LOS ANGELES — Existential unease fills the air between the walls of Unknot, a solo exhibition of paintings by Anja Salonen at in lieu, her first at the gallery. Salonen’s image choices cull up memories of Surrealist paintings in their absurdity, yet their colors are all spectacle, dripping with the kind of flooded, unnatural lighting typical of minimalist theater. Perhaps it is the dramatic lighting that brings the films of David Lynch to mind, or maybe it’s the emotionally vacant cow situated behind a seemingly floating woman in Salonen’s “Hysteria” (2022), who is upon second glance actually arched face-up across a farmer’s knee.

Anja Salonen, “Time Lick in Red” (2022), oil and acrylic on canvas, 28 x 22 inches

In “Time Lick in Red,” a mysterious hand swings a timepiece back and forth in front of a figure’s blank stare, a cliché depiction of hypnosis, while in “Rat Temple Milk” another set of mysterious human hands cup together to lift milk from a large bowl where rats dine in multitude (both 2022).  Reflected in the milk is the presumed face of the figure, yet while the hands are human, the face is that of a rat. In both artworks, we get a kind of fusion of cinematic eeriness and painterly mystery — as if Salonen has created some sort of suspense-driven soft-horror film in which the painting’s characters are actors and all we get are these film stills to see.

Anja Salonen, “Rat Temple Milk” (2022), oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches

Nearby “Green Fluorescent Protein 1” and “Green Fluorescent Protein 2” (both 2022) depict one bright-orange-and-green mouse each. At four-by-four inches, the paintings are quite small and the mice they contain fill their frames, giving the impression that they, like the lab mice they reference, are trapped. Another painting, “Partial Metamorphosis (Pre Tail-Absorption)” (2022), also feels like a depiction of a science experiment. Using the same bright-orange-and-green lighting, two hands cup together to hold a small amount of water in which several tadpoles swim. The scene could as easily be innocent, a child’s science experiment perhaps, as it could be nefarious. Either way, I am nervous for those tadpoles.

“Green Fluorescent Protein 1” (2022), oil on canvas, 4 x 4 inches; “Green Fluorescent Protein 2” (2022), oil on canvas, 4 x 4 inches

In “Emily and Emma; Machine Learning” (2022), a subject literally doubles in shock as she contemplates a robotic head she holds in her hands. While it takes a moment (and perhaps a press release) to deduce the scene, the sense of identity crisis comes across immediately. Like the paintings of Surrealists Magritte or Dali or the films of Peter Greenaway, Salonen’s paintings point to a location in which reality is slippery, ill-defined — a dream or place of play. The difference, however, is that in 2022, Salonen’s world does not seem so strange or surreal. In the near future, holding a robotic head in one’s hands may well be considered mundane.

Anja Salonen, “Emily and Emma; Machine Learning” (2022), oil and dye on canvas, 48 x 48 inches
Installation view of Unknot, in lieu, 2022

Unknot continues at in lieu (1206 Maple Avenue, Suite 903, Bendix Building, Downtown, Los Angeles) through July 2. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Jennifer Remenchik is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles.