What do you do when, after more than 20 years successfully negotiating what is arguably the ne plus ultra of contemporary architectural practice — designing the layouts of “big box” retail consumer spaces — you get bored? Tom Jancar rented a small space on the 13th floor of a 1929 mid-Wilshire art deco office building and opened an art gallery.

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Marie Thibeault, Spine (2007)

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Virginia Holt, Untitled (1965)

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Lynne Berman, Tour of Misfortune (2007)

That isn't quite the leap into the void that it sounds like — Jancar's been through the gallery experience before. For a couple of years in the early '80s — soon after graduating with his MFA from UC Irvine (where he assisted Bas Jan Ader with his flower-arrangement works) — Jancar collaborated with Richard Kuhlenschmidt on a space just a few blocks up Wilshire, where the new breed of formally grounded East Coast conceptual artist like Richard Prince and Louise Lawler made their West Coast solo debuts.

Local counterparts like David Amico and Christopher Williams first made their mark at Jancar/Kuhlenschmidt as well, and influential international conceptualists like the (recently deceased) Canadian relational aesthetician David Askevold were allowed to do their quirky thing. There was even a show of thrift-store paintings nearly a decade before Jim Shaw struck gold with the same concept. Kuhlenschmidt went on to mine the same territory for another decade, while Jancar hibernated in the realm of Kmart and the Gap. Until just a little over a year ago.

What initially piqued my interest in the new Jancar Gallery was its stable of artists — not only is it made up almost exclusively of painters' painters, but the overwhelming majority of these are women, and a substantial portion of those are middle-aged. This might not seem to be very remarkable at first glance — but it is, in fact, an almost diametrical inversion of the demographic breakdown found in the vast majority of contemporary exhibition spaces.

It's no big secret that the pervasive sexism of the art world curdles exponentially when ageism is added to the mix at what — 19? 12? Now, I'm no prude, but you've got to empathize with the frustration of midcareer female artists — particularly modern female painters, who have to suffer the indignity of hitting the glass ceiling, only to see Pollock dribbling an automotive enamel money shot down into their faces. Ew.

Thing is, a year ago, if you'd asked me to make a list of the best Los Angeles artists without gallery affiliations, it would have included a good chunk of Jancar's roster. This is what differentiates his agenda from those of similarly intentioned but academic-committee-driven public institutions — the quality of the work and the singularity of the vision presenting it. It's a reminder of what a slight shift — devoid of aesthetic compromise or sacrifice (though admittedly subject to a certain redistribution of capital) — political parity can be.

Which is ultimately to say that the artist's gender is virtually incidental, and what really piqued my interest was the art itself. Aside from mounting solo shows by typically virtuosic “L.A. Weekly Third Annual Biennial” participants Lynne Berman, Linda Day, Robin Mitchell and Marie Thibeault (and just added: Tyler Stallings), Jancar Gallery has exhibited the work of Judith Linhares, a New York painter as “bad” as Garebedian or Kippenberger; Sherie Franssen, whose opulent gestural expressionism leaves Cecily Brown in the dust; and nonagenarian Virginia Holt, whose concise early-'60s abstract canvases boot the current fad for retro-Modernism through a house of mirrors.

While the urge to compensate for decades of Dawn of the Dead institutional choreography by plunging into the humanistic intimacy of painting makes perfect sense, it seems strange that someone who cut his teeth in the notoriously paint-phobic world of '70s idea art would immerse himself in the millennia-old tradition of colorful fats smeared on a surface. But as Yogi Berra teaches us, “The future ain't what it used to be.”

With Richard Prince setting auction records left and right, Bas Jan Ader's ephemeral work rematerializing as pricey and controversial posthumous editions, and young pseudo-conceptualists rehashing every nuance of the dematerialization of the art object in search of their big break, the very fetishism the avant-garde had tried to abolish was swallowed whole instead — thus, picking up where he left off wasn't really an option for Jancar. Painting, which had already been negotiating its objectivity for centuries, finds itself strategically positioned to facilitate what Samuel Beckett defined as the role of the postmodern artist: “To find a form that accommodates the mess.”

In the current show at Jancar, the mess in question was initially named Katrina. Like many artists, Marie Thibeault (one of the most accomplished, and little-known, abstractionists in L.A.) was riveted by the imagery that emerged from that maelstrom of bad weather and badder government in New Orleans. Her interest in depicting flux was galvanized by the disaster, and her new series, “Keeping Things Whole,” was born.

As the title suggests, Thibeault is less interested in romantic ruins than in paradigms of continuity emerging from the wreckage — a timely and elegant metaphor that holds as true for the practice of painting and Western civilization in general as it does for the infrastructure of the 9th Ward. Superimposing supersaturated fragments of the devastated landscape observed from multiple perspectives, the paintings tremble on the brink of unintelligibility, until the outline of a swimming pool or silhouette of an abandoned car snaps the context into focus.

Even then, it isn't long before the image destabilizes, and the viewer is forced to grope for a new balance. Destabilization is central to Thibeault's practice. An accomplished colorist, she deliberately painted the “Keeping Things Whole” works under twilight conditions, so that their extravagant, sometimes challenging color schemes would incorporate a healthy dose of chaos, possibly surprising the artist (and her audience) with a new kind of beauty.

While the paintings attempt to depict the synergistic potential in the disintegrating Western industrial landscape and the collapsed hierarchical worldview that engendered it, they also stand as a record of an experiment to find new ways of looking at the world that can salvage the usable flotsam without winding up in the same morass (should our species be lucky enough to survive for a few more generations).

This kind of simultaneity of content and practice almost makes you believe in the artist at the forefront of the development of human consciousness — an avant-garde, if you will. Strangely enough, this brand of currency seems to occur most frequently in painting that abjures the single-point perspective of superficial technological novelty in favor of more organically integrated innovations. Which may have something to do with why Tom Jancar has thrown his lot in with the sisterhood of the stretched canvas. True, it's been more than half a century since it was cool for anyone to be a painter. But once you've seen what cool leads to, you can start to develop a taste for the warm.

MARIE THIBEAULT: Keeping Things Whole | Jancar Gallery, 3875 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1308, L.A. | Through March 8 | (213) 384-8077 or www.jancargallery.com

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