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Review: Mark Dion tackles extinction in his art—and offers neither false hope nor despondency

A sketch of a long skeleton with the words "Plesiosaur Timeline," at top
Mark Dion, “Plesiosaur Timeline,” 2020, ink on stained paper
(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

Mark Dion makes chart-like drawings and boxed-display sculptures of artifacts that initially seem to be rigorous accumulations of scientific knowledge. Ostensibly they’re a sign of human progress — but maybe not.

A cloud soon forms over the collected data. At Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, where the New York-based artist is having his first solo presentation in the gallery’s Los Angeles space, things quickly turn grim.

For example, a detailed timeline of a couple hundred years of human history is merged with the very long line of undulating vertebrae in a thorough skeletal rendering of a Plesiosaur, a big marine reptile extinct for roughly 66 million years. Epic historical events like the Furisode fire, which destroyed two-thirds of Japan’s capital city Edo in 1657, killing 100,000 people, or the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which set the stage for Russia’s current blood-soaked war in Ukraine three decades later, suddenly seem puny in the larger scheme of planetary passages. The entire drawing, which Dion executed on intentionally stained and yellowing paper, is likewise an emblem of its own eventual demise.

Ars longa, vita brevis and all, but good luck with that. As temperatures rise, time is running out either way. Welcome to “Theater of Extinction,” as the artist has titled his show of four recent sculptures and more than a dozen new drawings.

A flamingo, which may be either a taxidermy bird or a plastic one plucked from an unsuspecting front yard, stands in a trashcan filled with junk, covered in oily black goop. A carefully cataloged and arrayed “Cabinet of Marine Debris: East Coast/West Coast” turns an aristocratic 17th century cabinet of curiosities on its head, transforming a showcase of exotic wonderment into a stolid inventory of dismay. In a skeleton drawing of a galumphing, long-gone dodo, a litany of bodily and emotional states, including guilt and yellow bile, is interwoven with attempts to cope — witchcraft, too much sex, strong imagination and more.

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Collisions of scale are important here, as the vivid, intimate present tense of viewership crashes into images linked to vast, timeless dissolution. Dion offers neither false hope nor despondency, just hard-nosed resolution. The tone is exactly right.

A flamingo in a pot on a wood box
Mark Dion, “Tar and Feathers,” 2019, mixed media
(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

Where: Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, 1010 N Highland Ave.
When: Closed Sunday and Monday. Through May 25.
Contact: www.tanyabonakdargallery.com, (323) 380-7172


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