Critics’ Picks

View of “Matthew Girson: The Painter’s Other Library,” 2014.


Matthew Girson

Chicago Cultural Center
78 E. Washington Street
May 24–August 10

Matthew Girson contemplates the Jewish American experience in his solo exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center. “The Painter’s Other Library” comprises sixty-eight oil paintings and one video that portray three primary subjects: a library bookshelf, a blackout curtain, and a Nazi bonfire. All the painted images are depicted either in hushed, dark hues or as black monochromes. Although Girson has not included titles on any of the book spines, the lighting in his virtual library would be too dim for reading, anyway. The artist provides a perceptual experience—adjusting the eyes to see in the dark—as a metaphor of consciousness and its motives.

An anxious appreciator of Martin Heidegger’s writings despite the philosopher’s Nazi sympathies, Girson alters the German thinker’s spoken word to exclude his words, leaving an audio artifact of only breaths to accompany a one-second loop from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film of a bonfire, Triumph of the Will. The bonfire image is replicated in Allegory, Allegory, Part 1, 2014, twenty-four slick-black oil paintings (the same number of film frames per second). The black fire rages but illuminates nothing.

That several of the black paintings have already been defaced attests to their power. A funerary shroud, a silent library: The paintings are witness to an uncomfortable antinomy—that world conflict, Nazism, and genocide prompted the global diaspora of the Jewish intelligentsia (from Einstein to Freud) and birthed academic freedom, in which Girson participates. The artist seeks to locate and to transmit painterly enlightenment via vessels of history—namely, visual art.