Soulful Paintings Poised Between Hiding and Revealing


Painter Enjeong Noh has refined her work dramatically since her already remarkable debut show two years ago. In her new still lifes, narrative fragments and portraits at Hunsaker/Schlesinger Fine Art, she manages to finesse a delicate balance between material revelation and psychological concealment.

Her images leave us wholly convinced and at the same time wondering.

A small self-portrait at the entrance to the show seems straightforward, expository. The artist stands, brush in one hand, in a three-quarter pose of serious contemplation. She wears a blue turtleneck; a headband tames her long, dark hair. She presents a demeanor of restraint, yet one small gesture suggests something deeper, perhaps more rapturous within: With one hand, she lightly embraces her own breast, cupping it tenderly, as if claiming the sensuality that is amply evident in her painting, if not in her external appearance.

Throughout this soulfully beautiful show, Noh paints with exquisite skill but never allows that formal certainty to extinguish an essential emotional tenuousness. In two of her gem-like still lifes, she paints just a single object--a small box, wrapped in fabric. Like so many of the paintings themselves, these packages have a luxurious, tactile presence, but also an intriguing elusiveness.


In a grand, updated “Annunciation,” Noh paints Mary as an ordinary woman in bed, nude, crimson covers reaching to her waist. The messenger is no winged angel but a little girl in white who stands, reticently, just inside the door. Light filters into the spare, cell-like room through a leaded-glass window, the scene’s only real hint of sacred import.

On the bedside table--where symbolic lilies might be found in a traditional annunciation scene--Noh rests an open sketchbook, with a reproduction of a painting by Picasso on one page, and facing it a drawing after Raphael. While the scene reads easily as an early morning mother-daughter confrontation, Noh intensifies its charge by layering it with religious and art historical references. She has even provided a “motif bibliography,” listing the writings (by Rainer Maria Rilke, Milan Kundera and others) and particular images that she has drawn upon in this current body of work.

Her visual sources range widely, from a Rembrandt self-portrait through religious paintings of the Northern European Renaissance, to the idiosyncratic realism of Balthus and Stanley Spencer. All of the artists from whom she has assimilated motifs are known for the psychological intensity of their work, and Noh indeed sustains their legacy through her compelling brand of realism.

Southern California boasts a plethora of talented figurative painters (as the recent museum show “Representing L.A.” attested) and Noh, who lives in Pasadena, is among the best of them. The two small ceramic cups in her painting “Jade” resonate with familiarity--the hand knows instantly how they would feel, cool and smooth. At the same time, mind and heart register the emotional imbalance between the cup filled with water and its empty partner.

In “Wet,” Noh paints a couple at rest on the floor, sexual energy quietly pulsing through them, the drama of friction and suction played out entirely through their soaked and clinging shirts. When, in a corner detail of another painting, Noh paints the end of an incense stick, tiny cylinders of ash fallen from its tip, the image echoes a transmutation that occurs throughout her spectacular work, as one substance evokes another, and the physical lends its form to the metaphysical.

Hunsaker/Schlesinger Fine Art, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-1133, through May 24. Closed Sunday and Monday.



The World Evolves in Vibrant Collages

If there’s any tension at all in Maritta Tapanainen’s exuberant new collages, it’s a tension born of excess, not of conflict. Abundant life and ebullient energy drive these wonderful images at Couturier Gallery. They are built from meticulously excised bits of scientific, botanical and mechanical illustration. Tapanainen extracts these images from printed material she’s scavenged at flea markets and thrift shops, liberates them from their natural contexts and contours, slices them into new shapes, and combines them in collages. Their visual generosity is akin to that of the physical world itself.

In “Avaruus (Outer Space),” the largest of the works here (many are smaller than a sheet of standard notebook paper), the artist scatters a wealth of shapes and patterns that refer to inner as much as outer space. Small snippets recall arteries, blood platelets, moons, orbital paths, living things on both microcosmic and macrocosmic scales. All adhere to a frontal plane of sorts, a continuous field defined by the blacks and grays of the illustrated material and the richly aged, ivory-to-gold shades of the mosaic tiles of paper between them.

Tapanainen treats the so-called negative space not as passive background, but as an atmosphere dense with motion and change. There’s a democracy to her method that could stand some deviation, but it does vividly convey a living landscape that is one continuous, uninterruptible whole. Zero gravity rules the scene, and loops, pods, spines, spheres, birds, spirals, ropes and tusks hover harmoniously within, complying with some implicit law of spatial equity.

Life looks and acts like a laboratory in these charming works. Things are percolating, bubbling, evolving, metamorphosing. Rhythms within and among the constituent parts are irrepressibly animate. These are reveries, hommages to the forces and patterns, the pulses and flows that keep life--to borrow the title of one the collages--eternally, gloriously “Settled Unsettled.”

Couturier Gallery, 166 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 933-5557, through May 18. Closed Sunday and Monday.


Hand-Formed Pots That Collaborate With Nature

Jennifer Lee’s exquisite vessels at Frank Lloyd Gallery assume fairly modest forms--softly conical bowls, slim pots with slightly indented waists. What captures the eye, and in a startlingly profound way, the soul, is their affinity with the organic.


Their textures and pigmentation do not just evoke natural elements and processes, but convey an equivalency with them. Lee’s pots conjure the essence of sand, stone, silt and sedimentation. Breathtaking in their simplicity, they don’t merely illustrate conditions of nature but elegantly, gracefully manifest them.

Lee, born in Scotland and living in London, forms her pots by hand, from coils built upon a pinched base. Although they don’t rely on a potter’s wheel, they do convey a sense of motion--either circular, through swirled patterns of pigment, or tidal, their irregular striations reminiscent of the brief traces left by waves on beach sand, nature drawing itself.

According to the technical notes available at the gallery, Lee stains the clay with oxides, natural pigments, rather than applying glazes. Color and image are wholly integrated with surface.

One pot (“Pale pot, speckled trace”) bears a single diagonal swoop of gray-green pigment, a concentrated, calligraphic gesture against--or rather within --its pure, eggshell surface.

Others bear markings that recall liquid spills, attenuated clouds, seams within stone, creeping rust and mildew, crusty films left by evaporation. Lee swells the vessel walls in some of the pots so that their rims thicken and show cross-sections of color, layers of pigment. The sense of elapsed time is pronounced in these works, which seem to embody cycles of motion and rest, like the rhythm of the tide surging forward and pulling back. Lee’s creations touch the spirit because ultimately they are collaborations--with earth, gravity, time and motion.

Frank Lloyd Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 264-3866, through May 18. Closed Sunday and Monday.



Meditations on Moral Failings

This year’s Whitney Biennial has been dismissed as bleak, pious and naive by the New York Times, banal, dreary and thin by this paper. It’s hard to imagine that Yun-Fei Ji, one of the 113 artists included in the exhibition, doesn’t offer at least one redeeming moment, based on his small but engaging show at Post.

Ji’s paintings cross the freakish moralizing of Hieronymous Bosch with the literary atmospherics of traditional Chinese landscape painting, and filter them both through a 21st century sensibility honed by natural disasters, warfare and violation of the environment.

Only two paintings hang here (additional studies are available for viewing), but their dense imagery sustains attention equal to a much larger show. Both paintings, in ink and mineral pigments on mulberry paper, read immediately as older than they are. Smoky gray and blue washes stain the paper, which appears abraded with age. The linear articulation of figures, craggy rocks, trees and waterfalls subscribes to a classical Chinese idiom.

As if seen from an elevated viewpoint, the landscapes consume the entire vertical span of the paper, forgoing a horizon to allow for more narrative action to unfold among the multiple, continuous zones of the composition. In “Three Gorges Project,” clouds billow and waves ripple as if a final reckoning were taking place.

Scale has lost its familiar logic. Flies outsize cars. Cicadas and wasps and several creepy, hybrid, Bosch-like creatures with scissor beaks and leonine jowls posture in vaguely threatening ways. An apocalyptic wind has unhinged this world, loosing trucks and tanks and houses through the air.

“The Boxer, the Missionary and Their Gods” follows much the same format but presents a more complex narrative, ripe with the odd and grotesque.


The cast here includes goddesses and demons, decapitated bodies and a multi-headed tree. Creatures of land, sea and air, mortal and mythic, all exercise their power--or suffer their powerlessness--on this fantastic, time-warped stage.

Something has gone cosmically wrong here, yet the New York-based Ji has given us an opportunity to savor and reflect. His work, as he says, “is a meditation on the land as the image of our own moral failure.”

Post, 1904 E. 7th Place, L.A., (213) 622-8580, through May 18. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.