New York

Justin Matherly, Handbook of inner culture for external barbarians (we nah beg no friend), 2013, concrete, ambulatory equipment, 10' 1“ x 24' 7” x 3' 9".

Justin Matherly, Handbook of inner culture for external barbarians (we nah beg no friend), 2013, concrete, ambulatory equipment, 10' 1“ x 24' 7” x 3' 9".

Justin Matherly

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

Justin Matherly, Handbook of inner culture for external barbarians (we nah beg no friend), 2013, concrete, ambulatory equipment, 10' 1“ x 24' 7” x 3' 9".

The centerpiece of Justin Matherly’s exhibition “All industrious people” was a twenty-five-foot-long concrete sculpture modeled after several ancient stelae discovered in Turkey. Archival photographs of the rock-strewn site, thought to be the tomb of the Hellenistic king Antiochus I, appeared in large monoprints that lined the surrounding walls. It’s hardly surprising to find Matherly directly referencing archaeological digs, since for several years he has been excavating a singular ruin: sculpture itself.

The same argument runs through each of Matherly’s pieces: Painting is periodically eulogized, but at least it gets a decent burial. Meanwhile, sculpture grows decrepit, and suffers from neglect. Whether you blame its decline on overgrowth in the expanded field or a discursive drift toward “installation” and “mixed media,” there’s ample indication of sculpture’s faltering grasp on the traditions and conventions that assure it the integrity of a medium. The question is how to gather up what’s been crumbling away.

To that end, Matherly has developed a working process informed by signal moments in sculpture’s history: Winckelmann’s lauded antiquity, Rodin’s truncated figures, Smithson’s entropic spills. Matherly studies classical fragments, such as the Belvedere Torso or the snakesnared arms of Laocoön, and then approximates their shape in crude casts jerry-built from foam and hot glue. After wrapping the casts in large PVC bags to prevent sticking, he pours in concrete, allowing the viscous slurry to settle and harden unpredictably in its makeshift container. This free flow of material yields a cracked and scrabbled surface, the texture of long-term erosion achieved in a few hours. Matherly then assembles these casts atop metal armatures. Willfully careless, he makes no effort to hide the joins and seams. The final result is both an ungainly amalgam of disparate parts and a provisional reconstruction of sculpture’s compromised traditions.

Matherly’s canniest condensations of sculpture’s past are the aforementioned armatures, which are actually ambulatory devices, i.e., medical walkers. According to one familiar schema, sculpture’s dominant shift from the nineteenth to twentieth century was a descent from the pedestal to the floor—that is, from an elevated ideational space where monumental figures instructed the body politic in mourning and obeisance, to a level plane where latently anthropomorphic masses of raw material confronted a fully embodied viewer. Matherly’s walkers straddle these two paradigms, signifying both as pedestals for lofty exemplars and surrogate legs for frail bodies on equal footing with their beholder.

That crucial ambiguity, however, went missing in “All industrious people.” Whereas much of Matherly’s work assumes human scale, this exhibition’s sole freestanding piece was a veritable parade float, and its ambition-laden bulk necessitated a sturdier support structure. The forty walkers that constituted the sculpture’s base were embedded in concrete plinths, creating an even surface for bearing the accumulated weight of the stelae. As a result, the walkers together read unequivocally as a single pedestal. Divested of conceptual tension, they slackened into a perfunctory mannerism. The stelae themselves depicted scenes of Antiochus I clasping hands with his gods, a selection that Matherly framed as a comment on the visual rhetoric of political legitimation—but, in a work that makes such a blunt claim to monumental form, when does a purported critique of power instead become its exercise?

What clings to the cracks and abrasions of Matherly’s casts is the acknowledgment that reconstituting sculpture—which is to say, reconstituting a whole humanist tradition—is an inherently ludicrous, if chivalrous, aspiration. Perhaps that lesson is best imparted at the humble scale of his stand-alone figures, which are manifestations of a fractured, prosthetic subject arriving in humanism’s wake.

Colby Chamberlain