Matt Bryans

The faded wood cladding of a backyard shed. A rain-washed bulletin board of lost, overlapping messages; the close-up detail of a Braque painting in a typically Cubist palette of blues, grays, and browns; the innumerable rooftops of a distant, crowded city: Matt Bryans’s architecturally scaled installation, formed by squarish, mosaic-like pieces of newsprint, conjures multiple images in varying scales. For this untitled work, dated 2006, the artist cut color photographs from newspapers, then proceeded to partially erase them—sometimes randomly, sometimes following the contours of the original picture—leaving smudged, bluish-reddish-grayish smears on the newsprint. When erasing, the artist could not be sure what hue would emerge—not necessarily the shade predominating in the printed photograph. Traces of the underlying photographic portrait or landscape occasionally remain despite the compulsive erasing, but in general, the rectangular cutouts have been abstracted from their original representational function. Then, working almost like a painter, Bryans arranges the resulting collection of a few hundred blurry, irregular newsprint sheets into patches of a predominant color—shapeless sections of orange gray, or slate blue, or yellowy brown—before attaching each sheet to the wall, creating a floor-to-ceiling, corner-to-corner, lightly flapping paper covering of two entire gallery walls.

Another untitled installation, 2005–2006, was made of small sections cut from Christmas trees, white in color and with a pattern of hollows on them, each about the size of a child’s fist and looking like a very smooth rounded stone or perhaps the skull of a bird. Once the branches had been lopped off, each small stub of a trunk was laboriously whittled down to a highly polished surface. Evidently these evergreens, sacrificed to the seasonal festivities, have in nature a sort of “joint” or singular cross-section in their trunks from which branches sprout in every direction. Bryans collects the discarded trees, recovers the all-important 360-degree joint in each, then chops and sands these cylindrical bits of wood down to yield the desired bonelike artifact. This work, comprising 221 pieces, took two years to produce.

“Post-studio” artworks created directly in the exhibition space have become common in recent decades but, unlike most, Bryans’s require vast outlays of time and effort. His is an intimate, tactile approach to art-making—erasing small sheets of newsprint or whittling wood, later to be assembled in the gallery—that can be pursued anytime anywhere, like knitting or Soduko, then methodically resumed on the train or during a coffee break, requiring at most a small desk and chair; it’s infinitely interruptible, portable, and concentration-free. And just as his work requires no studio, it demands no art materials as such either. Christmas trees are discarded by the cartload each year in early January; old newspapers are easily collected for free. This is a frugal art, which requires investments only of time and intention and whose materials are made to reveal unforeseen properties.

Bryans is after the dry, weathered quality found, say, in frescoes exposed to the elements, or in driftwood and other products of natural erosion. In effect, the artist constructs contemporary ruins: relics suggestive of a decaying past but actually formed very deliberately by the artist’s unwaveringly devoted effort. Bryans is an art-laborer, an ecologist, a visionary, an alchemist. Bearing the traces of his precisely chosen, subtractive artistic processes (whittling, sanding, erasing), the elaborate artworks that result are as much a surprise to the artist as they are, so pleasurably, to viewers.

Gilda Williams