The frisson of fear and guilty fascination that hovers around recent public conversations on genetics and human cloning is, at bottom, a reflection of our unending love affair with the human form. Is there anything quite so beautiful or mysterious as a body? For every secret disclosed by medicine, there is something about the body that seems forever to remain outside our comprehension.

Despite our vast similarities, each body --and therefore each mind--remains different from all others. No wonder the idea of clinical replication is deeply terrifying. No wonder, too, that artists have never ceased to find fresh meaning in representing the human form.

A superb new show at the Lisa Coscino Gallery in Pacific Grove treats the viewer to five artists whose latest works celebrate the figure in all its colorful complexity. All of these paintings benefit from alternating perspectives--first stare up-close for detail, then step back for the big picture--but in the case of Bud Gordon''s street scenes, the effect is truly radical. Stand just inches before Cannery Row and what you see (and smell) is paint--its thickness, its textures, even its spent, rolled-up tubes. Then stand back and the dizzying mess of colors begin to settle into recognizable shapes.

Gordon''s ravishing works exuberantly revel in the textures of life. A Sacramento high school teacher and occasional house painter, he has created dramatic tableaux that use the raw materials of paintings to meditate on questions of visual and emotional camouflage. In Mother and Daughter, the older woman''s face recalls a primitive, painted mask. In what ways are we all primitive? In what ways are our hearts all hidden from each other as if by paint?

The four unique photo/image transfers of Pacific Grove artist Dianna Holubec-McArthur offer a quieter look at certain elements of femininity and explore how a woman''s interiority may be revealed or concealed by her surroundings. Holubec-McArthur was inspired by a 19th-century Japanese book entitled 32 Aspects of a Woman, and she intends to create 32 of her own mixed-media images.

In #2, the most captivating of Holubec-McArthur''s four pieces shown here, the viewer''s eye is encouraged to circulate in yin/yang fashion around the image and touch on a kaleidoscope of symbolic contrasts: dark/light, freedom/captivity, open/closed, covered/exposed, silence/expression, substance/nothingness.

Holubec-McArthur has chosen two types of objects, pears and chairs, to express her ideas about women: their shape, their capacity to be supportive and comforting, and the darker possibility that they may be seen solely as objects.

Indeed, every portrait must by its very physical nature turn the human form into an object of contemplation. But at their best, portraits can be springboards for endless psychological speculation. We look at a face and wonder, What is he or she thinking? In Dan McCleary''s four pencil-drawn head studies, the LA-based artist invites the viewer to enter the intimate gaze between artist and subject. What was private becomes public.

While it is usual to focus on the qualities of the subjects'' eyes or mouths, I found myself drawn to McCleary''s heads of hair, to the idea of hair as expressive shape--by turns brash or placid, loose or repressed. It seemed, in the fineness of his lines, strangely revealing.

In San Francisco artist Gregg Chadwick''s shimmering, haunting oil on linen paintings, subtle echoes of past masters--Turner, Vermeer, Manet, Raphael--contribute to the works'' richly layered feel. Three female figures are particularly striking. The Silence of Desire features a woman whose crossed arms and crossed legs would appear to indicate a closed-off, unhappy attitude, yet her jaunty yellow dress breaks through the gloomy, almost queasy green around her, lending the piece a kind of serene equilibrium. The freeze-frame quality of the image--as if existing in-between time, in the interstices of memory--also heightens its emotional intensity.

Equally intense is Smoke and Memory, a beautiful, questioning work that plays with the dialogue between solid forms (architecture, the body) and that which is fluid and unstable. A third Chadwick, The Beekeeper''s Song, positively glows with the honeyed light of a lazy summer day.

A different sort of outdoor experience is captured in Salinas artist Joan Towers'' powerful images of men working in fields. The three charcoal on paper works from the 1970s are emotionally direct portraits of laborers'' bodies that seem monumental, heavily anchored to the earth. There is something both elegant and disturbing about these masculine, angular shapes. In #3, even the "empty" sky is crisscrossed with a flurry of dark, enclosing lines that appear almost as scars. This is not an easy life, these works say.

In her two oil works here, Towers distills the laborers'' bodies into their abstract, formal components--shape, color, juxtaposition--which leaves out the social realism of the earthy charcoal works but invests them with a different kind of artistic dignity.

Since Coscino''s gallery opened last summer, it has rapidly become one of the most dynamic places to look at and think about art on the Central Coast. Recently Coscino has been offering a series of occasional "art talks" on Saturday afternoons that give visitors a chance to discuss informally with the artists not only the art on the walls but the process of creating art as well. This Saturday, four of the show''s artists (Gordon, Holubec-McArthur, Chadwick and Towers) will be there to walk through the gallery with visitors and talk about painting, drawing, printmaking and the human form--no doubt inspiring many to reconsider their own body as a repository of secrets and artistic potential.

People/Places: Five Artists Interpret the Figure shows at the Lisa Coscino Gallery, located at 171 Central in Pacific Grove, through April 28.
The informal art talk on Saturday (4:30pm) is free and open to the public. The gallery is open Tuesday-Wednesday 11am-2pm and Thursday- Saturday 11am-5:30pm. For more info, click on or call 646-1939.

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