Critics’ Picks

View of “upon this rock.” Photo: Andy Stagg.

View of “upon this rock.” Photo: Andy Stagg.

London

Rene Matić

South London Gallery
65 - 67 Peckham Road / 82 Peckham Road
September 23–November 27, 2022

Many Rivers, 2022, the video that anchors London-based multidisciplinarian Rene Matić’s largest exhibition to date, seats its viewers on a wooden church bench. We are guided to consider its intimate documentary narrative—which orbits around the experiences of the artist’s father, Paul, within variously hostile environments—as one underpinned by questions of faith and of the endurance of the soul. While Matić’s visual idiom utilizes imagery from markedly unexpected contexts, the artist’s address, here as throughout the exhibition, is characterized by a rare memoiristic sincerity. The sharp dissonances generated make for a show as visually ambiguous as it is emotionally confrontational.

A roomful of 35-mm photographs, both hard-edged and lovely, mines poetics from signifiers of even the harshest nationalist orthodoxies. (Images of union flags and royalist memorabilia proliferate alongside portraits of lovers and friends.) Matić is invested in troubling preconceptions of what “Britishness” might mean from a distinctly mixed-race perspective, interrogating its aesthetic regimes with a striking alertness to how competing iconographies play out in public space; the legacy of Paul’s immersion in skinhead culture are a dominant thread. A vitrine functions as a coda to the show, filled with ephemera relating to Matić’s family history and that of Peterborough, their hometown: football memorabilia, vinyl records, birth certificates. None are reproductions. Matić commits to a no-filter ethic, a refreshingly generation-specific mode of oversharing justified by the precision of the juxtapositions.

That the exhibition is occurring in a feverish atmosphere of historical unraveling for England and the U.K.—its installation likely spanning two monarchs, three prime ministers, and numerous intersecting crises of un/livability—contributes to the vitality of Matić’s presentation. (The artist directly alludes to this tension by including in the aforementioned vitrine a copy of the right-wing tabloid the Daily Express from the day after the Queen’s death.) Everything has a life cycle. Many Rivers concludes with a dedication that summarizes both the exhibition’s unfailingly empathetic core and its artful tangling of familial and cultural history: “For a little boy called Paul, and those who tried their best.”