THERE is always a modicum of caution to the art critic's job. You are invariably asked to write about your Aunt Tilly's somnolent watercolors, or cajoled into dinner invitations for a peek at a friend's daughter's macaroni masterpieces.It was with some caution that I agreed to enter Roark Gourley's creative realm. When I did, I discovered in Gourley's zany cartoon sculptures art that I was not accustomed to viewing as art. I looked a bit closer, and I also found a sophisticated and romping wit, a social consciousness humane enough not to be judgmental, and finally, a rigorous craft. "If I can slip some deeper meaning and careful execution, both of which have to exist in good art, into funny, lighthearted work that keeps you smiling and feeling alive while you learn, then I've accomplished my goal," says Gourley. The southern California artist works in a technique he likes to call two-and-a-half dimensional art - somewhere between flat painting and completely free-standing sculpture. His art works are made from laminated wood cut into half-inch or so thick pieces that have been shaped, sanded, resined, and brightly painted into all manner of outrageous cartoonish objects: stoves that seem to dance, jukeboxes that sprout hands and snap to bright, floating notes, dogs that look as if they'd be at home on Looney Tun es. It is a sensibility charmingly caught somewhere between the quick wit of American pop art and "The Simpsons." To make one large composite piece, many little lampooning sculptures, each a work in its own right, are affixed at varying depths onto flat or nearly flat backgrounds, making up crazy scenes whose animated antics jut out into our world just enough to lure us into the magical space where art happens. In "The Symbolism of Minimalism," we see a museum tour in progress with a lithe docent (a cross between Betty Boop and Barbie) talking to a motley crew that ranges from an enthralled certified museumgoer to a befuddled teen. As the docent delivers the art jargon that so often puts off the everyday chap, odd abstract shapes literally pour out of her mouth and float - tellingly - right over the heads of her audience. This piece points at the multileveled wit driving the artist and his creations. First of all, it lets the art smart know that Gourley's work may look ingenuous and goofy, yet he is anything but a bumpkin. Minimal art was one of art's most austere abstract styles and included the absolute rule that pure art should contain no narrative or symbolic content. Gourley's title is therefore both a clever pun and a way of letting viewers know that the artist has little patience for the obscurities of much contemp orary art. The piece shows us, as so many of Gourley's works do, a cross section of regular Joes and middle Americans wanting to be a part of the universal experience of art, an experience that tends, according to Gourley, to include the few and exclude the many. "That concept of inclusion is a key element in my art." he says. "Humor is a sort of universal language. If you think about how children communicate so easily and honestly, it is almost always through humor and laughter and fantasy. So many artists are ashamed of having humor in their work. Famous artists like Picasso hid their humorous work. That's the very thing I strive for because I want to include everyone. ... I'm not interested in a lot of complex stuff that no one understands without a 50-page op erator's manual." GOURLEY will get an idea and make a sketch of the finished piece. He enlarges the sketch via projector because the finished sculptures are sometimes six feet wide or high. He traces the sketch and makes stencils for each individual object then crafts these out of wood enhanced with resins, or from exotic plastic polymers, which he has often invented. Each of the 100 or so pieces that go into a large scene is painted in acrylic and covered with an epoxy finish. Every detail, color, position, and orientation is predetermined using computer graphics that let Gourley try compositions before he executes them. Finally, using screws, wire, and specially designed sticking agents, all the parts are attached to the background. "The sense of movement and tangibility is critical to me. I want viewers to touch moving parts, feel surfaces, sense themselves being pulled into a piece. Art is sensual, tactile, as well as cerebral. Great artists hit us in all these places no matter what medium they use... . For me, humor opens the door that invites the greatest number of viewers in."