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Art review: Robert Mallary at the Box

February 26, 2010 |  5:15 pm

400.et.0224.galleries26.04 The press release for Robert Mallary's show at the Box states that his work has not been shown in L.A. since 1954, which is hard to believe, because it is breathtaking.

The artist, who died in 1997 at age 79, participated in the assemblage movement that followed on the heels of Abstract Expressionism, and most of the works in the show date from the '50s and '60s.

Yet unlike Rauschenberg's more playful "Combines," Mallary's assemblages are dark, dramatic sculptures that nod to classical themes. "Harpy," from 1962, is a tattered, winged figure constructed out of resin-soaked tuxedos that have been ripped, weathered and stretched over thin steel rods. The dusty black fabric makes the figure look charred, an effect rendered more gruesome by the still-recognizable seams and buttons, which suggest a battered bodily presence.

400.et.0224.galleries26.05 In five large wall pieces, Mallary used resin to shape sand, gravel, wood and cardboard into monochromatic abstractions that hover somewhere between painting and sculpture. With their distressed and scumbled surfaces, they seem like more muscular cousins to the work of Spanish abstract Expressionist Antoni Tàpies, who textured his paintings with sand. They also seem to prefigure, aesthetically at least, the grimy layers of history revealed in the house fragments of Gordon Matta-Clark.

Mallary's extensive use of resin eventually made him ill – he was one of the first artists to sound the alarm about the dangers of toxic art materials. A selection of works from the '80s reveals how he continued to explore the same themes and motifs in less heroic fashion. Using only torn and folded scrap paper and envelopes, his modest collages are the inverse of his sculptures: the same textures, shapes and visual complexity, only intimate and white instead of looming and dark.

– Sharon Mizota

The Box, 977 Chung King Road, L.A., (213) 625-1747, through April 3. Closed Sunday-Tuesday. www.theboxla.com

Image: Harpy (top) and Flight 16, 1961. Photo credit: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box.

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