The Contemporary Art Center Cincinnati is notable for numerous reasons. Although Cincinnati is not exactly known for life in the fast lane of urban cool, it is actually the city that boasts one of architect superstar Zahia Hadid’s first realised commissions for a large-scale public building. And, although artists are not always altogether pleased with trying to fit their work to the directional architecture designed by Hadid, the CAC Cincinnati has nonetheless established and maintained a sound reputation for being a showcase for some of the best American and international emerging talent.
The current exhibition of work by American sculptor Matthew Monahan is no exception. Monahan is noted for his works that take the languages of sculpture in the artistic generations preceding his own that rework the lessons learned from them into a discourse in which the notion of the contained object sculpture, such as figurative sculpture, is reconsidered. The materials with which he makes such works are the detritus of everyday life or simple prosaic matter, such as wax or the green floral foam used by florists. Thus, there is a certain sense of fragmentation and almost inevitable entropy that links his work with generations of sculptors and installation artists that emerged since the 1980’s that one might understand, in highly generalised terns, as the result of the dissemination of ideas emerging strongly with Italian Arte Povera.
However, in Monohan’s hands, rather than straightforwardly relishing in the obvious ‘poor’ nature of the materials, he engages in a kind of double play. These rather inconsequential materials are reworked into forms drawn from archaeological canons, the sculptural language of Modernism or even fairly abstracted totemic displays. He then often treats the surface with substances such as spray paint to give the effect of bronze, gold or the expensive and precious materials in which sculpture was traditionally made. In his work, however, it is not the meticulous finish of artifice that one might associate with specific projects by the likes of Fischli & Weiss, but rather a passable facsimile that, in being clearly discernable, only amplifies the discussion about the nature of ‘value’ in relation to sculpture.
Like other unconnected artists covering related territory – Steven Claydon or Nathan Mabry, for example- Matthew Monhan’s work is not based in a singular discussion. His works takes in everything from a geeky preoccupation with archaeology and history to a contemplation of the nature of museal display or the embedding of ideologies within sculpture; a reflection on the languages of Modernism as imbued within objects to an almost irreverent reassertion of the object or figurative sculpture after the orthodoxies of Conceptualism and Minimalism.
One often gets the feeling that the frequent return to Modernism in his work is preoccupied with certain paradoxes and contradictions within Modernism itself. Modernism was after all the blueprint for positions that would eradicate the representational and the figurative, the seminal ideology underpinning the move towards pure abstraction in art. On the other hand, however, the most memorable sculptors of early and mid twentieth century modernist schools not only clung steadfastly to the figurative and the representational, but persistently returned to the most classical of subject matter for their sculptures. Monahan, in one sense, seems to be looking backwards over the achievements of sculpture at the end of the twentieth century and beyond and treating Modernism as his own form of classical anchor point. In much the same way that the masters of twentieth century modern sculpture reworked art history to their contemporary context, so too does Monahan frequently echo the political landscape of his own generation in work that is one step removed from the iconography usually accorded to it in a media-saturated world.
Matthew Monahan’s solo exhibition continues at CAC Cincinnati until 30 October 2011.