by Jonathan Griffin
M+B, Los Angeles
Back in January 2018, in China Art Objects’ fair booth at Art Los Angeles Contemporary, I saw some paintings by an artist then unknown to me that I liked. I remember an island, moody cloudscapes, bruised colouration. I asked the gallerist Steve Hanson about them, and while I don’t recall much of his vague response, I do remember that he couldn’t help me identify the historical painting one of these reminded me of. (I worked it out later: it was Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, 1880.)
Paintings by the same artist are currently on view at M+B; his name, according to the press release, is Leo Mock, born 1964 (no spring chicken, then) in Los Angeles, where he still lives and works. Upon questioning, the gallery assistant conceded that at least two parts of that press release were inaccurate. The artist, he said, has just departed Los Angeles for Mexico. And his name is not Leo Mock, it’s Steve Hanson.
China Art Objects, a beloved mainstay of the Los Angeles gallery scene since it opened in 1999, has not had an official exhibition according to its website since late 2017, when it gave up its Culver City premises. I missed Mock’s exhibition there in May of that year; only now that the Los Angeles gallery has closed has Hanson emerged from the closet of pseudonymity. China Art Objects, founded with Giovanni Intra, Peter Kim, Amy Yao and Mark Heffernan, was originally an artist-run space that professionalised to keep up with its commercial success. Now setting up in Mérida, Yucatán, the gallery plans to focus more on residencies and events (and also, inevitably, art fairs) than exhibitions – a return, perhaps in part, to its spiritual roots.
So, what do the secret paintings of an art dealer look like? The first thing to say is that there is no trace of dilletantism about this work. Mock’s output is thematically focused, and deeply developed. The paintings at M+B, done in oils, oil stick and charcoal, are consistent with those exhibited in 2017: abbreviated beach scenes, in which strips of dusky rose, sage green, maroon and jade define the land and the sea, while flat-bottomed clouds pile up pregnantly in the sky above. Compositions are simultaneously punctuated and pinned together by the pole-thin legs and feet of giant (and usually off-canvas) figures, sometimes flat on their backs and sometimes stooping over, as if Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures had been reimagined by Philip Guston. On the occasion that we glimpse the heads of these disconsolate alien beings – as in Anchor, dragging, behind (all works 2019), where one shelters beneath another – they are rendered as huge solid discs, surrogates for a sun that never appears. Titles, including the title of the show, …and still somehow, add to the atmosphere of worry and doubt.
I enjoy reflecting on how Mock/Hanson’s practice messes with the narrative framework of artistic emergence, fruition and maturation that most galleries spend their time finessing. Does he fall into the category of gifted amateur or seasoned artworld insider? Does his career as a dealer help or hinder his career as an artist? What about the other way around? Hanson’s late public efflorescence lends a pleasing circularity to the story of China Art Objects, a gallery never overly concerned about conforming to standard models.
First published: Art Review, September 2019