Matthew Monahan doesn’t want to tell a story or make a scene. He doesn’t want his sculptures to sing or dance. “They are remote and incomplete and need a careful observer in order to survive,” he wrote in the catalogue for his 2011 retrospective at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati. Fragmented, twisted and tortured, his figures often appear trapped within their elaborate confines in this exhibition, titled “Contenders,” of 20 sculptures and reliefs and five charcoal drawings. The partial personages seem in some way to beg release from the bondage of armatures, frames and other structures the artist devises. Though never maudlin, and sometimes comic, the works suggest a metaphorical and universal cry for transcendence from the tyrannical restrictions of time and space.
Many of the sculptures resemble archeological relics. The small, polished bronze wall reliefs Basho and Ikkyu (both 2014), for instance, look like battered ritual masks—recently recovered remnants of the Mycenaean Age, perhaps. One of the most striking pieces in the show, First Aid (2014), recalls a miniature Inca mummy. Mounted on a low-lying pedestal, this 4-foot-long sculpture, made of plaster, resin, stainless steel and oil paint with gold and silver leaf, shows the small gilt head of an androgynous figure emerging from one end
of a red-and-gold-striped metallic shroud.
Monahan alludes to Greco-Roman mythology and the heroic statues of antiquity in Hephaestus (2013), the exhibition’s largest and most imposing work, installed alone in a rear gallery. Titled after the ancient god of fire, sacred to blacksmiths and sculptors, this 12-foot-high sculpture features a stylized figure in bronze mounted on a support of thin steel rods. Unlike the nude figures of Classical art, this god appears in a tattered suit. He has a blocky head and oversize hands, but the torso—with part of the rib cage exposed—and posture are well defined. Raising his elongated right arm, he points in an emphatic gesture, ostensibly to offer guidance and direction to all devotees.
Works by the Los Angeles-based artist, 42 years old, are often compared with those of like-minded peers such as Thomas Houseago and Huma Bhabha, who similarly explore new possibilities for the figure, creating handmade works using fragmented images and unorthodox materials. In this exhibition, his sixth solo at this venue, Monahan seems to have reached a new level of refinement that sets him apart. This was especially evident in large charcoal drawings, such as Double Blind (2013) and Quick Fix (2014). Although these composites of torn and reconfigured female faces and limbs suggest an almost Picasso-esque Cubist space, more often the sinuous technique of Bellmer or Dalí comes to mind in the way Monahan defines the forms with facility and grace.
Considering the stereotypes that link big paintings, vast spaces and muscular workers with Americans, itâ??s surprising that most of the artists attracting attention for large-scale (and grotesque) sculptural bodiesâ??they include Folkert de Jong, Thomas Houseago and Berlinde de Bruyckereâ??are European. Another star in this firmament is Los Angeles-based Matthew Monahanâ??indeed an American, but one who has studied in Europe and lived in Japan. Monahanâ??s works at Kern seemed to reflect the ages and depths of those other cultures, not his own.
The dozen large, fragmented figures that were shown, most made of hand-constructed paper or carved Styrofoam, draw equally on icons of painting and sculpture, and are presented on pedestals or within partial vitrines. The major reference points are art history and museum environments. Monahan creates an impression of artifacts trashed, but not as in Armanâ??s use of a vitrine as a transparent garbage bin; here the sheets of glass sometimes seem to protect, sometimes to oppress, objects and ephemeral renderings that appear to have been abused by time and sheer neglect.
This abrasive, jangly fragmentation might represent the overload of clashing imagery that is an ordinary part of life today. Surprisingly, though, many of these jumbles hint at tenderness. And every semi-vitrine is emphatically bound with one or more ratcheted canvas straps, as if Monahan were seeking to hold together remains he had found, or trying to reconstitute something all but lost. The effect is tentative and, because of the flimsy materials, literally light. Chamber Command (2008, 106Â½ by 25Â½ by 203â?8 inches) is a quintessential example. Under a large sheet of glass is a rectangle of mesh on which draperylike folds are drawn, as if for an art lesson; there is also a charcoal-on-paper rendering of a female figure with tilted head. Behind an inch-thick layer of honeycomb paper is a large carved and silver-leafed bust, which can only be seen from the workâ??s side. The bust is blocky, its schematic eye sockets sunk down into its cheeks. Perched above it is a small pieced-paper sculpture of a nude, rendered with Cubist angularity. The whole is brutal yet poignant. Other works evoke odalisques, Buddha heads, Etruscan funerary figures.
Five spray-painted works on paper were also shown, depicting ghosts of objects in black and white, sepia or multicolor. They have the abstracted, nostalgic quality of photograms. In all his works, Monahan combines coarse, cheap materials reflective of our time with flickering recollections of great works of the past, a rueful combination that nonetheless speaks of the endurance of beauty.