Works > Essays

Matt Metzger’s Used Objects

Suppose you were to lift the worn ping-pong paddle from the surface of Matt Metzger’s Lineage. You’d find yourself gripping the thick handle, rubbed smooth from frequent use. But what would be left of the painting? It wouldn’t be a white monochrome. No, the absence of the thing would be registered much more aggressively. Think back to the painting: the ping-pong paddle and its white surround sit evenly on the canvas. Of course they do. This is paint we’re looking at. But it’s paint applied with such precision that it appears to garner the texture of laminated wood and of worn rubber. And yet despite the remarkable likeness achieved, the paint never belies itself as such.

In Metzger’s other work on view here, this is primarily because the surfaces rendered are flat ones. In Untitled, for instance, the dimensions of the splayed Bible designate the size of the painting, such that the edges of the object are coincident with the edges of the MDF panel onto which it has been painted. The upper corner of the right hand page appears torn, revealing the one beneath. But somehow the two sheets don’t seem relatable in spatial depth. We, as viewers, know the dimensions of a book but see it rendered not through the imitative illusion of perspective but in the closeness of compositional shape. The inclination is echoed by the painted text. Of two types, the one inviting dedication in a standardized cursive font and the other, the consenting inscription, handwritten, they designate a figure and a ground. But it is not a background, per se; both occur flatly upon the surface of the page. The rendering of this trio—page, print, and inscription—in paint indicates this depthless ordering.


And so too do Lineage’s ping-pong paddle and its white surround appear evenly flush with the picture plane. There’s a semblance of shadow, to be sure, but it doesn’t look like any indication of the object’s location in bare space. Grazing the field of white, the shadow mark is better understood as a convention in illustrating three dimensions, employed here to insist and remind that there are, in fact, only two.


But beyond this exercise in painting, why should one care?
Returning to the original question, posed at the outset, supplies a provisional answer that it is exactly as an exercise, if not in painting than inscription, that these paintings begin to matter.
With that in mind, what would be left of the painting were you to lift the paddle from its surface? —


As I’ve already suggested, it wouldn’t be the bare white field extended. The shadow device indicates as much. Registering the object’s removal, this mark would function as a kind of remnant tracing the figure of an expired presence.

So it is for the other paintings, too. Their paperbacks, LPs, and liner notes are used up containers. They’re objects departed, passed on to afterlives in basements, attics, and garages. Other Criteria, for example, shows a record that might be a leftover at a yard sale or hidden in a bottom-shelf bin at a record store. The Eagles’ album may continue to circulate but here we see it as detritus. Its graffitied surface, along with the rips, tears, and bends in the other exhibited paintings, are evidence of use. These indices of wear-and-tear are not presented to us as blemishes tarnishing the object; Other Criteria is not a painting of an LP with its title defiled. Because of the aforementioned simultaneity of the surface, an ordering that refuses depth, the Eagles record’s blacked-out text is not an undesirable stain on its surface but in fact constitutive of it.

Similarly, the curled corners of the Tricky liner notes in Centerfold and the crease that runs across the middle of it do not interrupt the image but comprise it. These details indicate that the painting is not a portrait of a person to be observed, but of an object that has been seen, exchanged, and handled. Centerfold is addressed as much to the hand as to the eye. The availability of the object is made inextricable from the operations of its use.

But what of National Geographic and Dog-Eared: Scrapbooking? Unlike the other works on view, their legibility is manufactured by the transparency of their edges, both their painted, banded borders and their titles. Whereas the other paintings’ titles refer beyond the object depicted to particular theoretical and discursive instances, National Geographic and Dog-Eared: Scrapbooking serve to explicate the specific thing being viewed. Didacticism is perhaps necessary because both paintings are, in a manner of speaking, empty. They show void platforms yet to be inscribed. In proximity to the other paintings, these two appear to provoke just such a call to use. More than an exercise in simulated tactility, National Geographic and Dog-Eared: Scrapbooking reveal an affected convergence between the artist’s painterly hand and the viewer’s own prosaic practices of mark-making. In all of the work exhibited here, Metzger’s attention to mark making, evident in both his own meticulous dexterity and his care for that of others, conceives of use as the crucial enterprise in making meaning.

-M. Taft
University of Chicago
March 2010

Matt Metzger's Used Objects