Bear Men in the Twilight Zone: Matthew Blackwell at Edward Thorp
Matthew Blackwell: Picklelilly at Edward Thorp Gallery
October 17 to November 30th, 2013
210 Eleventh Avenue, 6th Floor, between 24th and 25th streets
New York City, 212-691-6565
Upstate winters, bleak but electric, have haunted Matt Blackwell’s impressive body of tough, funny, and sometimes transcendent paintings –– winters in which “Light simply gets replaced by cold,” as Russell Banks has written of those latitudes. Blackwell, though, has been getting more temperate, even tropical. The radiant vagabonds and costumed celebrants in his new paintings at Thorp are framed in summer landscapes of open road and big sky, or stand in wild gardens gone to seed under the stars.
As with James Ensor’s or Max Beckmann’s demented crowd scenes, Blackwell’s figures are both fantastic projections of psychic roles and notes on everyday weirdness. The sturdy hitchhiker in Here? (2011) shoulders a tangled burden. Blackwell paints the wide open spaces around her with an evident appreciation for airy American abstraction –– especially the consummate tact and touch of Jack Tworkov and Richard Diebenkorn and the Zen gesture of Robert Motherwell and Robert Mangold. Against this tastefulness, however, Blackwell pitches the raw, visionary color of Emil Nolde, as well as the scrawly, scribbly impatient expressionism of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, particularly as this latter plays out in the less conventionally slick sort of cartoon –– from Peanuts to Beavis and Butthead, from Peter Arno to Ralph Steadman. Blackwell’s hitchhiker’s overhead burden even seems to contain –– barely, like a tussling fight cloud –– the sort of graphic slings and arrows that stand for curse words in the funnies. Digging into these used-up punchlines, he recycles them into a rich clump of pure painting.
Blackwell’s fondness for the Twilight Zone between high and low is in cahoots with the ambiguity of his narratives. In Prodigal Sun (2005-2012) a whitebeard in headband and open vest, Willy Nelson-like, strides forth under a crisp orange sun in a too-blue sky. With the air of a dowser, he carries a slim staff that Anselm Kiefer might have mislaid in these slashingly painted fields. Or the staff might be a scavenged golf club intended for a hoe, given how the names of vegetables in garden rows are scribbled above the turf (recalling the gesture, if not quite the gloomy spirit, of Kiefer’s ten-ton inscriptions). Gardener or not, the frantic attack of the painting argues against a pastoral interpretation: the striding hobo leaves speed lines that Blackwell claws and melts à la Susan Rothenberg channeling Giacometti, and a hovering angel’s clarion commands are redacted (“EVERTHING,” “DO NOT … BELIEVER”) by anxious overpainting. This addled old wanderer seems to think himself a prophet; he might even be one of those kidnappers scouting for young wives.
Blackwell also makes folk art-like sculpture, inventively riveted from found tin ceilings and other salvage into somewhat rougher versions of what you might find at a country trading post. Typical works in the form of an antique Abe Lincoln penny bank and a bear totem holding a slice of pie are shown here. In the past, such cute Americana has worked well enough as a cussedly provincial inoculation against the highfalutin museum tradition invoked, off and on, by the paintings. But while bear-men have long made appearances in both mediums, the current show finds the sculptures and paintings explicitly cross-pollinating for the first time.
The effect is to darken and deepen the mood of both. At Thorp a sculpture and a painting mutually titled Picklelilly (2013) evidently represent the same tin-woman cook, who wields a spatula while storing canned goods on shelves in her abdomen. Unlike the Halloween party girls in He Tries (2011) and Lantern Jig (2012-13), the Picklelilly woman is no beauty. But with her ample food supply and robotic willingness, she’s a drunkard’s dream. She’ll keep up her end, too: the sculpture Picklelilly, which would make an effective scarecrow, looks thoroughly pickled. The painting, however, enobles her by placing her in her true element –– the American road, depicted as a buoyantly warped rainbow highway, Edvard Munch meets Yellow Submarine. Backlit like Van Gogh’s Sower by an ominous sunset, Picklelilly grins robustly and beckons with her spatula to fellow travelers.
Among the tin sculptures, tall, cone-shaped works that Blackwell calls Dunce Caps I-III (2013) stand apart for their careful patchwork skins, as do their malevolent implications: they are dunce caps only in the sense of Grand Dragon regalia. The paintings are frequented by specters of Philip Guston’s already half-goofy Klansmen (with roots, of course, in Goya’s satiric inquisitors), but the presence of Blackwell’s spooky dunce caps in the gallery inclines every tall triangle, wherever it appears, toward menace.
If the two bodies of work are now converging, the encroachment of sculpture on painting has long been implicit in Blackwell’s collage practice –– though one tends not to notice because he is so at ease with pictorial scramble. Inlaid and overlaid objects disappear into the tactility of his surfaces, which can range from filmy washes to crusty blobs of dried pigment, as in the small gem, Seeker (2012). Here a bent-over painter, apparently, hauls the clottings of his palette up a mountain, his path strewn with skulls; urging him forward, a supernova sun burns in the sky –– deftly rendered by means of a collaged seed-packet carnation.
OK’s Garden (2010-2013) is the show’s limit case of painterly assemblage, piling up distressed photographs, sketchbook pages, dried flowers, and scraps of tin around an orphaned figure painting, itself glued down. Painted figments –– a sunflower, a vaporous Charlie Brown, an upside down Buddha –– are inventoried around a willowy blonde muse crossing her chest with long-stalked flowers, nude but for her armlet and ribbon-tie heels. Ensor skull and Guston Klansman make their appearance too, the latter as a triangular patch of Benday dots made from press-printed bubble wrap, in the manner of a low-tech Sigmar Polke. Rosy-cheeked as an ingénue in a vintage Playboy cartoon, the young woman is clearly at ease with her diverse influences –– her baggage –– as she basks in a ragged column of otherworldly, Oskar Kokoschka light. It is his garden, after all.