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Art review: Constance Mallinson at Pomona College Museum of Art

October 2, 2009 |  4:15 pm

Mallinson 01

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

Comments () | Archives (6)

OMG, CK! you have got to be kidding me! You got all that from a painting of firewood? It literally looks like limbs in my bin pruned from our old olive and plum trees. Used for the fireplace. Damn, i guess you are psychic or something, seeing things where others only see wood, Everything decays, so? Its part of life, and literally biodegradable. We all die. And with trees, it makes for a nice warm fire on cold nights. Some people need to get out more.

Life is filled with dirt and life and growth, and decay. Just not in pristine sterilized galleries and academies, only for artistes is this something magical and metaphysical. Damn, you can squeeze words outta a mothball. amazing, I am truly speachless

You are the man.

Art Collegia Delenda Est

PS. This is no criticism of the artist. Its actually very well done, and has a timeless feel to it. You are even right with the Romantic German feel. But that is about god, life and death, being everywhere, something you seem desperate to avoid. But pulling Olympia out of your, er, the woodshed, now THATs talent.

have a nice weekend

If one looks at Constance Mallinson’s painting and sees only dead limbs, he is merely the shell of a tree, all meaningless bark with no pithy bite. The human race is so much more than kindling for the fire. We are made of better stuff and are made to serve a greater purpose than that. Look beyond the surface of the painting, which shows only dry kindling, the dead parts of oneself, a pile of dead limbs in a stage of biodegradation. Think beyond the title of the painting, which may only lead to grotesque images of decay, food for the worms and fire.

On the surface, it might appear that human lives are merely part of an endless monotonous cycle, where all of nature is born, lives for a time, and then dies--destined only for the fire or the compost heap--and nothing more. To see deeper meaning beyond the surface of the painting, and to appreciate more than the physical naturalistic beauty in it, we need to believe that there is also a greater purpose and meaning to our own lives.

Look at the painting with more than physical eyes, for eyes can see only physical matter. Instead, use the mind’s eye, the eternal human spirit and imagination, which is the God-given redeeming part of us that never dies. In doing so, we can still catch a glimpse of the Paradise that was lost.

In the story of Eden, Adam and Eve partook of that single and limited “tree of knowledge” without a full and complete understanding of the Artist-Creator, the Divine Architect’s spirit. This action ultimately reduced humanity to its shallow, physical vision of the world. In a sense, we can no longer see Eden’s rich and beautiful forest for the “tree”.

The Creator’s punishment of Adam and Eve, and of humanity as a whole, was not so much an ejection from the garden altogether, but rather it placed upon us a corporal, physical punishment that obliterates our vision of Paradise. He sent us, like naughty children, to the proverbial woodshed for our error, as it were. But like a loving Father, he wants us to learn from that punishment and be accountable for our mistake. Shedding our tears and our dead limbs, we need to come out and try again to re-create a new Eden on Earth through a forest of well-cultivated minds.

Gardens don’t grow overnight. It takes patience, time, study, and hard work. Mallinson’s work is fertile ground for new students of culture. It does “double duty,” both trimming away at our dead limbs and getting to the heart of the natural beauty that still remains alive in us. As for the dead trimmings? Place “All Knowing” pride and arrogance on the bonfires of our vanities.

P. S. Galileo's severed finger is both "creepy and compelling." I came across a photo of it the other day. Went “Out There” online and found a link to an article about it. Looking at that digital digit led me to ask, Should I Dig it or bury it for someone else to find?

Gee, i am glad you explained all that, and have a complete understanding of the Artist-Creator. What art school did he go to, you must have been there to understand so much.

If you could read, I actually do like the work, but it is not severed limbs of humans or Olympia, thats CK being melodramatic. It is of the line of German Romanticism, which is as much pagan based as Christian. Pantheist, seeing god in everything. Which is fine, I do appreciate art that deals with the concept of god, whatever that means to you. Which I guess you know, you seem to have been there. An Artist claimimg to be in gods line, which is the usual Agape style new age LA nonsense.

Unfortunately, we got lots of ingorant little gods running around in art schools, I dont think the creative force lies in that Valhalla.

art collegia delenda est

It’s quite obvious that I didn’t go to art school or exist at the dawn of life, Mr. Frazell. You implied what an ignorant child I am in previous comments (and I do not dispute that assessment in terms of my extremely limited knowledge of art and literature). But why must your comments sound so angry? They are really disheartening. My personal understanding of the “Artist-Creator” (and Constance Mallinson, for that matter) is limited at best, but some form of intellectual enlightenment should be something to strive for, whatever one’s concept of “god” or “life-force” or “nature” may be.

Is it such an infringement on your Supreme expertise and knowledge of the subject, that a casual observer would want to view a piece of art, enjoy reading a critique of it, and then feel inspired enough to make her own comment about it? This painting encourages me to think more deeply than I would normally do when walking about the world and seeing things only at face value. A Christian theme came out in my writing because it was part of my thought process. Should I have suppressed it here in order to be “culturally” or “politically” correct? A person of another faith, or of no faith, might see something entirely different in this painting. That’s the beauty of it.

The wood has taken on a life of its own now. Maggots and worms swarm around, a rat gnaws on a carcass, and a scary-looking face glares menacingly. (That’s the meanness coming out.) There is the faintest suggestion of fire and smoke below the wood, and lush green above and beyond it. Go GREEN!


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