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Exploring Concealment and Display Through Counter-Camouflage and Corporeal Collage

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Two separate solo shows currently on view at CES Contemporary are not only proximally adjoining; they are conceptually and formally closely related. Though their focus and techniques differ, both artists, Mike Parillo and Ashkan Honarvar, explore notions of concealment and display in pictures that straddle balefulness and beauty.

Mike Parillo's show, Just the Tip, features three different types of paintings: apparently non-objective poured paint abstractions, paintings of camouflage patterns, and a single picture of a fiery explosion engulfing skeletal architectural forms. The self-taught artist's paintings differ in content but are united by color and form. Parillo's background as a commercial artist is evinced in his flat painting style hallmarked by crisp lines and graphic forms.

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Mike Parillo, "In Plain Sight," 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 48" x 60". Image courtesy of CES Contemporary.

The press release states that Parillo's show is a metaphor for the struggle between failure and success. This is most evident in his camouflage paintings. In these, squiggly lines, globs of glitter, animal prints and camouflage motifs are all overlaid to form cacophonies of competing colors and patterns.

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Mike Parillo, "Chocolate Chip Sherbert #1," 2014, Acrylic, glitter on panel, 24" x 24". Image courtesy of CES Contemporary.

Camouflage is supposed to recede into space, blending in with its background in order to conceal its wearer. Parillo's loud, disjunctive patterns and neon colors reverse this objective, functioning as a kind of counter-camouflage. Instead of being dull and obscure, his canvases obstinately stand out. Their optical obtrusiveness is furthered by the fact that the edges of each canvas are painted in neon colors that cast ethereal glowing reflections on the white gallery wall. Usually, paintings' edges are supposed to be ignored; Parillo contrarily draws attention to them.

In making a spectacle of camouflage, Parillo's paintings raise interesting questions about the ways in which its purpose as a device for concealment or display can fluctuate depending on its wearer and the context in which it is worn. One of the most prominent patterns featured in his paintings are animal prints. The natural patterns of animals such as leopards or snakes are meant to help camouflage them in their natural environment; humans expropriate animal prints from their original setting and wear them to draw attention to themselves. In certain areas, especially in the Midwest and South, hunting camouflage is popular as a fashion statement even outside the field. A hunter might wear camouflage outdoors to conceal himself; but he wears it to the grocery store or to a dinner party for a different purpose, presumably to proudly proclaim his status as a hunter.

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Mike Parillo, "Shadow Camo," 2014. Acrylic on panel, 36" x 36". Image courtesy of CES Contemporary.

Paintings are supposed to stand out, yet they are also expected to fit in with certain accepted modes of representation, certain historical narratives, and art world conventions about what a painting should look like. Parillo's camouflage paintings are striking, but they don't quite fit in with these conventions. They have no focal points and little hierarchal organization to guide the viewer's eye around each composition. In addition to counteracting the normal conventions of camouflage, they also defy the basic conventions of painting in a way that jeopardizes, but doesn't erode, their appeal. While Parillo's willingness to take painterly risks is interesting and befitting of his camouflage series, these conventions exist for important reasons, and pushing their limits too far could collapse the allure and compromise the meaning of his future paintings.

Careful What You Wish For, Parillo's largest and most complex painting on display, is a dystopic portrayal of an explosion rendered in an acid rainbow of digitalesque ribbons and neon clouds. The explosion appears to be consuming architectural forms including a diving board, a set of stairs, a scaffold, and a hospital sign. A sign above the hospital sign reading "All In," in conjunction with the painting's title, betokens Parillo's interest in risk and failure. The world inside this painting is disintegrating, but its destruction takes on a superficial attractiveness whose discord with the depicted violence makes it all the more unsettling.

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Mike Parillo, Careful What You Wish For, 2014. Acrylic, glitter on panel, 48″ x 60″. Image courtesy of CES Contemporary.

In his adjacent show, Invisible Lines, Ashkan Honarvar explores issues of obscuration and exhibition as they relate directly to the human body. As in Parillo's work, violent undercurrents run through Honarvar's collages; but his is a violence of a more exploitative, psychological type.

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Ashkan Honarvar, "Crust ch4-F3-5," 2012. Hand-cut collage on paper,16" x 20". Image courtesy of CES Contemporary.

"Crust Ch4-F3-5" portrays the head and torso of a soldier in battle uniform, trisected to reveal night sky within. His expression appears shell-shocked; his legs are missing from the collage. In his 1757 "Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful", Edmund Burke discusses similarities between the seemingly incompatible emotions of terror and sublime wonder, comparing feelings of horror with the sensation of nature's grand infinitude evoked by looking at the ocean or stars. The tension between the grandeur of starry sky and the mortality implied by the sundered soldier recalls Burke's ideas in a more contemporary context.

The balance between visceral repulsion and visual appeal is exquisite in "Conquest #1, 2" and "Conquest #1, 4." These two collages, displayed side by side, portray two different forms of exploitation enacted on the same nude woman. In the first one, she seems vulnerable owing to her pose and nudity; but as if to compensate for her objectification, she is decorated in fineries including gold, jewels, furs, and shells.

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Ashkan Honarvar | "Conquest #1, 2" | 2011 | Hand-cut collage on paper | 46cm x 61cm / 18" x 24". Image courtesy of CES Contemporary.

The piece to its right portrays her in a state of dissection; her internal organs are coming out, and the few pieces of gold and jewels placed over her do nothing to ameliorate her situation. The luxurious trinkets seem to exist more to blind her than to embellish her: the only part of her body that they completely obscure are her eyes, as if in attempt to make her unaware of her exploitation.

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Ashkan Honarvar, Conquest #1, 4, 2011. Hand-cut collage on paper, 18" x 24". Image courtesy of CES Contemporary.

"Crust Ch2-F3-4" and "Crust Ch2-F3-7" are also notable. Like the woman on horseback who disappears and reappears into the forest in Magritte's "The Blank Check," the figures in these two collages are ghostlike, composed of pieces of forest similar to the background scene but disunited in contrast to it. On the male figure, branches seem to form a toga and medals; is that tree impaling him thwarting his attempts to throw a discus? It is ambiguous. The female figure twirls a mushroom cap high above her head -- or is she a waitress with a platter? These figures are like apparitions of history who have lost nearly all identity yet somehow manage to materialize just enough to reassert themselves but not enough to make their intentions and activities clear.

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Ashkan Honarvar, "Crust Ch2-F3-4," 2012. Hand-cut collage on found image, 6″ x 9". Image courtesy of CES Contemporary.

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Ashkan Honarvar, "Crust Ch2-F3-7," 2012. Hand-cut collage on found image, 6″ x 9″. Image courtesy of CES Contemporary.

The largest piece in Honarvar's show, a diptych titled "The Garden, The Passion (diptych)," is dazzling in sheer complexity; but it lacks the incisive clarity and compositional flair present in Honarvar's smaller collages. Each of the pieces in the diptych forms a narrative tableau roughly in the shape of an oversized bracelet. The upper one depicts exhibitionistic nude figures cavorting among flowers and fruits; the lower one is darker and includes more disturbing imagery of teeth and blind eyes amid metals and minerals. Black cutouts obstruct large portions of the faces, particularly the eyes, in nearly all the figures in both pieces.

Honarvar's collages speak to a certain obliviousness intrinsic to humanity, heightened by vanity and abused by others. We think we know ourselves and the world around us, but how much do we really know? How much self-awareness do we lose in showing off? Just as Honarvar's figures are obliterated, severed, and reorganized by him, we are often at the mercy of circumstances outside our control. Ignorance of our places in the world can impede our ability to deal with these unique circumstances, causing us to fall into the comfortable trap of vauntful attention-seeking.

"Just the Tip" and "Invisible Lines" are on view from May 17-June 21, 2014 at CES Contemporary, 709-711 Mateo St., Los Angeles, CA 90021