New York

Mary Mattingly

In a statement posted on the wall in her recent exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery, Mary Mattingly voiced a few concerns driving her new body of work. “I think about technology,” she writes, “the constant mediator between you and me. . . . As technology expands exponentially, we will reach a point where we exist as wanderers in our own worlds, participants in simulated communities.” She goes on: “I think about mobility—how it will become necessary for us to be able to move freely with no ties to a permanent home, due to environmental changes and the necessity to participate in a global economy.”

But while Mattingly ruminates on technology and mobility, her lush, carefully crafted C-prints offer visions of a world that’s less about expansion than decline: postapocalyptic landscapes vaguely reminiscent of barren Yves Tanguy visions, in which civilization seems to have been overwhelmed by vast oceans and overgrown, some of them populated by aimless, ominous figures. Technology in these works is diminished, ad hoc, and scrappy. In constructing her images, the artist builds sculptures out of ragged bits of fabric, wire, wood, and metal, then situates them so as to suggest jerry-rigged communication devices in a world that has devolved into a posttech Dark Age comparable to the one detailed in David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas (2004).

Loss-Accountability of Top-Down Ontologies, 2005, depicts, with some digital help, an illuminated CVS sign nestled into a copse of pines on a deserted northern island—a Romantic tableau reminiscent of an Asher B. Durand painting, reconfigured here in color photography as luminous as an image from an oil company’s annual report. Hirshworld 2, 2004, another island-scape, improbably hosts a Filene’s department store, while Go Forth and Multiply, 2005, depicts a watery world in which trees sculpted out of papier-mâché (one such object was exhibited in the middle of the gallery) bear multiple fruits, like an Eden turned bioengineering disaster.

The figures are another story. Clad in costumes that conjure Commes des Garçons or Philippe Starck via an array of egregious pointy appendages, they look like characters who’ve just wandered out of an avant-garde opera. In Brownday, 2004, three of them stand, posed, waist-deep in misty waters. Possibilities for Multilateral Communication, 2004, captures a man wearing a futuristic version of a Breton-style bonnet crouched on a barren beach. The alienated figure, sitting in front of a contraption that looks like a homemade radar dish, becomes in this context both advanced and anachronistic, harking back to Caspar David Friedrich’s lone Monk by the Sea, 1809, as he stares into the abyss.

But while the humans (or humanoids?) populating these images must resort to making communications devices out of junkyard refuse, Mattingly’s tools are state of the art. Her props, costumes, and backdrops (some based on photographs taken on trips through the US and Scandinavia) are digitally manipulated and/or based on downloaded images. Many of the finished works function like film stills, their subjects frozen midaction, and the precise applications of her sculptures-cum-devices are usually implied rather than overt. In both respects, her aesthetic resembles Matthew Barney’s, and one can’t help feeling that a similar move into film and video might allow her to sidestep the provision of the contextual helping hands offered by titles and wall texts, and delve still deeper into her post-everything cosmology.

Martha Schwendener