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At first glance, you're likely to be struck by the playfulness behind many of Timothy Van Laar's handsome, spare paintings in "The Loss of Either/Or" at Midtown's Re:View Contemporary through Oct. 11.

It's hard to miss. There's a randomness to the elements on these off-white canvases, and an eccentric mix of completely unrelated painting styles — here loose and easy, there highly realistic, all in the same piece.

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A bit like the artist Magritte, Van Laar's subjects collide in oddball fashion. Just what is a textbook-perfect honey bee doing next to a crudely rendered brain? Why is a hammock swinging over a design by Matisse? And what's up with the unpacked cardboard boxes that keep cropping up?

"Tim's content is very intentional," says gallery director Simone DeSousa. "It seems funny at first — and simple — but then it unfolds itself." What we discover in this unfolding, among other things, are any number of references from art history, as well as a punning irreverance towards some of modern art's greatest names.

Much of Van Laar's work, as DeSousa puts it, is "painting about painting."

Take "Heron," which pokes gentle fun at the early modernist Mondrian, he of the brightly colored, crisp geometric grids. (Van Laar lets us in on the joke by printing the name, albeit with an extra "a," in block letters right at the top.)

Mondrian, DeSousa notes, famously disliked the color green, inhabited a fussy world of precise parallels and right angles, and had no use whatsoever for nature, at least in paintings. Puckishly, Van Laar spells the Dutchman's name in green, creates a set of parallel-but-wavy lines, and sets a large, realistically rendered heron at right, overlooking the whole composition.

In his artist's statement, Van Laar, who's head of fine arts at the College for Creative Studies, says the paintings are "rooted in collage and its disruptive procedures" — and disrupt they do, sometimes revealing darkness beneath the pleasing surface.

There's no reason why a small black 747 flying high above a big picnic basket should make one uneasy, but that's what happened with this visitor and, according to DeSousa, many on opening night. Is it because of the colors Van Laar chose for one corner of an otherwise black-and-white basket — menacing orange and blood red?

It's hard to say, but something creepy is going on.

"Binary," by contrast, is overlaid with the grid of a chain-link fence, into which, of course, it's easy to read all sorts of symbolic associations, mostly negative. But Van Laar appears to contradict this with brightly colored squares and dots scattered throughout, cheerful as can be.

As with much of this intriguing artist's work, it pays to take a closer look. One of the visitors opening night, DeSousa reports, was an engineer who immediately recognized the dots and squares as binary code, and provided the translation.

Their message? "Fear."

MHodges@detroitnews.com

'The Loss of Either/Or' — Timothy Van Laar

Through Oct. 11

Re:View Contemporary,

444 W. Willis - #112, Detroit

11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday

(313) 833-9000

reviewcontemporary.com

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