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Art review: Mel Bochner at Marc Selwyn Fine Art

March 5, 2010 |  8:30 pm

Aggravate Mel Bochner's wicked new paintings at Marc Selwyn taunt and provoke – with a straight face and even a saccharine smile. They send deliciously mixed signals, their colors generally sweet and sprightly, their format neutral and well-ordered, and their words testy, harsh, mocking.

The "Thesaurus Paintings," which he's been making since picking up a new edition of Roget's reference book in 2002, extend the Conceptual artist's 4-decade-long exploration of how language and image work together and at cross-purposes. The recent paintings on canvas (and a related series of smaller works on paper) recall a group of portraits and self-portraits Bochner drew/wrote in the mid-'60s, each one an accretion of words that, as he put it, represent but don't necessarily reveal.

A similar push/pull dynamic energizes the new work. On each canvas, Bochner has painted a string of synonyms, beginning with a term denoting some sort of negativity: "aggravate," "ridicule," "failure." Like escalating arguments, the sequences pick up heat as they progress, and end with a word or phrase unprintable on these pages.

Ridicule Bochner's lettering is neat as a sign-painter's (his father's profession), and his palette is eager-to-please, in lilac, teal, lemon, grape, fuchsia and lime. The colors stop and start in a syncopated rhythm that doesn't correspond to the beginnings and ends of words, adding to the discrepancy between message and image.

That slippage is what makes the paintings buzz. They rage, while remaining cool and collected. Perhaps these newer works are portraits too – not of individuals but of civility's disingenuous veneer.

– Leah Ollman

Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 933-9911, through March 20. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Images: Aggravate (top) and Ridicule, courtesy of Marc Selwyn Fine Art.