Seeing Matthew Monahan’s latest work, which takes pretty clear direction from his existing corpus while lacking some of its broader archaeological and religious references, it becomes apparent why he is perhaps an unexpected darling of the contemporary art world. Monahan lacks the irreverence of so many of his contemporaries, eschewing irony for solemnity, defiance for spirituality. His graphic and sculptural excavations are sincere, if a bit secretive. This sort of unaffectedness coupled with a penchant for formal exploration is refreshing, especially when it holds its own in an art world where so much is characterized by a hypercritical postmodernism (which this work is decidedly not). In any case, count me among the many who find that there is a lot to like about Monahan’s seemingly anachronistic practice.
The exhibition at Fons Welters opens onto Monahan’s shadowy world of decaying totems, tortured figures, and ghostly faces. The installation lies before you like a forgotten sculpture garden, where you might expect to find spiders, lichens, walls fortified with thick ivy, and perhaps a birdbath filled with stagnant water. From every angle, secretive gazes follow you as you move about the crumbly pedestals. The sculptural figures recall Greco-Roman statuary, though it is not entirely clear whose idols and mythologies were once worshiped in this abandoned temple.
Monahan’s mixed materials delight and confuse. Bricks aren’t bricks; brushstrokes aren’t brushstrokes (except, of course, when they are). The delicate folds of rice paper adhere to the planes of Monahan’s drawings like photo-transfers. Smoothly blended charcoal faces wobble along their dark creases, finding happy accidents – the literal fold in the paper becomes the fold of an eyelid, for example. Sculptures endure Monahan’s material explorations in mortar, bronze, steel, and refractory brick. The fragmented figures, created by processes both additive and subtractive, seem to survive the artist removing their limbs, carving out pedestals from their very bodies (and vice versa), and refurbishing them in gold and palladium leaf.
There is almost a sense that these figures are agents of their own existence, that they lived inside their unshaped materials until Monahan’s thoughtful and occasionally brutal excavations freed them. There are secret faces to be found in the strata of the plinths (Menino de Bronze) and ghostly heads and limbs printed on copper sheets, attached like spiritual prostheses to a quadriplegic base (Lady-in-Waiting).
I don’t intend this judgment as a backhanded compliment, but Monahan’s work feels not contemporary, but timeless. It’s as if the questions he poses could have been asked in another decade, art historical movement, or milieu. This is not to say the work is derivative or dull; while the artist’s spiritual and formal concerns could have been at home a half-century (or much longer) ago, his materials are both old and new, high and low, and they have wide appeal today. Monahan filters ruin and decay, inevitabilities that have followed civilization and all its material artifacts since its genesis, through his unique artistic sensibilities. He shows us our struggle, our fragility and our power. We endure, if not in flesh than in carved, welded, and grafted material memory.
~Andrea Alessi, a writer from the Netherlands.
(Images: Matthew Monahan; Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Fons Welters)