Munz-Losch's 'Beauty and the Beast' layered, provocative

In "Black Cat," the girl's hair is made of flies; her skin is a mass of maggots.

In "Black Cat," the girl's hair is made of flies; her skin is a mass of maggots.

Margaret Munz-Losch, ‘Beauty and the Beast’

At L Ross Gallery, 5040 Sanderlin, Suite 104, through Nov. 30. Call 901-767-2200.

After viewing Margaret Munz-Losch's exhibition "Beauty and the Beast," at L Ross Gallery through Nov. 30, a local artist posted to his blog: "I don't know what to make of it."

The blogger — and anyone else — could be excused for thinking the same, because this is a show whose work becomes deeper, more layered and more provocative the longer one looks, while at first glance it seems superficially feminine.

Butterflies and cute little animals!

A girl holding a cat!

A girl wearing cupcakes!

Look more closely, though, and the viewer is plunged into a world where sweetness becomes menace, and those cute little animals mirror the greed and recklessness of their human counterparts.

Munz-Losch is from Los Angeles but has lived in Somerville, Tenn., for the past 15 years. We won't comment on the culture shock that must have been the result of that migration, but living in a small Southern town obviously has not dulled the edge of the artist's mordant vision or her astonishing craftsmanship.

"O but a man's reach exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for," lamented Andrea del Sarto in Browning's poem of that name, but, boy, if I were an artist and gazed long enough at Munz-Losch's efforts in colored pencil and watercolor drawings or acrylic and colored pencil paintings, I might vow never to pick up pencil or brush again.

At the service of Munz-Losch's impeccable "grasp," as del Sarto terms the hand's abilities, lies a "reach" into arenas of psychological and emotional insight and contention that induces equal laughs and shivers in their strangeness and acuteness. No doubt that Munz-Losch's work aligns with the Surrealist vein of dreamlike imagery and vivid and bizarre juxtapositions, and the figure who most readily came to my mind while I looked at "Beauty and the Beast" was the American Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012), who was a member of the Surrealist circle's inner sanctum — she was married to the German Surrealist Max Ernst — but who developed her own vocabulary of imagery that delved deeply and darkly into the female unconscious.

"Beauty and the Beast" falls into two segments, a dozen fairly small colored pencil and watercolor pencil pieces on paper, these primarily featuring deceptively simple storybook-like animal motifs, like demented Beatrix Potter — in "The Stelliferous Era," storks roast Peeps sugary confections over an open fire — and four acrylic and colored pencil works on panel, two of which, "Early Bird" and "Pink — Prêt-à-Porter," are quite large.

It's "Pink," a parody of Gainsborough's "Pink Girl" portrait, that features the big-eyed, fetching girl wearing a frock made of pink cupcakes, a conjunction of winsomeness, massive amounts of sugar and edibility that induces a distinct feeling of queasiness.

In "Black Cat" (30 by 30 inches) a similar beautiful large-eyed girl — using girl purposely; these are pre-adolescent — holds a black cat in front of her naked chest; her hair is tied up in two topknots. So far, so good. Peering closer, we perceive that the interesting texture of the girl's hair occurs because it's not hair but a mass of bluebottle flies; her skin is composed of seething maggots, a few depicted with tiny black dots of eyes. Could you call to mind a more explicit unification of innocence, bad luck, beauty and mortality in one extraordinary image?

"Beauty and the Beast" becomes "Beauty IS the Beast."

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