“One of the traps of contemporary art is that it remains almost perpetually in a recognizable present, or just-past. For all their archaeologies of the modern, artists are caught in this institutional matrix of perpetual nowness. Their work conforms precisely through estrangement, as familiar as the chance encounter in a gallery of a sheep and a sewing machine on a dissecting table.” Bob Nickas, ARTFORUM, October 2012.
Epiphanies are experiences that offer sudden, striking realizations. They are rare and generally follow a process of significant reflection or thought about a problem. Perhaps these experiences are even rarer in contemporary art because, as Bob Nickas alludes, “the market” is generally risk averse and uncomfortable with innovation. When David Zwirner Gallery first exhibited Franz West’s sculptures in 1993, it came as a jolt for me. West’s amorphous forms, largely fabricated from papier-mâché and plaster, challenged Modernist sculptural traditions. My personal epiphany with West’s work came a year later when I saw an installation of his at the 1995 Carnegie International. Without specific reference to anything I had seen before, I could no longer ignore his work. My vision had changed.
My first encounter with Justin Matherly’s sculpture was in 2008. Bulky, slug-like forms drooped, world weary, over medical walkers. At the time, the work did not register with me, and successive exposure did not improve my perceptions or alter my opinions. But this recently changed. Radically. My epiphany was partially triggered by the work of another artist, Georgy Frangulyan, with whom I had recently had several hours of challenging conversations. Frangulyan, a Moscow polystylist sculptor steeped in architectonics and classicism, makes work that is decidedly foreign to perpetual nowness. His work, like Matherly’s, requires repeated viewing. This exercise allows for increasing familiarity and comfort. So, on a recent layover in Zürich en route to Moscow, I reencountered Matherly’s work at Galerie Eva Presenhuber.
Presenhuber’s white-cube gallery is spartan. Matherly’s installation left a considerable amount of much-needed breathing and viewing room. Three stand-alone sculptures were positioned on the floor; five works hung on the walls. Near the front of the gallery, Matherly positioned a work titled Eat yourself fitter. (This title would become almost a punchline for the exhibition.) The work was an oversized, carved resin head of Asclepius, the Greek deity of medicine and healing. It was mounted on imperfect, snake- or entrail-like resin legs painted in a semi-transparent Post-it® Notes yellow. The legs emerged from Asclepius’ mouth, perhaps to nourish him, wrapped beneath his head and then repentrated him, recirculating his wastes as nourishment. It was an object of exceptional, near transcendent beauty. Like West’s sculpture work, it offered aesthetic challenges.
Earlier, Kasper König, the German curator, seemed to have experienced his own epiphany with Matherly’s work when he described “an observational switch” he had. He wrote, “Something seemed to be happening here that was not simply relevant to the world of sculpture, but which weighted it down with complexity — also due to a distinct recursion to Greek and Roman classicism” and, perhaps more specifically, the artist’s “idiosyncratic interpretations” of Asclepius, a recurring dramatis personae in Matherly’s sculptural theatre.
At the risk of oversimplification, Matherly arrived at Asclepius by several paths. First, more serious and academic, was Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, the theory that existence recurs in an infinite cycle as energy and matter transform over time. Second, and more darkly playful, was Antropophagus, a 1980 Italian horror film that ends with a character eating his own intestines as they fall from his stomach. Matherly suggests this act of auto-cannibalism is an affirmative act of “eating yourself for life.” Think, as Jacob Proctor wrote, of the Ouroboros, a serpent or dragon that endlessly devours “its own tail, modernity and antiquity are always already each in other’s past, present, future.”
Once you are grounded, however lightly, in Matherly’s celebreality and idiosyncratic humor, the work comes altogether in a fresh, decidedly anti-market, revelatory way. Like West’s and Franguylan’s work, Matherly’s works are provocations for an alternate way of seeing. Two other freestanding works—Incorporated and Virginia’s in the house—also used intestines as decorative motifs. Incorporated was a four-foot tall Ionic (or ironic) column, the shaft of which was decorated with a continuous, winding length of small intestines, like a rope of sausage. Its gray modified gypsum, glass fiber, reinforced concrete surface was punctuated with daubs and sprays of yellow, mustard and green paint. Virginia’s in the house was an upended cast of a double basin, most likely, a sluice sink (also known as a slop hopper) designed for the disposal of bodily wastes, such as the contents of vomit bowls, drainage bags, bed pans, and urine bottles. Clearly both works “are connected to digestion and thus to the most profane and earthy part of human existence.” But pause to think about the life-critical role of the small intestines. They are the organ where most of the final, life-sustaining absorption of nutrients and minerals from food takes place. Consumption and defecation. In and out. Yin and yang.
On the gallery’s walls, Matherly installed five, heroic-sized wall reliefs. They too were unconventional, more weird than exotic. These forms were recycled from the nearly flattened silicone molds that Matherly used to produce a sculpture for Skulptur Projekte Münster in 2017 . Each of these reliefs had skull-like profiles, some baring teeth reminiscent of an archaeological display.
Matherly’s undergraduate foundations were in the joint BFA program of the University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, both troves of intellectual capital and archaeological artifacts and art. Matherly clearly leveraged the resources that lets students pursue their artistic and academic interests simultaneously. He recalled, “I chose PAFA because at the time I was interested in the figure and I was very intrigued by the school’s classical approach. The most important thing I took away from my education at PAFA was the act of actually looking at things and transferring that onto another surface.”
Matherly defies convention. He defies nowness. He wakes us up and opens our eyes, making things that he himself has described as objects “that can’t be ignored.”
Justin Matherly, Pathos the pathetic, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Maag Areal, Zürich through March 14, 2020.