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What is there There

Nature Morte, paintings by Constance Mallinson
Pomona College Museum of Art, through October 18, 2009

As a fiction writer, you learn first that as it addresses narrative, a great piece of fiction is like a path into a forest that never shows the way out. The same is true of poetry as it addresses the act of thought, or of painting as it addresses the act of seeing. (Such desultory ambulations are the crucial difference between these forms and the theory or philosophy that swarms around them, maybe with the exclusion of Derrida.)

Woodland Seen, Oil on Paper, 54×96 inches, 2009

In this new work of Constance Mallinson, the act of seeing goes into an imaginary forest from which an essence has been gleaned and transmogrified, but never explained. Mallinson actually picks up the objects which are the models for her work on morning walks in the wilds of the S.F. Valley, but nothing here, or there, is as it seems. These are paintings that are intricate, complex and luxurious, which invite long and languorous gazing.They also contain within them stories of an uneasily shifting reality, an ever-dying natural world, and primal acts of violence and regeneration embedded in the act of seeing.

We have walked through the woods in fall and winter, gathered the broken parts of trees, the detritus of the wild park land, its carcasses and hollow husks, empty seed pods and broken-off branches whose xylem and phloem have withered and collapsed; and these objects, released from reproductive function, seem startlingly familiar. It is nature’s uncanny familiarity that feels somehow more primal than the studied affection nature lovers know–although it is very likely this uncanny familiarity gives rise to nature love. We have listened to the whining and scraping of tree trunks pressed together by the wind, a plaintiff sensuality that is a strange echo of something that is ours.In Mallinson’s latest works, those acts are evoked and stirred into a witchery of weird and compelling iconography that resonates as both primitive fetish and art history–taken not in its academic, referential sense, but as a psycho-cultural cauldron which emanates images that haunt and re-manifest through the medium of the sentient artist.

Mallinson stirs up a primal scene of terror as we gaze into a tumble down pile of leaves and branches:the decay that is only form, and transient at that, re-formed into an horrific new manifestation. Her “Nature Mort” paintings have been likened to memento mori, and though I tend to see the fact that the chosen objects are decaying as decidedly secondary to primary act of seeing/gathering/compositing, “Severed Limbs” seems the most quotational of memento mori form.

This brings us to my personal favorite, as I confess a partiality to typography, eastern philosophy, and words: a painting entitled “You”, which displays the word “me” in its multifarious forms. From a great distance it is a pretty floral field picture, but on second thought and closer examination, a koan-like contemplation opens up, a wry portrait of the Self as a crisp, fragile and illusory thing, suitable for composting.

The questions Mallinson asks in her new body of work are not interrogatory–in demand of answers–but they are probes into the nature of forms as seen/unseen. In her gathering and recompositing, in this fetishistic anthropomorphous that calls to mind a certain sorcery she exercises the craftiness of the consummate artist. The “Nature Morte” series shows us how the dream fabric of our reality is inhabited by invisible beings engaged in acts that we have committed countless times, leads us into a forest of signs, and leaves us there to wonder.

Please click on the image to enlarge.

Couple, Oil on Paper, 95×52 1/2 inches, 2008

Olympia Decayed, Oil on Paper, 52 1/2×90 inches, 2008

Severed Limbs, Oil on Paper, 52 1/2×60 1/2 inches, 2009

You, Oil on Paper, 40 1/2×52 1/2 inches, 2008

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