Tony Matelli

Gian Enzo Sperone

Three life-size figures were placed on pedestals shaped in some cases like rocks, in others like tree stumps. Around the sculptures, the gallery walls were decorated with wallpaper bearing a marine motif: a digitized photographic image of waves melting into the horizon. Tony Matelli effaced the reality of the room to open up an imaginary world located someplace far, far away. And so, like shipwreck survivors on an island of dreams, we were invited to give ourselves over to fears, anxieties, and feelings of abandonment, but also to curiosity and a sense of mystery. The three figures, all highly detailed self-portraits of the Chicago-based artist, were given disproportionate, caricature-like heads, the nose assuming abnormal dimensions, the eyeglasses becoming massive, and the artificial hair tangled like that of someone who has just awoken from a deep sleep, perhaps to represent the way those emotions were crowding the artist’s mind. In Hunter (all works 2002), Matelli makes for an improbable huntsman, armed with a single rope and wearing garments that are not quite appropriate: long johns tie-dyed in Day-Glo colors. It’s as if camouflage fabric, perfect for hiding among leaves, had been supplanted by a fantastic uniform perfect for roaming about the territory of dreams. The face bears the dumbfounded expression of one who has just smelled a mysterious odor—midway between repulsion and attraction, between the fear of discovering an unpleasant surprise and the desire to encounter something new. The figure’s stance, too, with his hand held up to his face, underlines this medley of feelings, likewise indicating perception of a strange smell or attention paid to something pleasurable and forbidden.

A similar play of contradictory impulses was at work in the other two sculptures. In Wanderer, the artist impersonates an explorer who travels with a long staff, accompanied by three monkeys. But the shirt-and-trousers ensemble is more suitable for city life than for a mountain expedition. The atmosphere is exotic, a mixture of safari-style sensations and real-life details. Reverie was perhaps the most disturbing piece. Here Matelli, apparently carefree in workout clothes and white socks, plays a small guitar. It is as if all the dilemmas raised by the previous works had vanished in a moment of relaxation. But this feeling of relief is negated immediately by a well-founded suspicion. Is it a moment of peace or of utter abandonment? Is it ecstasy or indisposition? The half-closed eyes and backward-tilted head seem to indicate a sort of torpor due to absolute pleasure, a perfect moment in which the body gives way to orgasm. But the tree behind the figure and the cord hanging from a branch behind the figure’s neck symbolize not pleasure but a violent end.

Filippo Romeo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.