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Art review: Constance Mallinson at Pomona College Museum of Art

October 2, 2009 |  4:15 pm

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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. At once creepy and compelling, the imagery suggests the way in which we project ourselves onto 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 pungent 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.

-- Christopher Knight

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

Above: "Severed Limbs." Credit: Brian Forrest / Angles Gallery