Review

Bone, organs, scars: At Hannah Hoffman, a surreal and sculptural exploration of the body

The most obvious precedent for Olga Balema’s exhibition at Hannah Hoffman gallery is the work of Eva Hesse, whose abstract, tactile sculptures make oblique references to corporeality: not just what bodies look like, but how it feels to inhabit one. Balema takes this proposition in a direction that feels both surreal and slightly scientific.

This latter quality is evoked in the pea-soup colored linoleum that covers the floor of the main gallery. Laid down in overlapping sheets, the surface evokes hospitals or other institutional spaces, complete with stains. Positioned on top of this flooring are four flat sculptures: clear plastic bags filled with water and other items. Although the bags are rectangular, they feel like bodies.

The work titled “become a stranger to yourself” is filled with images of what look like blood vessels or perhaps scars, and some indeterminate red masses that might be organs. Two similar works contain things reminiscent of bone or skin. And “fractures” features pale, curling ribbons that suggest nothing so much as tapeworms. These watery masses, like giant petri dishes, remind us that we are merely ambulatory bags of liquid.

In one corner of this room, sheets of iridescent paper, brighter than pea soup, spread across the floor and partially up one wall like a wave. Resting on the paper is a piece of wood that vaguely resembles a limb, draped with a sculpture of a partial rib cage. Next to this, slender, white, bone-like fragments are hooked up to battery packs so that they tremble. The effect is uncanny, like a disconnected but still buzzing nervous system: an automaton that is little more than a pound of flesh.

Balema has also created a series of works consisting of fabric stretched over thin, metal armatures. These feel more obviously figurative and less interesting, although one of them, made of airy beige tulle, exhibits an unexpected sense of movement. Another features a pouch filled with water in which algae has been allowed to grow. This interpenetration — part bodily metaphor, part science experiment — feels like an accurate assessment of the way we’ve come to understand our own sagging mortality.

Hannah Hoffman, 1010 N. Highland Ave., L.A. Through March 11; closed Sundays and Mondays. (323) 450-9106, www.hannahhoffmangallery.com

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