Works > Essays

Standing between Impasse: Cutting Board, we find ourselves at a crossroads of what it means to paint abstractly today. For, to paint abstractly, an artist must inevitably come to terms with Modernism’s history, for better or for worse. That history consists not only in its monuments, but also in its monumentalizing discourse that fueled its system of self-generation throughout most of the twentieth century. By now, however, Modernism’s history includes multiple narratives about its demise, and about its closing out to a wide range of artistic practices of the post-War era. Impasse: Cutting Board re-orients us back to that critical moment in the history of Modernism when the best new work was neither painting nor sculpture, but something in-between. Titled in a manner that not only references its source object but also invokes the spatial situation of its hanging, Impasse: Cutting Board requires us to begin literally, to begin with the literal understanding that what the artist has painted are in fact two usable sides of a single cutting board, while acknowledging that their hanging stages a problem. Impasse: Cutting Board renders the conditions of use for a conventional cutting board with its suppressed secondary surface into the conditions of viewing. The bifurcated cutting board surfaces split our attention, physically and psychically. Drawn to one or the other, each surface announces its singularity—the incidental markings of grain, knots, and incisions that at once declare its status as a unique entity in the world and as a unique painting—despite the effects of doubling between one side and the other, and between the object and its representation. The act of looking at Impasse: Cutting Board approximates the artist’s working method, shuttling between surfaces, from the specific to the generic to the specific again, operating in between the material registers of object and paint.

Formally invoking a domesticated version of Frank Stella’s black paintings with the technical precision of a Dutch Master, Metzger’s pinstripes, compressed, flattened and pulled taught to the edge of the panel, read as space-cum-surface. Space becomes line; shape becomes form. The specificity of Metzger’s worldly pretext—the thingness of the cutting board—becomes a matter of surface work. Reading Metzger’s surfaces for the material conditions of a conventional cutting board provides an object lesson in the medium specificity of painting, highlighting the texture, color, and luminosity of paint, its ability to blend and stain, to mark and to be marked. Yet, for all the work each painting does in drawing our attention their surfaces, their objecthood crucially remains.

Conceptually akin to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Metzger directs his critical gaze towards the problems of illusionism and objecthood within Modernist discourse. Applying his illusionist style to the form and surface appearance of singular objects (rather than the assemblages that once shaped the depth-obsessed, trompe-l’oeil canvases of the seventeenth-century Dutch painters), his paintings draw attention to their depicted shapes; their shapes reference their supports; their supports double back to mimic the material conditions of the things represented that in turn impart significance to each spectator’s phenomenological engagement.

Metzger’s exquisite handling and working through of paint media brings the surfaces of his paintings closer and closer to their worldly counterparts while simultaneously unearthing the material properties of the paint itself. Brushed, scratched, sanded, buffed, and layered, Metzger renders paint into a surface to be worked. Essentially non-gestural, the artist’s marks disclose his paints more solid and static qualities of drying, sticking, and covering.

The breadth of Metzger’s surface effects can be seen in comparing the lavishly matte, grey on grey, Reinhardt-esque Back with the hyper-reflective white on white, Rauschenbergian None of This or Anything Like That. In the former, a thin topcoat of matte-grey paint settles over a buffed first layer, producing an aggressively non-reflective chalk-like facade. The painted-in traces of handprints affirm this painting’s appeal to touch, despite its real world equivalent as a mirror’s back that is neither touched nor looked at, or rather, handled just at the moments before and after the object’s intended use. Although Back does not return the spectator’s gaze, concentrated looking does reward each spectator with evidence of re-production: the side effects of industrial production (streaks, uneven color distribution, and the manufacturer’s logo “SMW”)—a stark contrast to Reinhardt’s optically emerging formal grids. The latter painting, conversely, which registers the undulating bends of a sign upon the flat panel (not unlike Duchamp’s tracing of sheets in Tu m’) appeals to sight, as it catches the silhouette of each spectator. Neutralized of its functionality, the sign becomes a pure surface in competition with its support. Metzger animates the Modernist rectangle here not so much as a frame but rather as a site or container whose flatness naturally resists the life form of the sign with its gnarled curves. If Metzger’s sign reads as pure, the panel reads as raw, and flatness becomes an optical effect of the materiality of paint itself with varying permissible thicknesses. Rendered by sanding acrylic paint to its most reflective point, this act of negation manages to deliver more marks than any other painting on view, in the extra fine scratches throughout its surface. The artist’s self-effacing gestures translate the surfaces, textures, and markings (both accidental and intentional) of everyday objects into Modernist icons. Nostalgic and critical, Metzger’s optical illusions become optical allusions, triggering a language game that opens up the act of looking into an act of introspection into one’s own customs and habits.

Iconicity only goes so far, and is but one sign function operating among many in Metzger’s works. Correspondence between a Formalist and a Structuralist makes this explicit. A found street sign, marred by the partial remains of stickers, reads as an homage to Kenneth Noland’s chevron paintings, while asserting its function as a literal sign, co-opted and co-directed towards divergent purposes. Multiple incidences on the painting’s surface attest to the sign’s being-in-the-world. Weathered edges and rusted bolt holes assert the physicality and materiality of a specific sign, over and above its status as a culturally given symbol. Reproduced in paint, this once unique sign becomes yet another kind of marker, an index of a painterly process that makes objecthood a condition of the painted surface. The central feature of this painting is less the chevron than the edges of painting itself, noticeably deviating from the sign at its four corners but sharing the sign’s traces of warping and weathering. Metzger’s chevron points at, and even mirrors the painting’s edge. Notably unbounded by the edge, the solid black chevron seemingly hovers in its space, signaling Metzger’s marked divergence from Noland’s self-referential formal gestalts. Born through with its etched-out, rust-encircled holes and pressed upon its yellow ground, “hovering” is less a sufficient physical description of the chevron than a conceptual trope for it, hanging, as it were, between matter and sign. Metzger turns self-referentiality itself into a sign, signifying in the space between the chevron and the edge. Denoting, in this way, Clement Greenberg’s definition of Modernism as an imitation of the limits and constraints of the medium, Correspondence between a Formalist and a Structuralist raises the question of what kind of currency mimesis has in contemporary painting. Metzger’s artistic process suspends the conditions of mimesis between two senses of the term, between an imitation of two contrasting “originals”—the medium and the object—consequently positioning the painterly process itself at the core of the works’ meaning.

The artist’s labor serves as the literal subject of Ever Since I Put Your Picture in a Frame. Essentially framing the materials that led to the surface effects of None of This or Anything Like That, Metzger paints the effects of time and energy evident upon the face of a piece of black sandpaper. Ever Since I Put Your Picture in a Frame references Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Perfect Lovers, borrowing not only its aqua-blue wall for its background, but also reiterating its double clocks through the effect of the fold down the middle of the sandpaper. Through an extended viewing, Metzger’s painting takes on its own temporal logic, as a system of coloring and shading from the immediate now time of the black, to the lost past of the white. Metzger paints the sandpaper’s fold—the paper’s most physical attribute—in a manner that approaches the metaphysical (a cross is discernible at its center) suggesting through its Newman-like zip, the eternal. Through the coalescence of the sandpaper’s lived time, the painting’s production time, and the viewer’s experiential time, Metzger makes labor self-reflexive.

Ever Since I Put Your Picture in a Frame…ever since I framed your picture…ever since I pictured you, gestures on behalf of Metzger’s exhibition as a whole, to a variant of Modernist historicism as a Bildwissenschaft—a history of images that function not only within the history of painting and its related discourse, but also operating within and among a network of images and signs within culture at large. Most significantly, Metzger demonstrates how the act of picturing often hangs between things, pictures, signs, and ideas, and the ways in which the act of painting best approximates the hanging between.

Lisa Zaher- Hanging Between: Matthew Metzger's Double Back
2011