers (stylized trees, snowflake patterns, etc.), seem to subject nature to a “scientific” process of quantification. And the appropriated, reworked images of Melinda Smith Altshuler embody what can only be called a romantic conceptualism, a rumination on memory.

Lawrence Carroll’s huge works on paper from 1995 treat the expanse of paper itself as a place, a site for visual “events,” as well as a physical surface on which incidents accrue. These incidents include scrawled phrases, scumbled pigment, collaged newsprint, clear plastic and a raft of gestures and materials coalescing into a downright theatrical kind of abstraction. Carroll here extends the territory of Abstract Expressionism even beyond Cy Twombly’s agitated notations into a realm that is at once as intimate as a diary entry and as overt as a Hollywood blockbuster. Also at Ace Beverly Hills, the same vital melding of the private and public can be sensed in the “old-fashioned” neon sculptures of Pasha Rafat. Rafat works with early iterations of neon technology, employing “vintage” tubes and three of the five noble gases to create lovely, strangely haunting wall structures. The soft, intense glow of these simple striped geometries fills the eyeballs without attacking them. “Contrary to the Laws of Nature” at Sarah Lee, 2525 Michigan Ave., Ste. T1, Santa Monica; Tues.-Sat., 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; thru Jan. 27. (310) 829-4938. Lawrence Carroll and Pasha Rafat at Ace, 9430 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; thru Jan. 20. (310) 858-9090.

—Peter Frank

LA Weekly