One of the curses of contemporary art is that too many artists, and viewers believe that irony – the ironic gesture, the ironic moment, the ironic image or thing – is a doppelganger for ideas, content and technical skill. Worse yet, irony functions too often as a surrogate for meaning, even quality- those abstract notions where ideas, materials and skill merge to create a resolved work of art. In Colin Matthes: Instructional and Flood Resistant Work, the Milwaukee-based artist largely avoids these pitfalls by employing irony more as an existential platform from which to respond to today’s social climate, rather than as an endgame unto itself.
More a comprehensive installation than a show of discrete works, Instructional takes as its starting point the notion that most of us act as if all is well with our world, and that we are immune to all of the global trauma. After all, our lifestyle is too sophisticated and too propped up by technology for us to need basic survival skills. Matthes convinces us otherwise. Plying a graphic, illustrative style for his paintings and drawings and a purposely-clumsy approach to sculpture Matthes suggests, indeed, the end is nigh, and we should be prepared.
Matthes’ work is culled from three interrelated series, Essential Knowledge, Flood Resistant Paintings, and Getting By in Forever Scape where in graphic images are interwoven with gestural text. The result is an eccentric body of work that evokes the reckless simplicity of children’s art or the timbre of untrained artists. For example, an ink on paper drawing from the Essential Knowledge series is titled Quick Weapons- making a weapon in a pinch. The drawing instructs the viewer to make a “Simple Club” and a “Weighted Club” and “how to throw a stick” to catch small game, all clearly illustrated. Similarly, Making a Boat from the Ruins of a Gas Station or Starting a Fire without matches are precise tutorials for doing just that. Part humorous how-to recipe, and part useful survival manual, the Essential Knowledge drawings seem an omen about future events..
In the sculptural, mixed media Decorative Raft, Matthes has concocted an all but useless watercraft to be kept afloat by brightly colored swimming pool noodles. A central broadside-like element, perhaps a sail, bears crudely conceived images of a private yacht, a bathrobe and slippers, a Chambord bottle, and an iPhone that clash with the adjacent scribbled text that guides the reader step by sterp on rafting technique. . Made from a mélange of materials, Decorative Raft is a snarky critique on the “haves” and the “have not’s” pitting those who travel in luxury on ships against those who travel bereft on rafts. On first take, Decorative Raft provides humorous but uncomfortable commentary on current state of affairs. But with repeated viewings it becomes a bit tedious, as if trying too hard.
Exceptional among the Instructional work is Road Trip, a commanding ink and acrylic on paper drawing that channels the spirit of such Ash Can School greats such as John Sloan and William J. Glackens. Against a bleak industrial landscape, whose grey sky is punctured by the multiple booms of heavy-lifting cranes, seven men portage a canoe along a watery street seemingly near a shipping port. The only moment of color in this somber image are two neon orange and white striped security bollards that stand like sentinels, which the men, of course, do not see as their heads are inside the hull of the canoe. The uneasy darkness of Road Trip is as penetrating as the inane scenario and the true irony, that this hooded walk is a road trip.
Colin Matthes: Instructional and Flood Resistant Work is an idiosyncratic, adventurous show that may prompt the viewer to reconsider his or her own skill set . For this viewer, however, the question of what inspired or motivated the artist to make such a body of work remains unanswered. Personal experience? Disgust with or distrust of contemporary society? Does Matthes hear the hooves of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse? In any event, there is little time left before for both the curious and the contented to see the show, so beat a path quickly to the Bockley’s Gallery’s door.
-Extended through June 20th, 2015
2123 W 21st Street
Minneapolis, MN 55405