Matthew Girson

In the five large paintings that dominated this exhibition, Matthew Girson solemnly revisited sites of genocide and cruelty, curiously conjoining idyllic scenes of nature and memories of the profoundly unnatural. His evanescent canvases evoke the helpless manner in which a site bears witness to what has taken place there. On square, immaculately white canvases he paints a large whitish circle that stretches to all four sides. Toward the center of this nearly invisible orb he renders eroded rectangular landscapes based on photographs taken in the environs of Nazi death camps in a delicate gray monochrome. Without their titles, which recall places such as Auschwitz and Dachau, these romantic evocations of fields, woods, quarries, and streams could seemingly never be sites of madness. Girson does hint obliquely at a nature pregnant with foreboding. A plume of smoke rising in the distance of Treblinka (all works 1994), and fences set into the landscapes of Dachau and Auschwitz take on symbolic import; they become poignant reminders of a world gone awry.

It should not be sufficient, of course, to whisper “Auschwitz” and to claim to have touched the Holocaust. Girson’s leap here—and it is quite a leap from his earlier work in which he used similar pictorial strategies to infuse the ordinary, such as the facades of suburban houses, with irony—is not actually to render much of anything, but to allude to history and conscience using both poetic and formal techniques. Girson’s silent landscapes reverberate with drama, and while at moments his work seems to partake more fully of the world of Schindler’s List, 1993, than of the Holocaust, reflecting a history dependent on hot buttons and clichés, these mediated images of atrocity are still powerful.

Interesting variations and/or slippages in Girson’s approach become evident in the 27 small paintings accompanying these Holocaust landscapes, all composed in the same manner with a light grisaille image centered on a white circle within a whiter field. In each of these, Girson depicts a single article isolated from the lives of his friends; Mark’s Coffee Cup, Greg’s Glasses Case, Amy’s Knitting, Sara’s Dinner Plate, etc. This votive cataloguing of elements takes these inanimate objects and infuses them with the essence of their owner. In the context of this exhibition, however, it is impossible to look at isolated images of glasses, books, knitting, rings, purses, shoes, umbrellas, travel bags, wallets, etc., without considering the articles surrendered by the men and women who filled the concentration camps. By blending Francis’ Baseball Glove with Dachau, or Julia’s C-Clamp with Treblinka, Girson abrades his more forthright emotive efforts, and indicates that memory, like history and humanity, comes in many different, irreconcilable forms.

James Yood