Tony Matelli is a trickster, a trader in combinatory illusions, a skilled manipulator of the restless mediation between metaphor, meaning and truth.
Truths are illusions which we have
forgotten are illusions. They are
metaphors that have become worn out
and have been drained of sensuous force.
— Frederick Nietzsche
And if there is art enough, a lie can
enlighten as well as the truth. What is the
truth anyway, that truth? As we know
ourselves we are fake objects, fakes,
bundles of illusions.
— Iris Murdoch
Matelli leverages the uncanny idioms of realism to depict things in transition, between seemingly fixed states of meaning and more amorphous, elusive truths. Several distinctive concerns thread through his growing oeuvre: exploring unexpected cultural (and artistic) limitations; depicting, as he puts it, “things finding a wayward means of survival;” and representing complex states of relation — subjectivity, liminality, dependence, love — freighted with cultural consequence.
His work is persistently surprising. It possesses the quality of subterfuge, revelling conceptually in contradictory tensions. Erudition transforms vulgarity, coercive tenderness competes with maverick humor, intellect hones expressionistic passion. Challenging, complicated and darkly funny, the work has a narrativizing complexity that circulates around relationships (social and aesthetic) and the slippery constitutive process that endows objects and images with significance. Meaning remains fluid and unpredictable; the work escapes easy capture.
While still in graduate school at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, the young artist had an epiphany with “My Soul Searching Has Finally Paid Off” (1995). A scrappy handmade cardboard box on which his name was silkscreened boldly in Pepto-pink lettering. The piece was open, irreverent, abject — nearly unrecognizable as a product of creative endeavor. A sly nod to Minimalist precedents and conceptual strategies, it addressed the artistic quest and the art object’s status, as well as the construction of artistic persona, through metaphor. Matelli became Matelli.
A participant in the expanding tradition of sculpture's relationship to the ordinary, Matelli understands the figure’s action as object, its openness to metaphor and allegorical expressiveness. He exploits the uncanny power of simulation as a mode of transformation rather than mimicry, and employs realism — in various gradations of relation to the real — as a formal strategy rather than an end in itself. Uninterested in mimesis, he creates work that is “just real enough.” Real enough to engage and disarm a viewer, real enough to confuse. Conceptually driven, the work manipulates the potent immediacy of the realist idiom.
Matelli’s large-scale tableaux are anti-monuments, irreverent recastings of sculpture’s relationship to the ordinary. Lost and Sick (1996) stages a life-size trio of Boy Scouts puking in a forest clearing, betrayed by the impossible motto: "Always Be Prepared." Outfitted in cartoonishly cheerful uniforms, blazing red scarves tied neatly at the neck, the boys are wretchedly undone by unforeseen mishap. A companion sculpture, Lost and Sick in the Winter (2000/2001), encapsulates a sequel of misadventure. Older now, the group is again helplessly astray, this time in a frozen place. Each piece reads as the deadpan punch-line to a queasy joke on the pathos of human fallibility. The figures are absurd and lost, no better off together than if alone. And yet, still, they are together, and herein lies the potential for recovery.
Matelli returns again and again to questions of individual potency and social promise. Very, Very First Man: Necessary Alterations (1998-99) depicts two early hominids trapped on a rocky mount, futilely attempting to reverse the biological (and social) process of evolution. One figure, nearly erect, his own backend visibly wounded by the treatment, attempts to re-attach the bloodied tail of his crouching companion with a crude bone needle. It’s an anguished ancestral portrait, full of twisted humor; a “what if” scenario that imagines collaborative contingencies in the “story of man” to comment ironically on human advancement, such as it is.
Clearly, Matelli is an avid cultural sampler. He quotes the dominant visual culture as fluidly as he pilfers the storehouse of Art’s history, and his mix of ideas and images, while wildly diverse, reflects a quixotic rather than random rationale. The work’s vibe owes much to the mischievous ironies and clever allusions of hip-hop culture and to the quirky passions of alternative pop music — the soundtrack of his practice, one might say. Like Beck, who is widely recognized for his layering of witty abstract phrases over idiosyncratic sonoric collage, Matelli works the pop wonderland of poetic disjuncture, consolidating mercurial references into objects at once recognizable and startlingly new.
Importantly, Matelli’s vocabulary is an idiomatic hybrid, deriving as much from the experiments and departures of postmodern artistic practice as from the strategies of popular commercial culture. It is indebted to Fluxus, that willful challenge to art’s aesthetic and social limits carried out under cover of small maneuvers and radical mischief. His work inherits tension and sophistication from the theoretical legacies of Conceptualism and Minimalism. And clearly, the seductions of Warholian Pop hold sway. But while Matelli shares Warhol’s abiding fascination with “the downgraded, the ignored, the abused, the forgotten, the ridiculed, the stupid, the debased,” he carries his own ambivalent romanticism, idiosyncratic levity and moral edge to the encounter.
For example, Ideal Woman (1998-99) embodies an ambitious risk — socially, emotionally, intellectually and aesthetically. Reclaiming a cartoon half-remembered from an old Hustler, which crudely sketched the “perfect woman” as self-serve sex machine, the piece revels in comedic grotesquery. The ideal imagined by this particular macho reduction, rendered uncomfortably “real” in three dimensions, is 4-foot tall and flat-headed. Naked but for black panties, she stands on a square of cheap carpet amid empty beer bottles and cigarette butts. Her toothless smile curves serenely toward meaningfully oversized ears.
Cast in silicone rubber, the figure’s freckled skin has a touchable fleshiness. Its opalescent green eyes, framed by fine lashes and brows, shine with life-like appeal. The piece is enlivened by rasping contradiction: delicate craftsmanship (and the kind of attention to detail one could only describe as loving), jars against the crude affront of the image it realizes. A subtle contrapposto, at odds with the awkward distortion of lumpen proportions, resonates directly against classical idealizations of the nude female form. Yet, beckoning warmly, arms outstretched in a gesture that subtly invokes religious iconography, the figure is imbued with grace. Disturbing and inscrutable, simultaneously compelling and repellent, it is profoundly eerie to be around.
The piece implicates the artist personally, specifically in terms of his relationship with the widely recognized girlfriend on whom it was modeled and who collaborated in its production. (“Oooh,” viewers whispered in the galleries, “…isn’t that his girlfriend?” The story circulates like folklore around the figure.) The intimacy of the gamble is crucial to the work: real life and love were at stake, and art making explored the ethical elasticity of one particular relationship. Forced to stare, we step into Matelli’s shoes, project our feelings onto his model and imagine her ambivalence about the enterprise. Tinged with autobiography, and a touch of the Pygmalian myth, the sculpture transforms a sexist joke into an object of anthropological and philosophical inquiry, reinvesting a derisive abstraction with intimate moral consequence.
Gilles Delueze writes, “The true history is the history of desire.” What does it mean to reshape one’s beloved through malignant longing? This is surely not uncommon. Matelli approached the project as an exercise, as a way to confront his life’s capacity to bear the weight of art, and so brought into question important assumptions about meaning, representation, and the art object's status — as estranged from the real world, and as fetish. He wanted to see if it was “possible to integrate such a perversion” into a relationship, to layer a “faceless idea” onto a real-life partner, to “develop a negative dialectic, where even a negative action can have positive results.” The erotic and emotional charge of the work lies in its transgressive refusal to gloss the unholy complexities of desire, and in its production of a terrible beauty. Neither a portrait of one woman, nor of Woman as a cultural subject cheapened by reductive speculation, the brilliance of Ideal Woman lies in both its specificity and in its refusal to stay put.
Matelli’s characters seem to cast about in stories that we can only imagine, inhabiting narrative “climaxes” — captured moments with the ruptured quality of a snapshot — that repudiate the comforts of trajectory and dénouement. His single figures are uncertain agents, cut loose to implicate their environments and the viewers who encounter them. Sleepwalker (1998), for example, depicts the life-size figure of a somnambulant young man. Vulnerable in his BVDs, he is zombified, maw agape, arms outstretched, caught dumb and sluggish in-between security and disconnection. Wandering beyond the range of enacted subjectivity, eyes closed, the sleepwalker is unaware of life, even refuses it. He reads as an embodied indictment.
The liminality and social (dis)connection evoked by Sleepwalker carry different emotional charge in Stray Dog (1998), by virtue of the latter’s public orientation. Matelli’s first commission for the Public Art Fund, it is an incongruously moving sculpture of a seeing-eye dog lost on an urban thoroughfare; though absent from view, his blind owner is brought very much to mind, presumably stumbling along somewhere. Conceived in witty opposition to monumentalizing public art trends that produce “stranded objects, static, alien and without effect,” it is public sculpture “with instant accessibility, not only in our reality but from our reality.” As a reconsideration of art in everyday spaces, the piece effects a recouperative transformation: a signifier of pathos, of loss and displacement, it is also an object of love, adopted as a pet by residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood where it stands.
Matelli proposed Abandon (2000), his first site-specific gallery commission (a project I organized for the UB Art Gallery at SUNY/Buffalo), as an exercise in calculated failure predicated on weeds. Prosaic objects which manage to be “waste and life at the same time,” weeds lend themselves, perhaps incomparably, to a focused exploration of metaphor and meaning. Marking dissolution and rejection, yet vital and persistent, their meaning is essentially contingent and their truth is entirely metaphorical, deriving from relations vested in culture rather than nature. For Matelli, weeds are “the horticultural equivalent of a zit,” and “represent a breakdown, either a failure or refusal to fight the perfunctory battle against entropy.” If, as he writes, “One weed is a forgivable blemish. Overgrowth is hopeless abandon. Overgrowth inside is the cultivation of abandonment, a rewriting of rules. The celebration of failure.” Unknowable in their own right, most alive through metaphor, weeds are perfect foils for aesthetic concerns and social relations.
Casting individual specimens in sets of multiples and installing them directly in the gallery floor, Matelli transformed weeds — through concept, process, multiplication and re-presentation — into vessels of indeterminacy. Seeming to be one thing, yet meaning something else altogether, they became wayward object-metaphors, regaining the "sensuous force" Nietzsche prized as they were revealed to be illusions. Matelli’s installation — “an art installation that does not at all resemble art” — turned a space of cultural cultivation into a breeding ground for uncertain meaning, and his weeds suggested the many truths that elude us just as we think we've got them yanked tight. It is this sort of astute unpredictability, this biting conglomeration of wily humor and cultural politics, that is Matelli's distinction.
His most recent project, Sexual Sunrise (2002), investigates the new sexual relationship as an intense form of reflection in which we see our most beautiful and most base selves. It is the artist’s most overtly personal work to date. The installation centers on three life-size self-portraits — The Wanderer, Hunter and Reverie — each an imposing figural diorama, surrounded by a wallpaper of deep blue sea that wraps the room like tidal wainscoting. An eponymously titled “painting,” in foil and collage, layers the orgasmic faces of women over a tourist-trade beach scene. It hangs like a rejuvenating promise on the illusory horizon.
The figures riff loosely on 18th and 19th century fine art precedents, reformulating romantic and realist conventions through a contemporary vernacular. In each, a calculation of references presents layers of “self” that multiply like reflections in a hall of mirrors — an effect both amusing and discomfiting. The Wanderer updates Gustave Courbet’s The Meeting (1854), itself a reworking of popular iconography into a self-portrait of the artist as the proverbial Wandering Jew. In khaki cargo pants, a crisp white dress shirt with a jaunty bandanna at the neck, toes visible through holey white socks strapped into sandals, Matelli is the urban outsider, a slightly absurd romantic bound for self-discovery.
Hunter lifts Rococo elements from the genre scenes of Jean-Honore Fragonard, flushed paintings of lovers’ trysts in verdant gardens. Clad in a red union suit (the kind that keep American hunters warm and unbutton for easy access), the artist is on the prowl in a leafy wilderness tableau. He is a bird-dog (with all that implies), a heady hedonist poised at the ready. Rope-snare coiled in one hand, he lifts fresh scent to his inflamed nose from the other, hot on the tail of the next sexual conquest.
Reverie is modeled on the work of Antoine Watteau, the early 18th century painter of bourgeois social life who relished stock characters — the debauched dreamer, the capricious lover, the witless clown — drawn from the popular street theater of commedia dell’arte. Cast as foils in bawdy plots full of musical romancing and licentious pleasure, the characters mimicked a contemporary milieu in which role-playing was crucial and strategic. Matelli, seated on a rock, eyes glazed and head slung back in a post-coital stupor, guitar nearly forgotten on his lap, is the artist as sexual player. . . or as hapless suicide. Shoeless, in a Nike sweat suit, the artist succumbs and is rendered impotent by dreams. The rope, a tool of uncertain use, hangs limp behind him.
Portraiture is always a game of doubling, a match of gestures — the artist’s, whose originality finds plastic expression, and the subject’s, whose unique qualities are conveyed — through portrayal. Self-portraiture ups the ante, shifts focus to the artist alone, whose dualized subjectivity (as maker and model) is at stake. “Know Thyself” has long been the watchword of this peculiarly human enterprise, constituted in the sluice from interiority to external form. Truth, illusion and metaphor are inevitably at stake. In making himself monstrous, Matelli reprises the Baroque portrait in extremis, a life-cast designed to capture the raw intensities of human emotion; he also references a Mannerist effect to become a stranger, to present “the artist” anew. His oversized glasses double the process of looking, magnifying the figure’s eyes while shielding them from view. The effect is disturbingly comedic, and laden with metaphor.
Cloaked in the shrewd illusions of hyper-realism, Matelli’s doppelgangers embody a conceptual gambit toward complex truths that are both individual and social. Simultaneously grandiose and parodic, his figures are islands of ego, isolated and adrift on uncharted seas of connection; triangulated, they map (artistic) selfhood as threatened and inflated by fantasy, distorted and clarified by the quest for self-knowledge. The artist stands as a cultural foil for all manner of speculation and revelation, onto whom desires are projected and who, in turn, absorbs and reflects them. Equal parts heroic provocateur, feckless dreamer and unwitting captive to unruly desire, the artist presents our best and most base selves.
Tony Matelli’s practice is a highly personal enterprise, his signature inventiveness a product of the tension between strident individualism and a longing for collectivity. There is nothing coolly dispassionate about the work and, more often than not, it pokes at directly at the sore spots where our intimate selves connect to the larger social world. Irreverent and playful, the work counters the de rigueur preference for “objectivity” with an ethos that embraces and pursues the indeterminacy of meaning. In the complexity of its intent and realization, and its openness to metaphor, it often runs the deliberate risk of being taken the wrong way. Matelli is a transformer — it’s a risk he’s more than willing to take.
Originally published in Tony Matelli, 2003