Mandy El-Sayegh, WALL, 2021, oil and mixed media on silk-screened linen, 74 × 47 1⁄4".

Mandy El-Sayegh, WALL, 2021, oil and mixed media on silk-screened linen, 74 × 47 1⁄4".

Mandy El-Sayegh

The new paintings that Mandy El-Sayegh offered up in “Protective Inscriptions,” her first solo show in South Korea, were jumbled, off-kilter, many-layered, and deeply discomfiting. They never cohered, not because they were actively rebelling against coherent composition, but because they seemed to be unaware that such coherency could exist. They were fields of disconnected actions and accretions of information, legible only in rare instances.

El-Sayegh’s trademarks—tight grids (here, silk-screened in red and teal), thin veils of paint, collaged pages of the Financial Times—appeared in the six works on stretched linen (one a diptych) that were on view. On them, she had also screen-printed advertisements, dharanis, Buddhist iconography, and Arabic calligraphy by her father. A cynic might accuse the fast-rising artist, born in Malaysia and based in London, of producing catnip for footnote-minded interpreters by serving up such a bevy of art-historical tropes and texts for cataloguing and translation. What saves her art from academicism or pastiche is the unsparing way in which she handles her chosen material, how she secretes violence in her art. Its horror sneaks up on you.

While these recent paintings were materially rich, their imagery and brushwork were more restrained than in some of El-Sayegh’s past works and showed her arranging grids and imprints with such apparent arbitrariness that singling out (or just calling to mind) individual pieces is difficult—and perhaps beside the point. There was protection (all works 2021), which featured a Financial Times photo of former Argentinean president Mauricio Macri clasping his hands over his mouth, a look of fear or menace on his face. And then there was WALL, with a tiny smiling man in a suit at its center beneath a headline declaring, ALLIANZ CHIEF OPEN TO MERGING GROUP. Everywhere there was talk of capital in motion, of money being made, of power in flux: DEAL OR NO DEAL. PITY THE UP-AND-COMING PRIVATE EQUITY TITAN. THE SACKLERS. SPOILS OF WAR. A wallpaper-like sprawl of nineteen unstretched linen sheets, also covered with grids and paint, schema served as a backdrop for most of the paintings, positioning them as nodes in a network of deadening (but not unattractive) sameness. The site specificity of this installation erased its site, the effect heightened by an ambient-sound work of subtle drones and muffled voices (chalk, made with composer Lily Oakes)—the stuff of airports or hospital waiting rooms, sterile places of transit and melancholy.

Wade Guyton has printed New York Times home pages on canvas, as if attempting to halt, however fleetingly, the flow of current events (delivered via countless thumb taps and algorithms). With her news fragments, El-Sayegh is after something related but darker. Her paintings are overwhelmed, or fractured, by the onslaught; she hopes only to mitigate the damage. Amid ancient religious texts and recent journalism, mostly obscured by paint, are achingly direct signs of bodily injury: bloodred slashes and passages of color that suggest bruises or burns. But we also see evocations of recovery and healing, in the form of gauze. An accompanying booklet noted that the artist has depicted the results of dermatitis artefacta, self-harm inflicted on skin in pursuit of release or control. El-Sayegh’s grids frame and measure out these discrete areas of pain, and they lend her paintings even, alluring surfaces when seen in reproduction, at a distance. Under closer examination, though, these rough abrasions and lesions are clearly raw, getting worse, and likely to be confined for only so long.