Photo by Jack GouldThe Ron Breeden Gallery is a square box in an industrial park in a trafficky, less-than-pristine part of Orange. Inside, Steve Metzger's “Images of Rural America” seems at first glance to pine for the beauty of America's “heartland.” Metzger, an architecture buff—aw, hell, let's call him a “structuralist”—paints and draws the same couple of silo-like buildings standing, ever alone, in never-ending fields under big, pale skies.

But the more you look at the tall, spare buildings (unmistakably erected by Puritans), the more you start seeing the Bates Motel. (Metzger's cheery shades of black on black aid immensely in this.) And then you start imagining creeping environmental evils: pesticides in the soil and food, turning the town's children into hosts for creeping cancer; copper leaching from the ubiquitous mines into the town's deceptively crisp-tasting water; or any of those other awful things that surely happen in small, agricultural towns? Because if you couldn't denigrate these sweeping fields and the rude stone houses (infinitesimally small in just a tiny corner of the canvas), you would go mad with envy, choking on the smog on a sweltering Orange day. Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper roll themselves into one idyllic cornfield, and you must pinch yourself and remind yourself that if you were in Iowa, you would have to live among people from Iowa. And don't forget the Children of the Corn! Grasslands is sweeping, with a small, abandoned house, like a primitive stone hut from centuries ago in, oh, say, Ireland. The sky is heavy yet delicate. It isn't a vulgar tropical sky, bright blue like a Hockney. Instead, it's a nuanced sky, cool and sedate. The people would be brusque yet goodhearted. If there were any. . . .

Metzger, of course, doesn't paint people. He paints roads, trees and houses sitting small without another house for miles. He paints electric poles receding into the distance, very much like a Franz Bischoff or any other Laguna Beach Impressionist back in the day. Or any Chinese painter way, way back before the day, painting those scenes in which nature is everything and pitiable man labors in the shadow of that symbol of Everlasting, the mountain. In Metzger's work, the mountain is frequently a tall building, almost all of which he calls “Monument.” They tower over us, almost scowling anthropomorphichally —and they're slim and tall like old-fashioned headstones. They will last far longer than we, and it feels as though the tables have been turned; we are here to serve them just as surely as if we'd been enslaved by a race of giant ants or Charlton Heston or something.

Sorely crying out to be imprisoned by a race of giant ants is Rachel Ferguson, who has far too much time on her hands. If she were kept busy serving her giant Formic masters, she wouldn't spend her time looking inward at various emotional states and painting little allegories about them by depicting women crammed into box-like architectural alcoves—and ripping off Michelangelo's sibyls from the Sistine Chapel's ceiling while she's at it. Shocking!

Ferguson's women (yeah, it's chick art) are beautifully painted, their limbs gleaming in the light and their white slips (that's symbolic of like, purity, or vulnerability, or honesty; take yer pick) silky-smooth. And they have muscles: they're not quite Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, but they're strong, and that's cool. It's the earnest-yet-lazy pop-psychology titles that gagged us: a woman whose arms cover her head is Shielded; The Upliftingfeatures a girl with teeny waif arms holding aloft a brick; and in Strung, a woman's hands are tied behind her back . . . with string. Get it?

Michael Brown is a favorite at Sarah Bain Gallery, where Ferguson is showing. His Holbein-y, long-faced, ber-retro subjects all wear emblematic hats: a millstone, perhaps, or a sponge. Well, guess who also is painting her subjects in emblematic hats? Go ahead, just guess. That's right! Ferguson! In The Prayer, the girl has a candle on her head; in Shielded, the subject has an orange kerchief covering her eyes, “shielding” her as securely as an ostrich with its head in the sand.

But they're real pretty, and if you're a broad who loves self-help books (maybe on tape?), self-empowerment and analyzing yourself nigh unto death, you should even pop for one. And then you can stand beneath it everyday and affirm, well, whatever.

Steve Metzger's “Images of Rural America” at Ron Breeden Gallery, 675-F N. Eckhoff St., Orange, (714) 937-5934. Open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Through July 16; Rachel Ferguson's “Against Forgetting” at Sarah Bain Gallery, 214 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 525-8050; Open Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Through July 2.

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