New York

Matthew Brannon, Early Retirement, 2011, metal, wood, hand-carved high density foam, acrylic, enamel, 56 1/2 x 111 1/4 x 9".

Matthew Brannon, Early Retirement, 2011, metal, wood, hand-carved high density foam, acrylic, enamel, 56 1/2 x 111 1/4 x 9".

Matthew Brannon

Matthew Brannon, Early Retirement, 2011, metal, wood, hand-carved high density foam, acrylic, enamel, 56 1/2 x 111 1/4 x 9".

The flat, graphic style of Matthew Brannon’s work derives from the visual innovations of Madison Avenue during its midcentury golden age. In this exhibition, that coolly nostalgic look surfaced in silkscreen and letterpress prints, as well as in paintings, sculptures, and cloth uniforms (the last made in collaboration with menswear designer Carlo Brandelli). These works were installed across three galleries, each of which suggested a discrete room—or, more precisely, a theatrical set. For each gallery corresponded to an “act” in a play, written by the artist, the plot of which is elliptically described yet never disclosed in broadsides hanging on the walls.

The texts on these placards are clipped and listlike. In the “Act I” gallery, the first of them read, in part, “A bar of long wall mounted glass shelves lined with endless bottles. A curved banquette with a seahorse motif running in metal relief along the bottom. Pink neon recessed behind it all. High stools with monogrammed back rests. Walls of mirrors. Signs pointing to restrooms, exits and phones . . .” That scene was further suggested by the installation of objects, which included Early Retirement, 2011, a rack of black, gold, and pink liquor bottles carved from foam, and As it turns out . . . , 2011, a Charley Harper–esque silk screen of a pay phone, its receiver off the hook. Across the gallery, a rectangular mint-green sign juts from the wall, its height, proportions, and lettering style suggesting that it might once have hung above the entrance to a 1940s restroom—although rather than a demure LADIES or GENTLEMEN, one side of it read SUBLIMINAL and the other MASSAGE. In the following two rooms, there were more props (a cartoony chandelier, an office desk) and more silk screens (black squares with keyholes resembling safes) as well as letterpress prints suggesting forelorn characters confronting tragedy and despair (a forty-year-old professor contemplating an affair with a student, a heroin-addicted commercial airline pilot who commits suicide by crashing his plane).

As sets, these installations have a precedent in Marcel Broodthaers’s Décor: A Conquest, 1975, a pair of museal “period rooms” furnished with candelabras, guns, chairs, and potted plants that simultaneously suggest cinematic sound stages. At the same time, Brannon’s sets refer to the decorative, that category of modernism that flirts dangerously with superfluity and ornament. In the second and third rooms, large, Matisse-like, and perhaps somewhat bad abstractions evoking flowers and vegetation were at once “tasteful” paintings adorning the room and signifiers of wallpaper that we imagine extending beyond the frame to embellish the scene.

Throughout the show, both object and text serve as stand-ins, surrogates for the things they describe or represent, which parallels the structure of the commodity form, whose duplicitousness was only intensified in the postwar moment to which Brannon’s work refers. The inventory-like texts, gliding from object to object, from surface to surface, evoke the cool detachment of a cinematic pan, or a metonymic slide through language—the movement of desire as it pursues, futilely, an ineffable satisfaction. In this exhibition, the lack that propels desire was embodied by the absent plot of Brannon’s play. Appropriately enough, the missing narrative is titled Gentleman’s Relish, a euphemism for the aftermath of jouissance.

Lloyd Wise