The Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver does an admirable job at balancing exhibitions of local artists and those of emerging and established international artists who may be largely unfamiliar to local audiences. Their latest exhibition features Los Angeles-based Matthew Monahan, an artist who has recently been featured in a number of international exhibitions of note – including The Shape of Things to Come at the Saatchi Gallery and Life on Mars: 55th Carnegie International – and is well on his way to international art star status. His diverse practice, which encompasses drawing, sculpture and assemblage, is deeply rooted in an interest in surface, materiality and the process of making. The CAG exhibition presents a survey of Monahan’s practice over the past eight years and features three distinct bodies of work: his early experiments with drywall, his assemblages made from large panes of glass and industrial materials, and his recent figural sculptures cast in bronze.
Each of Monahan’s sculptures benefits from prolonged viewing: multifaceted, layered and quite complex, the pieces are at once anthropological and industrial, an uncanny fusing of old and new. His engagement with the history of portraiture is evident throughout; these macabre, and at times grotesque, objects reference totemic carvings, chinoiserie and voodoo dolls almost equally. In the display of his sculptures, which often seem more akin to artifacts or objects of curiosity than conventional artwork, Monahan challenges ideas about standard modes of museum presentation. He deliberately obscures the relationship between art object and plinth, and the base becomes an integral part of the work itself. Each base is constructed specifically to contain and display the sculpture it presents and in his selections Monahan exposes the tension between the upper and lower halves of the work, and the pristine industrial material and the rawness of the constructed figural forms.
This relationship between figure and base is particularly apparent in Squint Spirits, a bizarre tableau constructed from collaged and photocopied drawings that sit atop polystyrene foam which is adhered to a large sheet of glass. Monahan began his career working predominantly in drawing and it shows; his interest in surface is palpable in all the works and his construction of three-dimensional fragmented bodies out of crumpling and folding his drawings is eerie and imbues these figures with remnants of their previous form.
Datong, a large sculptural work from 2005-2007, is a powerful examination of the relationship between artifact, display and museological presentation and consumption. The large, battered totemic form placed on its side and positioned under a sizeable, rectangular sheet of glass evokes a spiritualism of another time and place. The seemingly haphazard and unconventional mode of its display, however, detracts from the preciousness of the object. The most recent works in the show, a number of bronze figurative sculptures, present a more unified corporeal form than that found in the other works, and the bronze affords the pieces a new weight and solidity. The figures themselves seem to reference the future rather than some mythical or constructed past as in many of his earlier sculptures.
The experience of attending this exhibition feels very much like performing an archeological dig or at the very least rooting through someone’s private, yet prized possessions. The artifacts and mythological forms are of Monahan’s own making, but it is difficult to resist reading narrative qualities into the works. By constructing artifacts that are at once recognizably anthropological but also strange and unfamiliar, Monahan subtly alludes to the construction of myths that surround these types of cultural objects and the lack of impartiality in their display.