Chuck Webster's title for his third solo exhibition at Zieher Smith, "My Small Adventures," suits the show perfectly. These oil paintings on wood panel are of modest size (many under 20 inches square) and seem to reflect private explorations of both the external world and the psyche.

At first glance, the quirky, cartoonlike quality of Webster's semiabstractions may seem more trendy than profound. With a little scrutiny, however, this impression is mitigated by the ambiguity of the subject matter—which, like all good abstraction, seems to be filled with meaning while actually signifying no specific thing. Points of reference are also ambiguous: often biomorphic, other times jagged, these emblematic symbols could just as easily be co-opted from early tribal paintings as could represent signals channeled from a simpler, postapocalyptic future. Mine (all works 2011) is a series of looping arched red lines on a whitish ground that might be a hill, a burial mound, the entrance to a cavern or cathedral, a wave—or nothing more than a bunch of Op-like stripes run amok. In Float, intertwined banana-colored arches seem to be levitating over the earth. The subject of Ship of Fools hovers in midair, resembling a spiky crown as much as a boat.

Webster makes no attempt at compositional tension. Elements are not placed with regard to formal concerns, but put smack in the middle. In some works, there is nothing but open space; in others there is an implied landscapelike horizon. Yet despite this purposeful lack of complexity and Webster's flat, rather deadpan rendering of simple images, the paintings seem to quiver with an inner agitation. The more one looks at them, the more discomfited they appear; perhaps, through his use of repetition, Webster sets up an expectation of regularity that's continually thwarted by slight deviations. For Rampart, he has used red paint to draw a pattern of small arches (think fish scales), each of which contains within it a flat black dot. Because none of the dots are quite the same size, they begin to take on personality, each vying for attention, like a choir of beseeching souls. Held is positively anguished: two blobby anthropomorphic headlike forms merged together by what appear to be two sets of five grasping fingers, weirdly all the same length and desperately intertwined.

The artist slows the viewer down by providing rich, painterly surfaces that reward the sustained contemplation his work requires. Webster's backgrounds may look washy from a distance, but up close one sees layers of paint that have been built up and then sanded, scraped and buffed into a waxy, satiny sheen. The sense of materiality adds subtle complexity without being overwhelming, and the colors Webster chooses are bright and clear.

These paintings are as buoyant as they are disconcerting. While they each stand on their own, experiencing them collectively is like being bombarded with coded messages from some surreal netherworld where optimism and pessimism are constantly battling for control, and there is no resolution in sight.

Photo: Chuck Webster: Ship of Fools, 2011, oil on panel, 18 by 16 inches; at Zieher Smith.