Thirteen paintings interconnected by common iconographic threads and a penchant for sleight of hand comprise Dana Lok’s knockout debut at Miguel Abreu Gallery, a dexterous exploration of signification’s doublings, reversals, recursions, and inversions. Throughout Part and Parse, the Brooklyn-based artist reveals seemingly straightforward objects and events to be strange, slippery, and utterly beguiling. The exhibition probes the ways in which signs are always gesturing at something further afield: an empty plate transforms into a spotlight alongside a knife; open books bare conditional or illusory content, such as the mirrored word “IF” or a rainbow; two firm plums fall from a subtly doubled, outstretched hand in one image to morph into two small holes in the next. Everything we see in these paintings is provisional, multiple, or mutable — ultimately unknowable.

In a sly conceit that casts the canvas as a surgical theater, Lok borrows imagery of surgeons pressing scalpels into flesh from the work of another young Pennsylvania-born painter, Thomas Eakins. In 1875, at the age of 31, Eakins painted “The Gross Clinic,” a depiction of five doctors operating on a somewhat abstracted, amorphous body under the direction of Dr. Samuel D. Gross, who had just pioneered a new form of bone surgery. Made to celebrate new scientific advances, this historically scaled portrayal of a medical procedure initially shocked many Americans, who found the work’s naturalism disturbing. Yet this performative painting of a theatrical event was the contrived, aestheticized result of multiple sittings — and even portrayed Eakins himself seated among the onlookers, busily sketching the scene before him.

Dana Lok, “Bone Surgery” (2022), oil on canvas, 96 x 78 x 1 1/2 inches

Lok mines “The Gross Clinic” for parts. “Recursive Surgeon” (2021), an oneiric, indigo-hued painting made on the same scale as Eakins’s, elicits latent psychological surrealism from the American classic: the formidable Dr. Gross, cropped at the neck, towers over an underling whose head is overlaid with, and anonymized by, visions of himself and his cohort performing the procedure for an audience. Dispersed throughout the pale, green-tinged ground of the equally immense “Bone Surgery” (2022) are small black and white copies of figures lifted from Eakins’s painting, some of whom are huddled around picnic blankets (or checkered surgical sheeting). Off to one side, blocks of partially concealed text, which evoke the blanket seen in raised relief, declare: “YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW HOW IT’S MADE TO KNOW WHAT IT IS.”

Lok’s paintings aren’t afraid to take contradictory positions, and indeed seem to relish presenting incompatible assertions about the ways in which truth and knowledge operate. Laid out on impossibly green grass in the nearby “Parsing, Parsimony” (2021) is another picnic blanket built of words, which offers a diametric opposite: “YOU HAVE TO KNOW HOW IT’S MADE TO KNOW WHAT IT IS.” The sheet is sandwiched between two spotlights that playfully (mis)direct the viewer’s attention to the spots of flat green paint themselves, calling attention to the painting’s constructed surface — “knowing how it’s made” — and the status of the canvas as a theater, a proscenium where paint performs.

Dana Lok, “Catch” (2022), oil on canvas, 26 x 29 inches

Simultaneously alluding to Gross’s surgical demonstration and to Eakins’s portrayal of himself in the act of sketching it, “Demo” (2022) portrays a teal hand dragging a pencil across a piece of paper to draw a razor-thin line. The paper is held in place by additional sets of hands that impress their thumbprints on the page, learning haptically as they produce their own relatively unstudied marks. In “Trace” (2022), one hand guides another in drawing a line directly on the canvas. The small, strangely intimate work simultaneously deploys painting’s illusionism and gently pierces a hole in that illusionism, toggling between a phenomenon and its depiction, or a sign and its referent.

Concretizing the exhibition’s web of associations, images, and references, “Catch” (2022) (catch-22) depicts an intricate spider’s web enmeshed in flashbulb-lit flowering greenery. The alluring web gradually adopts the tunnel-like shape of a black hole, evoking an ontologically unsteadying portal to a mysterious elsewhere, where time and space are warped, destroyed, and remade, and the world as we know it — or think we do — is called into question. Painting, at least in Lok’s case, is not so different.

Dana Lok, “Trace” (2022), oil on canvas, 13 x 10 inches

Dana Lok: Part and Parse continues at Miguel Abreu Gallery (88 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 7. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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Cassie Packard is a Brooklyn-based art writer. For more, her website is cassiepackard.com.

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