Fortunes of Abstraction: Matthew Metzger at Kavi Gupta Gallery

Chicago-based artist Matthew Metzger’s three works in Waver at Kavi Gupta Gallery, aim to do nothing less than mark the space, or even better, several overlapping spaces – the space of the commercial gallery, the space of painting, and the space of abstraction.

As you enter, on the left wall of the smaller room of the gallery is “Apparition,” originally installed in 2011 as “Ghost” in the Smart Museum of Art (University of Chicago) in the institution’s entryway. It is a large painted red and white latex scuba “diver down” emblem in the middle of a canvas that echoes the flags used on the water to indicate that there was a diver below. At the gallery, the work is installed with the two extreme sides falling and draping giving the sense of the flag wavering in the ocean. Or perhaps the message of the sign, used here for a different purpose, is one that feels doubtful, unsteady, wavered. Although the sculptural painting points to a specific sign with a specific form, the work seems to be about “nothing.”  By this I mean to the issues of both nothingness and likeness, inescapable provocations when dealing with abstract art.

The scuba sign is appropriated from Edouard Manet’s The Dead Toreador (1864) that depicts a dead man lying down with a flag. Manet represents the birth of abstraction and also the death of figuration, something that inspired Metzger’s works titles pointing to the “dead man.” For the first time in his career Metzger re-contextualized his own work by moving “Ghost” from the Smart Museum to “Apparition” at Kavi Gupta. By appropriating Manet’s work and his own gesture, Metzger creates a dialogue between the three works together.

“Apparition” is a composition of geometric shapes – basic forms that are also part of a “high” culture once they are in the gallery. Although simple to construct, the work becomes complex and charged during the process of creating the image. The big question I asked myself walking around the space was “Why abstract art?” or “What is or means abstraction today?” These questions became more relevant when I connected Metzger’s show with other two exhibitions I visited recently: Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Inventing Abstraction at the MoMA. These two museum exhibitions are historical but maintain a modern relevance by setting forth questions like those that are asked in current times regarding aesthetic issues, void and nothingness. Do abstract artists today do not pretend to the great ambitions of the early 20th century – revolutionary and utopian? It seems that Metzger is not interested in abstraction as a social idea or a historical category, but believes in the possibilities of non-objective image making. His works show a sort of “evolution” towards a deep abstraction; they make the viewer look at what’s not there.

Two other paintings were installed in the center of the two remaining walls of the room – The Other Side of One and Three Signs (Left) and The Other Side of One and Three Signs (Right). Almost identical, the two medium size works are painted in Ultimatte Green, a color that is used in the motion picture and video industries today to maintain extreme detail in figures on the screen. The colors chosen by Metzger, the red and the green, create a dizzying combination in the small room and it makes it necessary to think about the strong chromatic choice that is at stake. Similarly to Peter Halley, there is a deep sense of pessimism in all this bright and affirmative color. And this clash or tension between red and green, makes the work much more appealing.

Abstract art apparently refers only to invisible, inner states or simply to itself. But in Metzger’s oeuvre it seems that abstract art refers to something else today. That reference is unclear; it reveals emptiness and a history of eternal appropriations. The blurring on the wall or in one’s own mind, suggests mental representations of some vague unclear trace of past ideas.

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