Are those real seashells? Photos? Paintings? In artist Mark Roeder’s show, the answer is none of the above

on May5

Earnestness and intimacy aren’t the first attributes that come to mind when you think about art of a conceptual bent, but Mark Roeder’s show at Michael Benevento gallery softens the heart before it gently prods the mind.

Roeder, based in L.A., has sculpted hundreds of seashells out of clay and painted them in acrylic and ink. They rest on low pedestals topped in pale gray and on similar panels mounted like pictures on the wall. Many of the sculptures bear the colors that match their counterparts in the natural world, mostly subdued umbers and rusts, creams and taupes. Others, however, are painted in monochrome, setting off an optical alert that something curious is happening here.

Roeder has replicated, in three dimensions, 56 of the photographic plates in a 1968 book, “The Shell: Five Hundred Million Years of Inspired Design.” His arrangements — type and number of shells, and their positions — mimic those in the reproductions. What was printed in color is painted in color, and what appears in black and white remains so. He reconstitutes the subjects according to the way they look in the photographs, not with fussy illusion, but faithful to details like how, in a picture, a patch of light hits a shell’s curve and bleaches out its color and pattern.

Plate (#22, Roosters), 2016, clay, acrylic and ink, two parts, 10.5 inches by 22.5 inches. Plate (#23, Terebellum With Conchs), 2016, clay, acrylic and ink, five parts, 10.5 inches by 11.25 inches
Plate (#22, Roosters), 2016, clay, acrylic and ink, two parts, 10.5 inches by 22.5 inches. Plate (#23, Terebellum With Conchs), 2016, clay, acrylic and ink, five parts, 10.5 inches by 11.25 inches (Jeff McLane / Mark Roeder and Michael Benevento)
Mark Roeder's installation at Michael Benevento
Mark Roeder’s installation at Michael Benevento (Jeff McLane / Mark Roeder and Michael Benevento)

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Walking through the show feels a bit like a game of telephone, in which each round of transmission entails some change and distortion. These little sculptures are translations of translations, but with ample physical immediacy of their own. Remaking each natural wonder by hand seems a profoundly direct means of encounter, yet by basing the sculptures on photographs rather than real objects, that encounter becomes, inevitably, indirect and incomplete.

Mostly, the show feels quietly nourishing. Roeder’s project, however intellectually wry, has the quality of a private act of reverence. Extreme yet humble, it verges on the devotional.

Michael Benevento, 3712 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. Through May 13; closed Sunday and Monday. (323) 874-6400, www.beneventolosangeles.com

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