Matthew Metzger, The Condition, 2015, acrylic and oil on fiberglass honeycomb panel, 26 × 26". From the series “The Condition,” 2015.

Matthew Metzger, The Condition, 2015, acrylic and oil on fiberglass honeycomb panel, 26 × 26". From the series “The Condition,” 2015.

Matthew Metzger

Arratia Beer

Matthew Metzger, The Condition, 2015, acrylic and oil on fiberglass honeycomb panel, 26 × 26". From the series “The Condition,” 2015.

What is the relation between abstract and figurative painting, and how do we read abstraction some fifty years after the twilight of Abstract Expressionism? These questions seem to be at the heart of Matthew Metzger’s practice, and they connect the quite diverse works in his recent exhibition “The Shade of a Line.”

In two works from the series “The Condition,” 2015, we see the image of a machete, with the aged metal blade and wooden grip rendered in fine detail. The knife is positioned in the paintings’ middle, stretching to the panels’ left and right edges, forming a horizon and cutting the paintings in half. In both works, it appears against a gray background; the dark shadow underneath exaggerate the more-or-less curved shape of each machete. Metzger came to this motif while reflecting on the physical gestures that are involved in mark-making—how some painters, such as Morris Louis, work from the wrist, while others, notably Jackson Pollock, work from the shoulder, just as one does with a machete. Metzger’s research thus focuses on the physical movements involved in painting. Paradoxically, he presents his reflections on the physical vocabulary of abstraction in the form of refined representational paintings.

The seven works in this show offered different opportunities to rethink the nature of abstraction. Two small square works, The Shadow of the Cover and The Shadow of the Mailer, both 2015, show a play of shadows. What casts them we do not see, though the titles give a clue (the cover of a vinyl record and the mailer it was sent in, respectively). Only the shadows themselves are depicted, ranging from dark at the top to lighter and transparent at the bottom of the painting. Though geometric in appearance, the shapes are representations of the actual figuration caused by the play of light on an object. The graphic impact of the paintings and the fact that the images are hard to read make them abstractions of a kind, even though they are still delicately executed representations.

In La Patience, 2016, abstraction has to do with the breaking-down of a composition—in this case, the scene of a girl in an interior playing solitaire—into essential compositional lines. The painting is based on a 1943 work by Balthus. Metzger saw it repeatedly in his hometown museum, the Art Institute of Chicago. In place of the girl leaning over the table in Balthus’s original, Metzger shows us a zigzag of three black diagonal shapes, echoing the direction of her physical position and shadow. In the upper part of the painting is a pattern of vertical white and brown stripes, just as in Balthus’s painting, where it is part of the wall decoration. For Metzger, such a pattern points to Daniel Buren, who made it a trademark of his painting critique in the 1960s. In Metzger’s painting, the stripes are presented as an isolated fragment and thus come across as painterly abstraction, even if their form did not change.

Metzger’s paintings create a short circuit between abstract and figurative painting, disrupting a distinction that seems less and less useful even if many critics (and artists and curators) still cling to it stubbornly. He develops his canvases with elements of both, and thus creates a common ground. His paintings are stylistically polygamous: What they share is their precision of execution, as well as the fact that each is related to an external source that even determines its size and shape. Despite their visual virtuosity, they embody a sense of restraint. They are abstract not stylistically but in the sense that, despite the logic that informs their genealogy, there is something about them that cannot be grasped.

––Jurriaan Benschop