The work of Los Angeles-based artist Lauren-Mendelsohn-Bass feels uniquely, passionately a part of L.A. itself. Perhaps that focus is due to the strong noir style of her figurative paintings. Film noir is deeply embedded in the culture of the City of Angels, and her art, with its noir narrative focus, is equally emblematic of the artist’s hometown.
Mendelsohn-Bass has a sleek, seductive, highly sensual style to her work, and in each piece lies a wonderfully furtive element. It’s unusual and absorbing to see the way in which the artist creates a sense of tension and conflict, evokes a story that begins, as with any good noir screenplay, in the middle of things. Secret glances, the arch of a brow, the clasp of a hand, all of these convey psychological heft, the internal conveyed through external actions. This is the stuff of noir and of Mendelsohn-Bass’ lush, large scale art.
Working in oil on canvas, Mendelsohn-Bass most often shapes works that are a combination of images, a consolidated, single-canvas triptych reminiscent of individual frames of film. Sometimes images are monochromatic, others are full color. There is a recurrent use of bright food images combined with darker images of people, sometimes in motion, sometimes in conversation. To unpack all of the visual metaphors in each of her works takes repeated viewings.
Take “Preparations,” below, with the top of half of the work featuring four women. Three are sepia-toned, softly realistic figures; the fourth is the most dominant, a highly stylized, comic book-like black and white image. In each case, the women are in motion and in profile. The realistic renderings are in various stages of undress; the cartoon image is busily scrubbing a pan, frowning. Each of these women is preparing for something just out of sight, whether concealed visually by the artist or hidden, internalized by the subjects. The lower portion of the canvas is in full color. A plate of partially hidden, and in their own way, equally mysterious, cupcakes. A woman diving deep into blue water. What appears to be chocolate cake, with one slice missing.
To the viewer, all but the cartoon-like image of the woman scrubbing her pan are sensual. The semi-nude renderings of the women painted in sepia tone, the curve and shadow of the female swimmer, the lush imagery of the desserts – all are a physical manifestation of longing, desire, reach perhaps exceeding grasp. That dominant image, the black and white comic-book-like woman is scrubbing what exactly? Just a pan? A blood stain? The longing for more from her life? Is she removing the memories of the other images?
Above, “Pick Your Poison” follows a similar artistic trajectory, juxtaposing four images, interconnected. A softly focused, sepia-toned man reads a newspaper, smoke from an unseen cigarette resting in an unsettling cloud around him. A comic-book-style image of a man writhing on the ground, his form almost immediately raising the specter of unseen bullets or a hard fall. Empty thought bubbles emanate from his frame. Here the dominant image is a full-color cup of coffee being poured, next to which the profile of a sepia-toned woman offers a tentative half smile, as if daring the viewer to ask her what exactly she is up to or what is going on here. The correlation between reading the news, smoking, an injury, coffee, and the seemingly benign glance of a woman is up to the viewer: perhaps the woman is pulling all the strings here, or perhaps it is an unseen woman, one whose manicured hand is pouring the coffee, who is the ultimate in hidden puppet-master.
Above, with “Full Service,” we have again a mouth-watering dessert, this one lemon meringue pie, an unseen woman – here, with her hands wrapped around a partially observable man’s neck, and a tray of realistic cocktails born by a stylized black and white comic book character. Would the full service of the title represent dining service from cocktails to dessert? Or would it include the potential homicide of the man?
With “Call Me,” above, the artist’s intent seems entirely clear – a woman is cajoling a phone call from an unseen suitor with her friendly if a touch avid profiled smile, her seductive legs, her Marilyn-esque face and nude body, and center-stage, a very noir-era dessert, what appears to be Cherries Jubilee.
As with all Mendelsohn-Bass paintings, the urge to decipher them from the clues she leaves is as strong as the urge to simply admire, take the work in, appreciate the restlessness and desire her art captures. The noir in her visual stories is based around relationships; she is the hardboiled detective uncovering the detours and illusions of a case, the subtle and not-so-subtle actions of a femme fatale, the idea of what a femme fatale is, and the role’s feminist implications.
As in her “Untitled” work above, Mendelsohn-Bass uses the female form, vibrant desserts – which have a highly sensual quality, and images that both literally and figuratively “dive in” to new psychological territory to examine the nuances of relationships. Of very LA-relationships, with our obsessions about the perfect body, the perfect appearance, the ultimately sinful dessert.
Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – eat your hearts out.
Mendelsohn-Bass may very well be the quintessential purveyor of contemporary noir story telling, with one picture being indeed worth a thousand words.
- Genie Davis; photos provided by Kristine Schomaker