Without abandoning his luscious colors, sensuous surfaces and boisterous compositions full of endearingly buoyant circles and orbs and pinwheels, Joseph Piasentin is getting slyly nasty on us, nudging that cute quotient just past the threshold of bearability. Certain of his latest paintings experiment rather edgily with excess — excess prettiness, excess decoration, excess color contrast, even an excess of excess. You begin to realize how close to the borders of tastefulness Piasentin has been operating all this time, and how a painting can tip over from gorgeous to garish with just the, er, right wrong decision. Piasentin clearly knows what he is doing, and his aim is as true when he’s going for your fillings as when he’s going for your sweet tooth.

“The Likeness” comprises a roundup of local painters that shows off their ability to render objects, creatures and humanoids in vivid manners. The exacting technique every one of the 11 artists here practices is not an end in itself, but a tool for bringing the “likeness,” and the context that gives it often-narrative meaning, to a sometimes moving, sometimes excruciating visual vivacity. The near-spectacular gifts of painters such as Scott Hess, Cynthia Sitton, Peter Zokosky and Margaret Nielsen make this anthology as seductive as it is, but the star of the show is Gottfried Helnwein, whose meta-photo-realist apparitions have the immediacy and sticking power of ghost stories, crime-site photographs or nightmares.

Joseph Piasentin at Gail Harvey, Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (310) 829-9125. “The Likeness” at Hunsaker/Schlesinger, Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (310) 828-1133. Both at 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica; through April 8.

—Peter Frank

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