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AROUND THE GALLERIES

Song Kim at Walter Maciel Gallery

Also reviewed: Constance Mallinson at Pomona College; Iranian artists at Morono Kiang Gallery and more.

October 02, 2009|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | ART CRITIC

Paintings with a fuzzy, blissed-out, sun-bleached look have a venerable contemporary history, beginning with Vija Celmins and Gerhard Richter in the 1960s, continuing with Ellen Phelan in the 1980s and then on to Luc Tuymans more recently. Now, among others, add young Beijing painter Song Kun to the accomplished roster.

At Walter Maciel Gallery, Song is showing 20 oil paintings made since 2008. All horizontal, all 18 inches high and 24 inches wide, they include a few single-panel works and one triptych; most are diptychs.

Some, like "The Deer City I & II," show different views of the same subject -- in this case a mountainous landscape with a pure white deer that is so sleek, smooth and statuesque that it appears to be, well, a statue. Others shift the view completely from one panel to the next. A mysterious landscape is next to a close-up of a man who has fallen asleep on the bus, or a dark nighttime view of Shanghai abuts an unidentified pagoda in silhouette.

The effect is dreamlike and vaguely ominous. It encourages close scrutiny of disjointed vistas that refuse to coalesce and fully disclose themselves. Song paints in grays, whites and sepia tones, with only hints of lifelike color rising from the surface, like a vision emerging from fog. A sense of unrelieved estrangement separates the artist (and the viewer) from the quotidian world recorded in the pictures.

Song showed a painting series called "It's My Life "(2005-06) at the UCLA Hammer Museum two years ago, her American solo debut. Every day for a year she made one small painting as a kind of visual diary of whatever was on her mind, filtered through traditional Chinese and European painterly motifs. But the Hammer selection felt blase and apathetic.

The new work doesn't. Nowhere is it more engaged than in the triptych, where panels show views of a rock band playing on a club's stage, fronted by a young female singer. In the lower left quadrant of each, illuminated by stage lights that blare into your eyes, a uniformed soldier or policeman is seen from behind, watching.

Song keeps shifting our point of view on the club action, but it's the official watching the woman who seems to be the work's true subject. Whether a performer being checked out by an unexpected fan, a symbol of youthful rebellion under the watchful eye of a representative of government control or perhaps art being metaphorically monitored by shadowy proscriptions, the triptych mesmerizes. The show is Song's U.S. gallery debut and represents a big step forward.

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Walter Maciel Gallery, 2642 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 839-1840, through Oct. 31. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.waltermacielgallery.com

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Creations from decaying matter

Constance Mallinson's recent works are painted in oils on plywood or paper, which makes material sense. Plywood and paper are engineered products assembled from natural substances such as wood veneers and cellulose fibers, while the paintings' subject focuses on the industrial degradation of nature -- especially trees. "Severed Limbs," for example, is a still life composed from chopped-up tree limbs and twigs, a surprisingly gruesome array of decaying matter that restores some of the deathly quality of the original French term for still life -- nature morte.

Given the way things are going environmentally these days, all of nature appears headed for the grave. "Severed Limbs" does double duty as beautifully rendered naturalistic painting and as the depiction of a mass tomb.

For the latest installment of the project series at Pomona College Museum of Art, curator Rebecca McGrew has assembled five paintings whose life-size imagery is rendered as trompe l'oeil grotesques. Unlike Giuseppe Arcimboldo's famous Baroque portraits made from flowers, fruits, vegetables and fish, Mallinson's pictures show desiccated bodies cobbled together from tree stumps and crumbling leaves.

Rather than portraiture, though, her pictures recall older paintings -- Manet's 1863 nude "Olympia," a confrontational opening salvo in the history of Modern art, or various Germanic renditions of Adam and Eve and Christian saints. Creepy and compelling, the imagery suggests the way in which we project ourselves on conceptions of nature, creating the natural world even as we go about assuring its destruction.

Adam and Eve may have been ejected from Eden, but here they are literally composed of dying elements of the garden that was denied them. And the popular 19th century dismissal of Manet's "Olympia," a riveting picture of a Parisian prostitute, as vulgar and immoral takes on a slightly different tone when cast as an image of ecological collapse.

Mallinson has been painting savvy landscapes for more than 25 years, beginning with vistas assembled from postcards, advertisements and calendars. These sobering new works are among her most accomplished.

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Pomona College Museum of Art, 333 N. College Way, Claremont, (909) 621-8283, through Oct. 18. Closed Mondays. www.pomona.edu//museum

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