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Bad Sin Frutas, Morgan Mandalay’s first L.A. solo show at Klowden Mann, suggests trouble in paradise. Across several canvases that combine elements of still life and landscape, Mandalay portrays a once Edenic garden as a tortured, contested space. In And forgive us our trespasses (2019), flames lick the gnarled branches of a tree, while lemons and two freshly-caught trout hang from it’s limbs. Meanwhile, a ghostly hand reaches up from the bottom of the frame, struggling to grasp a low bough. Perched on a tree stump, a hawk picks the entrails from a mouse, lending a grisly sheen to an otherwise bucolic scene in Still Life with Peaches, Hawk, and Field Mouse (After Audubon and Courbet) (2018). The elements of a natural wonderland are all here, but Mandalay portrays them in a way that renders them hostile and strange—twisted and aflame, garishly hued, confusingly jumbled, and compressed against the picture plane. Painterly techniques from thin washes to heavy impasto further serve to pull us into the seductive, but disconcerting details.
Two paintings depict walls, a contemporary trope of displacement with which Mandalay updates the biblical story of exile. A low wall cuts diagonally through the composition of Rotten Core (2019), presumably crushing a fallen figure whose feet jut out from beneath it, as a sinister snake lounges on a branch above. Another dominates the space in Tree of a Thousand Fruit (unfulfilled) (2019), providing a marked contrast to the spindly titular sapling whose anemic branches offer up a measly bounty of a few leaves and buds.
Around the edges of some of the works, Mandalay has painted stubby white teeth, as if we are looking out onto the scene from inside the open maw of a giant. It is a cartoonish and facile indication of nature gone wrong, though it is a tonal distraction from the more nuanced, unnerving vistas depicted.
Mandalay draws on traditional art historical modes, only to subvert their intended effects with both narrative and compositional transgressions. The press release discusses Mandalay’s family’s exile from Cuba as part of the inspiration for the series, which is not readily apparent in the works themselves, but need not be. His fiery, inhospitable groves, still laden with ripe, inviting flora convey a more universal sense of alienation. What these turbulent scenes capture is the confusion and ambivalence that accompanies flight from a once familiar homeland that no longer feels welcoming—a timeless condition that sadly seems all too prevalent today.
Morgan Mandalay: Bad Sin Frutas runs from March 30–May 4, 2019 at Klowden Mann (6023 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232).