Kevin Appel’s new works on paper at ACME hearken to both the refinement of the sleekly stylized paintings of modernesque architectural interiors that first gained him notice in the late ’90s, and the exercise in tasteful yet steroidal modernist/baroque theatrics of later paintings that dealt in the envisioning of a kind of calculated architectural monstrosity. But these new works — amalgams of collaged paper, gouache painting and pencil drawing, manage to pull in the strengths of both those phases of his career while jettisoning some of the problematics that came with them. The new works are refined, elegant, but not so seemingly empty as his interiors, and are rich and playful, but in a way that avoids the kind of affected excess of his later paintings. The new works began with images culled from vintage naturalist publications — photos of flora, fauna and landscape — which Appel scanned and then printed to size to create far-from-blank slates to work on. Atop these — working with and against the found images, and exploiting their spatial and compositional potential in a variety of ways, he then used his grab-bag of collaged, brushed and drawn materials to layout geometric designs that don’t shout out that they’re from the hand of Appel if you don’t know, but that make sense with his larger oeuvre when you do. Some deal in old-school tension of the picture plane, as when a faceted, diamondlike form dominating the center of a composition sports a near-perfect circle as a kind of finial. The facets are only suggestion — the form reads flat — and the circle, which plays a part in the largely nonobjective aspect of the visual experience, turns out to be the horn of a mostly obscured ram in the underlying photo, which on second viewing reads as representing an object in deep space more because you know it’s supposed to than because of the optical experience you’re having. The photo itself seems to have been chosen for its abstract potential. Elsewhere, the opposite game is played, with photos seemingly chosen for their ability to pull abstractions into space and into illusion, with complex, geometric forms looking something like surrealist box kites hovering over the landscape, or origami UFOs having just touched down in the seclusion of the woods. Formally, these are hands-down the smartest works Appel has shown, but they’re also the products of an artist who came of age — astutely so — in an era of contextual critique and semiotic gamesmanship, and who has now traded in the ease of cleverness (that could have continued to propel his career) for the risk of intelligence. Appel has replaced the look of playfulness — what seemed a kind of strategic veneer — with something deeper. Here play becomes a surprising M.O. for the production of serious work, as the artist shifts into a compelling and mature vision.
ACME., 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m., through October 10. (323) 857 5942, acmelosangeles.com.