Scenarios of distress from China's Ma Ke

Scenarios of distress from China's Ma Ke
"Sandstorm 3" by artist Ma Ke at Marc Selwyn Fine Art gallery. (Marc Selwyn Fine Art)

Chinese painter Ma Ke is making his U.S. solo debut at Marc Selwyn Fine Art with 10 paintings dating from 2008 to 2012. The starting point for his work, he says, is quotidian life, "surviving daily events."

He doesn't articulate those events with any specificity or deliver any contextual clues, but instead paints open-ended narrative fragments charged with a pervasive sense of tension.


Private anguish, interpersonal friction and environmental trauma are all suggested, though none is overtly illustrated. Ma generates an air of instability in the work through broad areas of intense color, often a deep, violet-black, and through the expressions, postures and positions of his figures, who exert pressure against the canvas edge.

"Sandstorm 3" is the most immersive and affecting scenario of distress. An ominous expanse of flat, pale russet dominates the roughly 7-by-10-foot canvas. The dystopic smog dwarfs the picture's lone figure, a woman sketched in cherry red. Her arms join protectively in front of her, and her face sags in grief.

In other scenes, large beams have collapsed in a scatter, or lie in a neat pile beneath a dark and daunting cyclone. It's easy to read these images as pertaining to China's massive construction projects as well as its disastrous construction accidents. The abbreviated quality of Ma's compositions might thwart their legibility as stories, but it amps up the spatial and emotional intensity.

Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 9953 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 277-9953, through July 5.