New York

Charles Matton

Forum Gallery

Charles Matton makes architecture and puts it in boxes. Ranging, in this show, from under two feet to nearly three feet high and seen through the boxes' glass fronts, the meticulously detailed sets are sometimes based on real places, such as the Vienna office of Sigmund Freud, and other times are imagined and somewhat fantastic. The artist's studio is a recurring theme; whatever the case, the scenes are antique in mood. According to Barbara Krulik, author of the exhibition's catalogue essay, Matton has been “profoundly influenced” by Rembrandt, and there is little in these works to suggest the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first. Even when Matton bows to a modem artist, he chooses a realist painter—Edward Hopper—and depicts an empty, unfurnished, unrenovated New York loft, an interior basically from the nineteenth century. A canvas leaning against one of the walls and a little pile of newspaper, some plaster debris, and old shoes in the middle of the floor are the only signs of life. The Hopperesque quality implied by the work's title (New York City Loft: Homage to Edward Hopper, 2002) is in the quietly desolate emotional tone and its contrast with the rich yellowish light, which not only fills the little room but is embodied as a sequence of golden panes—the windows and their penumbrae—across the space. Yet despite the New York locale, the effect is less modernist than old master.

Matton is apparently quite well known in his native France. Age sixty-nine, he exhibited briefly in Paris galleries forty years ago, then worked for Esquire magazine and in book publishing while making art in private. He reemerged as an artist in 1983 and has since shown consistently in Paris, though never before in New York. With the exception of a group of entries by Jean Baudrillard, his bibliography is light on art-critical or theoretical writing and heavy on newspapers and mass-circulation magazines—Le Figaro, Le Monde, the International Herald Tribune, Paris Match, Vogue Décoration, French Rolling Stone. I note this without condescension to either the artist or the publications, but to support the speculation that Matton's work has a broad appeal to a public not versed in contemporary art discourse. It is ingenious, illusionistic, finely crafted, and old-fashioned. Some works have the attraction of the puzzle: In The Shadow of the Painter, 2002, we must ask if the shadow is shadow or paint; and in The New York University Club Library, 2002 , we wonder at our impression of an apparently vast space within the box. (Yes, it's all done with mirrors.) There is also the pleasure of the miniature, so suggestively explored by Susan Stewart in her 1984 book On Longing.

Twenty or thirty years ago art like Matton's wouldn't have been taken seriously by that contradiction in terms, the mainstream avant-garde. (Despite occasional surrealist touches it has little to do with the work of that better-known box maker Joseph Cornell) Even now Matton will be for some the sculptor (and French) counterpart to Norman Rockwell. But I confess to falling to some degree under his spell. The minuteness of Matton's touch and the painstaking detail with which he realizes his scenes claim attention and suggest an authentic intelligence; and he has a voluptuary's sense of and skill with light. I am also a sucker for his locations: the great library, the artist's studio, the writer's study, the art warehouse, even the old hotel, all repositories of culture, memory, the traffic in and movement of ideas. If, in Matton's hands, such places seem antiquated and stilled, that only adds to his work's plangency.

David Frankel