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Robin Mitchell at Craig Krull Gallery

Robin Mitchell, RM 08 10 (2008)

Robin Mitchell’s latest exhibition offers a rare case study in how humble and subtle works (in this case a collection of modestly sized works in gouache on paper) can deliver an experience that is compelling, rich, intelligent and engaged with the array of traditions from which it descends and advances. Assembled of what one might call controlled gestures — casual yet deliberate marks — Mitchell’s paintings deal in the play of movement against stasis and symmetry. They get you going with horizontal eye movement, as if reading music or scanning a page (or scanning stacked horizons), as well as vertical movement, as if you’re watching lines roll by on a Teleprompter or data stream on a monitor. At times they seem almost to chirp and hum. But as much as they get you in the mode of watching a hustle-bustle, romantic, quasi-abstract world go by — imagine Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie crossed with the luminescent daubing of Monet and the relentlessness of a news wire — they also jump off the wall and drop away via a handling of color and ligh, which can make elements read as foregrounded object, middle space and void.

Radiant shapes, often centered in the compositions, and usually among the largest of elements employed, read simultaneously as starbursts, sunspots, dahlialike flowers, pompoms or the sorts of noses one finds on Muppets. The latter association isn’t at all off, given that as much as Mitchell’s project at times seems like an inversion of Chuck Close’s devotion to constructing portraits from the sum total of many tiny abstractions, with Mitchell seeming to build abstractions out of what seem like tiny vignettes of landscape, water and atmosphere, there is a striking facial quality to many of her paintings. It’s no accident. Mitchell’s as smart a painter as there is when it comes to the odd overlaps of the abstract, the nonobjective, the representational, the referential and the evocative. The repeated presence of elements that stand out in combination — via manipulation of color, scale and emphasis — as anthropomorphic, and that trigger the tendency in all of us to see things from hubcaps to houses as made in our image, is clearly a knowing aspect of her oeuvre.

The paintings stand simultaneously as catalogued landscapes, “field” paintings, iconic abstractions and surrogates for a more traditional presence of the figure. They awe in a way that connects them to Mitchell’s quite different but related contemporary Sharon Ellis, and to predecessors like Agnes Pelton and Charles Burchfield, whose current exhibition at the Hammer Museum, combined with Mitchell’s show, makes for a Westside art excursion of the sort of loveliness one might hope to find in the pairings by a good sommelier. They also push and pull you in and out like a Hans Hofmann painting one moment, get your eyes scanning the next, and then center you like a mandala. And they confront you and engage you with a near-human presence; they make you stare, and make you feel as if you’re looking into their eyes, though they really have none. In the end, you don’t really know how to look at them. In essence, they are shape-shifters, chameleons, grifters, and also mirrors, and they jerk you around in ways that can be pleasant, and even profound.

Craig Krull Gallery: 2525 Michigan Ave., B-3, Santa Monica (Bergamot Station); Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.- 5:30 p.m., Sat., 11 a.m.- 5:30 p.m., through Nov. 21. (310) 828-6410, craigkrull.com.