Chicago

View of “Matthew Metzger,” 2021. From left: On Holiday, 2021; Wedge, 2015.

View of “Matthew Metzger,” 2021. From left: On Holiday, 2021; Wedge, 2015.

Matthew Metzger

The Renaissance Society

For his exhibition here, Matthew Metzger covered the entire gallery floor with oriented strand board, or OSB. The feat was impressive, but not the first thing you noticed. What immediately drew attention were the soaring upper walls across from the entrance, which ascend at a steep incline to the gallery’s ceiling. On their surfaces, the artist had painted two large geometric shapes, parts of the red-and-white “diver down” symbol displayed on boats when a scuba diver is swimming nearby. Pitching forward as they rose, the shapes loomed imperiously over the viewer.

Metzger is a painter who toggles between Photorealism, hard-edge abstraction, and the monochrome. Yet his work offers up anything but straightforward statements of visual fact. Viewers were obliged to question first impressions and wait for fugitive content to reveal itself. Four relatively small dark-gray monochromes (all titled Gray, 2021) disguised themselves by precisely mimicking the look of ester foam, a material used for both soundproofing and protecting goods in transit. A red monochrome sat on the floor in the unlit corridor leading to the gallery, as if loitering in the shadows. Titled Wedge, 2015, it again featured the scuba-diver symbol, this time on a canvas the artist stretched to the dimensions (but flipped vertically) of Édouard Manet’s Dead Toreador, ca. 1864. None of this was easy to access, because Metzger had rendered the symbol in such a complex way that its existence remained only faintly visible—visible, that is, if it were properly lit. Given the hallway’s gloom, the work was effectively gagged.

The relationship of the seeable to the unseeable has long been a leitmotif in Metzger’s art. Take the way Wedge sat on the floor: Metzger had bevel-cut the bottom stretcher bar so that it sat completely flush with the ground, even as the rest of the painting leaned backward with only its top edge meeting the wall. Of course, to register this you had to turn away from the surface and look at the piece from the side. But Metzger isn’t just chastising abstract painting. What attracts him to the occluded is its link to the occult. Hence the prevalence of goth themes such as death and things lurking beneath the surface. A photograph of a fiberglass mannequin, another lifeless figure, was rendered twice—as a film negative in one instance and as a positive in the other (both works were titled Still, 2021)—on floor-bound canvases that shared the same dimensions and leaning posture as Wedge. The adherence to the source image in these canvases is so faithful that it was impossible to tell that they were handmade. Here, the act of painting was turned into a mortification ritual, an arduous labor bent on totally erasing itself. 

The show’s most eccentric and problematic piece was On Holiday, 2021. Neither monochromatic nor Photorealistic, it’s an eight-foot-tall balletic interplay of thinned green and black paint. It hung like a drape from a portable clothes rack, thus boasting independence from the architecture, while its title pointed toward the uncharacteristically lighthearted topic of vacationing. So much for first impressions. As it turned out, the work is based on a photograph Metzger took while on a pilgrimage to the grave site of Billie Holiday; specifically, the picture focuses on the grass in front of her tombstone. By bringing up the renowned singer of “Strange Fruit” (1939), Metzger puts in play an obscenely trivializing analogy between his freely hanging painting and lynching. More blunt is the perverse suggestion that while looking at the image one is standing on top of Holiday’s interred remains.

Where On Holiday succeeds is in the meaning it lent to the wood covering the floor. Unlike oak or hardwood, OSB is not meant to be seen; it’s a purely functional material buttressing a more aesthetically pleasing facade. In this way it’s similar to the wood Metzger uses as backing for some of his canvases—one notable exception being On Holiday. Indeed, On Holiday proposes through its very lack of wood support that what we, and it, are standing on is the backside of an enormous painting. We couldn’t apprehend this fact since the work’s front was turned away from us, facing instead what was submerged, underground. It’s a painting for the dead.