Garden Eye View - By Joshua Wade Smith “ While visiting the Alps, (Bruegel) swallowed all the mountains and cliffs, and, upon coming home, spat them forth”--Van Mander
Our conversation about his new paintings started at the opening but took shape in a sea of bodies, as we yelled above the din of a swarming U-street bar. Looking down from the roof deck, I saw torrents of people looking for something that wasn't there: for a hook-up, some flirting conversation, or a future missed connection. We discussed other inspirational views. Inspiration that came not in his studio, but from his basement window in a 'garden view' apartment. To peer at the street he had to look through low bushes, a voyeuristic peak onto a low-slung DC vista beyond his window. At the top of his lungs, Mann belted about the 'Fraggon Wall' that inspired his latest paintings; through my incomprehension I asked him again what he meant, and he repeated “Fragonard.”
Back at the Hamiltonian gallery, Matthew Mann's second focus show “Salon of Little Deaths” is on view until June 15th. He presents a new body of work and samples from earlier projects undertaken during his fellowship. This new suite of paintings breaks from the image-heavy panels Mann populated at his last solo outing. Those Buddy Pictures served “the character rather than serv[ing] more pictorial ideas I was interested in” What Mann chides is an image in service to character, an illustration, so he reverses course and began last year to depopulate his Renaissance inspired landscapes. In these new works the figures are all disappeared. They have been concealed, grown over, and hidden by wispy plumes of leafy foliage, like gilly suits in a no-mans land of atmosphere and color. Mann claims that he wanted to “dig a little bit deeper into some aesthetic terrain;” instead of whimsical straw-men he constructs towering columns of shrubbery, garland battlements, and scalloped portholes into radically abstract colored voids.
What first attracted my attention was the humor and horror in Edge of Persian Park. Against blushing sea of sky, a phantom hand or disjointed penisula pokes from the bottom corner of the canvas. The outcropping of manecured lawn extends like an amputated appendage, or a half cocked member from the frames edge. The horizontal gradient of salmon and taupe behind the green bulge implies an irradiated atmosphere at dusk, a kind of Kodachrome Sublime. The hedgerows on the periphery of the lawn are seen from a bird's-eye-view, and cast long shadows onto a neatly cropped geometric lanes of grass. Some are shaped like houses, some cut like diamonds, and others like Ellsworth Kelly abstracts. The interlocking forms cut right to the edge of the bushes but do not show any figures frolicking, resting, or flirting on the green. For Mann, “painting is a fiction making.” Maybe for Mann a tree is crowd enough.
Legend has it, that the 18th century French Academic painter, Jean-Honore Fragonard, was on a tour in Italy when he decided to 'paint his dreams'. Unlike the Surrealists some years later, he wasn't painting the literal imagery of his dreams but painting an escape into a fantasy world of lush foliage and sensuality. A place-less setting for ruffled petticoats and thinly veiled erotic urges. Fragonard was avoiding reality, but painted a certain lightness that surrounded him, something he as well as his patrons dreamt. Perhaps there is as much of Max Ernst as Fragonard, as we have the near-revealed brides of St Anthony and the texture of foliage in the foreground. In Matthew Mann's new paintings also offer formal veils, we have figures concealed beneath layers of split perspective, duo tone gradients color, and incongruent light that are dressed in the impossible spaces of dreams.
Intervention at Kobayashi Cliff is the most traditional landscape of the group. It has a horizontal orientation, a romantic palette and iconography, but with a twisting perspective. A view of a cliff side facade juts up from bottom left of the canvas, curving like a roller coaster's first ascent towards the right. At the cliffs edge is an outgrowth or tree line that extends far into the air. It continues from a deep green to successive layers of abstracted color. The contour of the shape implies a massive height of an oak, but without any solidity, its space is hollow like a portal. Through the tree shaped cutout we are offered a gateway into other landscapes within. Behind the wispy tree line and the hyper-space cloud bank, we have a deep view into a classical landscape of green fields, on-coming storms on a distant horizon. It is the hyper-spatial interruption which blocks and twist the viewers perspective and orientation that is the most suggestive of Mann's new turns.
Mann is a painter's painter, a painter steeped in the history of painting. From this history he draws his dry humor and keeps his viewer at a distance. On their surface one could make draw comparisons to a Dutch landscape tradition. Besides Fragonard, Mann seems most indebted to Jacob van Ruisdael, a Dutch master working in the 1650s. Van Ruisdael painted views standing low in dense landscapes; the sky is but a sliver at the edge of the horizon. The imagery pours over the canvas and the viewer, creating a massiveness to the form, a solidity to the pictorial constructions of rock, foliage, and water. Mann invokes the concept of the topocosm in his artist statement, which defines a landscape as: 'a complete environment that, through a combination of topography, weather and atmosphere gives rise to belief, myth, and ultimately, a worldview.' This philosophical completeness that is referred to also feels like arbitrary perfection of a day-dream, or a subjective mental exercise where all the pieces can fit. Perhaps this is the dream of painting, a 'thought game' being worked out in virtual isolation.
The standout of the show, Rehorizon continues this project of eruption, interruptions, and obscuring of the landscape genre. Mann's most recent work, it is the most efficient, and consequently its most abstract of the foliage bride suite. The painting is dominated by a crenellated mass of leaves, accumulated into a shrub-like blockage in the frames central column. There are three horizontal gradient bands running from left to right. One set of double horizons repeats on the left, from a deep plum to gray violet, to a Venetian yellow, which is briefly interrupted by a grassy window of sky, overlapping the green blow. This second horizon pulled a bit lower in the canvas and continues on the right side of the figural shrub, but also including a thicker band of yellow. This process of widening the band of light implies a progression from a greater viewing distance from the horizon, or an earlier point in the day all within the same painting. Rehorizon's long view switches to a zoomed in view of the horizon and is framed by the battlements of foliage at its dark leafy edges. There is nothing in the landscape to be seen except irregular shaped views of grass and the distanced light beyond. Presenting an irregular view, one could walk unobstructed through the landscape, if not blocked by the leafy totem, because the otherwise unobstructed view is absent of rivers, outgrowths of villages, brigand's camps, or mountains deep in the distance, or any signifier other than light and color.
These are much riskier paintings than what we have seen before, but in the avoidance of character, of narrative, or apparent subject matter we see an artist directly engaging in a contemporary language of cut-and-paste mash-ups and digital abstracts. Mann borrows from this dense cacophony of Nature painting, but what strikes me as different is where he puts the viewer. They no longer stand in the scene beholding divine Nature. Nor is the viewer on the stage or at a comfortable distance in an allegorical theater. Instead we float somewhere above the painting, or outside the work, like a reader of a text looking down at a reproduction or flipping through an iPad web browser. Where is the tangibility of the setting felt in the earlier canvases, where is the ground that the viewer stands on? Is the ground another fiction? Is the viewer in the scene, or is the viewer, like the view, also floating? Mann's new paintings give a sense of flying in a veiled world where you can't set foot on the ground again.
Review of Milana Braslavsky’s Salon of Little Deaths - By Nora Howell
As you walk through the doors of the Hamiltonian during the Salon of Little Deaths exhibition, the bold colors coupled with clean spacious photographs of Milana Braslavsky greet you immediately. When you first encounter her most recent work, you will see the bright fruit that is intently arranged on equally bold and wrinkled tablecloths. The photographs are beautifully composed and their size holds your attention. After spending more time with the images, the rather odd shapes, details, and textures of the fruit begin to evolve into entirely new forms. The specific arrangement of such simple and mundane objects, given avid attention by the artist and in turn her viewers, becomes perplexing, and you might say to yourself, Why am I staring at sliced fruit?
As you follow the trajectory of Braslavsky’s work, some trends become apparent. The use of confident colors in domestic settings is fundamental to her compositions. She is continuously replacing, cutting out, and rearranging objects, which serve as body parts for other objects and body parts—the transition to fruit in place of body seems a logical progression. She has thematically explored apocalyptic realities, and violence by utilizing domestic objects as means for protection. If the story behind these new works is embedded in the trail of her past explorations, which we can perhaps glean some tools for which to visually engage these images.
The fruit photographed is cut violently, contrasting the crisp and precise knife work we have become accustomed to in food photography plaguing Instagram and Pintrest. Flowers are introduced in some of the compositions and yet their blossoms remain closed and shielded from the viewer’s full gaze. The fruit given such attention becomes succulent and mysterious. The context of her past work can only lead us to ask: are these photographs narratives? Who has been here? What occurred? And what exactly was left behind? Alternatively, given the static nature of the photograph perhaps they relate more closely to portraits rather than narratives. In the end, the compositions are entirely nostalgic. Her images are composed of her own family’s belongings, a family unit relocated from the Soviet Union to Maryland, U.S.A.
Whether you take the time to draw thematic ideas and encounters with the work while you are in the gallery one thing remains clear, when it comes to Braslavsky discussing her current work, she is as subtle, mysterious, and humorous as her fruit.