Just because they’re “portraits” doesn’t mean they’re portraits of people. Placing Lucas Reiner’s paintings of lone trees and George Stoll’s small sculptures replicating common objects (a sponge, a cup, a box of Woolite) by and near the single-figure paintings of Dan McCleary focuses our attention on the individuality, even the personality, of all things — even manmade things. Whether or not there is a mystic spirit animating Reiner’s gnarly pines, Stoll’s kitchen clutter or McCleary’s cool, classic renditions of poker-faced people, each exudes character, a particular poise and profile that distinguishes it among its kind. Lucid and formal as their approaches may be, these three artists seek to coax out the metaphysics, the “second appearance” of their subjects beyond (if still cognizant of) the traditions of landscape, still life and, well, the mere painting of humans.

Jochen Stücke doesn’t simply elicit the vitality of his human subjects, he sets them in often furious motion according to given narratives — indeed, now-classic stories for which Stücke’s etchings and woodcuts serve as illustrations. But hardly “mere” illustrations; in a show titled “Escape,” the German printmaker’s pictures engulf the stories on their way to becoming hypercomics, wordless novelettes, storyboards, even films. The dry-point etchings, from 1998, illumine Amerika, Franz Kafka’s last, hallucinatory book (he never visited these shores); they blend the dreamlike quality of fin-de-siècle symbolists such as Max Klinger with the matter-of-factness of early-20th-century American realists, most particularly Edward Hopper, to evoke an almost operatic urban space populated by people struggling to be individuals. Stücke realized the black-and-white woodcuts for Edgar Allan Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom in the last year, turning to the emphatic contrasts and sparse, dramatic forms of Meiji-era (turn-of-century) Japanese prints as a model for his graphic account. The starkness of the Maelstrom images befits the haunted, drained recollection of the story’s narrator. “Portraits” at Carl Berg Gallery, 6018 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; thru Oct. 6. (323) 931-6060. “Escape” (works by Jochen Stücke) at Goethe-Institut, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 100, L.A.; Mon.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Fri., 9 a.m.-3 p.m.; thru Oct. 30. (323) 525-3388.

—Peter Frank

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