Airy Visions | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Airy Visions 


at Feigen, through November 12

At first Claudia Matzko's Chorus isn't much to look at. One of six 1994 works now on view at Feigen, it consists of three large plate-glass rectangles suspended by fishing line from the ceiling. A small black box sits on the floor next to each plate, a wire connecting it to a circular patch at the plate's lower edge. Yet as one looks longer, the details in an odd way seem to reinforce each other--these apparently minor visual incidents are not merely decorative but have a powerful overall effect.

The rectangles against the wall in Chorus remind one of paintings in an art museum. Yet they're hung a bit away from the wall, and they're transparent; what one sees when one looks at them is mainly the wall itself. But from most angles a faint reflection of the viewer is also visible. And against the wall one can see the shadows of the glass and of the five strands of fishing line that hold each rectangle up. The fishing line, though more opaque than the glass, nonetheless resembles it because it also passes light. The viewer's attention is thus being constantly redirected, from the glass itself to the wall behind to the shadows to the five hangers to his own reflection. The work's effect, and thus in a sense the work itself, does not lie in any of its physical aspects. This gentle, ethereal, oddly beautiful piece lives as much in the air as in its physical materials.

Matzko brings this point home by making the plate glass vibrate--each black box and circular patch is a transducer that causes the glass to oscillate. The complex humming sound that results, a bit like the buzz from fluorescent lights, suggests the tones one might hear if someone had struck glass with a large piece of metal, as if ringing a bell--but this sound is steady and unvarying.

Matzko, 38, has come to make such works as Chorus through a long developmental process. Her strict parents allowed virtually no TV watching but did encourage cultural interests of all kinds--which helps account for the fact that she never refers to popular culture in her work. At the University of New Hampshire she did figurative work, and at Yale, where she earned her MFA in 1983, she worked in the style of the German neo-expressionists.

Two turning points, Matzko says, helped her find her present style. The first came at Yale, when she read a fragment of an interview with Marguerite Duras, given a few years after the near-revolution of May 1968 in France. Duras' outburst is, um, heavily gendered ("Men must learn to be silent"), but it was her advocacy of silence over theoretical discourse, of silence as fostering "a new mode of being," that inspired Matzko. The second came a few years later, when Matzko was learning German while living in Germany: she came to see the ways biases are embedded in language. Matzko's current, sculptural direction dates to 1987, after she'd lost interest in neo-expressionism. "I've consciously turned my back on language," she says. Instead she wants to express "that violent flood of things that want to be said . . . in a new way. I'm interested in thinking about silence . . . as opposed to speech."

Linguistic structures are inherently hierarchical. An adjective modifies a noun, without which it would make no sense; an adverb modifies a verb. But Matzko's work has the even, "allover" quality of the drone-buzz in Chorus. No part is more important than any other, and the tiniest shadow or reflection can seem as weighty as the work's physical elements. Consider Untitled (Missing), in which a large mirror reflects the viewer's image. Yet in several ways that image is etherealized, losing some of its ordinary narcissistic punch and becoming part of Matzko's almost airy vision.

In front of the mirror sits a plate of glass almost the same size, resting on the floor a few inches from the wall and meeting the mirror's top at a slight angle. As a result, the viewer sees three reflections of himself--the central one in the mirror and dimmer ones above and below it, one directly off the glass and another from light bouncing off the inside of the glass and back to the mirror. As one steps away, the three reflections grow farther apart. The fact that each is of a different intensity and that they aren't coming from the same surface further undercuts any primacy the central one might have. Matzko has also sandblasted the lower part of the glass, which grows gradually more opaque in such a way that one's feet almost appear to be floating. Looking closely at them, one can see a little of the floor; but when looking at one's face, one's feet seem suspended in air.

These are not the works of a trompe l'oeil illusionist or a new-age transcendentalist, however. Borrowing from the vocabulary of minimalism, Matzko constructs her works with great precision and attention to physical details. For every moment the viewer feels himself drifting off into the air, there is another when the pleasure of seeing the physical side of the work, the effects of the sandblasting or the precise way the two glass rectangles rest against each other, brings one back to earth. Matzko's work makes its statement in the tension between the palpability of her materials and the sense that ultimately their effects and meanings are to be found not only in them but in the spaces around them, or in the viewer's mind.

Minimalist artists Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre have made numerous sculptures based on grids, which not only have a solid physicality but seem to offer their shapes as icons of some absolute truth, as ideal and perfect forms. In addition, LeWitt's sculptures are geometrically perfect: all the right angles are exactly 90 degrees, all the straight lines perfectly straight. Matzko's Portrait, by contrast, is an imperfect grid: a 24-by-36-inch pattern of glass squares, each held by two dressmaker pins at the bottom and resting against the wall. The pins and glass were installed by hand, so no pin is exactly straight, no glass is in precisely the same position as the others. One's attention is thus directed away from the uniformity of the grid overall and toward these tiny random variations, evidence of a human hand.

It may seem obvious that the relationship between the pins and the glass is hierarchical--the pins hold the glass up--and thus reflects the power relations of language, but the pins and glass actually interact more ambiguously. While the bottom of each square rests on the pins, the top is just under the next row of pins; unless one looks very closely, it's not really clear what's holding up what. The glass itself is almost transparent, only barely visible against the gallery wall, as are the shadows of the pins and the glass squares.

Ultimately there is no obscurantist illusionism here; though what is glass and what is shadow is at first confusing, one can understand exactly what's there by looking to the top row (glass squares with no shadows behind, for the piece is lit from above) and to just below the bottom row (only shadows, no glass). Yet the work still left me with the oddly euphoric feeling of not knowing exactly where it was located, or exactly where I was standing.

Simplest of all in its materials is a large untitled piece made entirely of tiny acrylic beads. These small, transparent half-spheres attached to the wall suggest falling teardrops to Matzko, but if so this is crying monumentalized; dozens of drops cover several feet of a wall. They are densest along a straight horizontal line at about eye level and become gradually less dense as they approach the floor, so there is the suggestion of something, like tears or rain, that might dissipate as it falls.

Each bead acts as a magnifying glass, greatly enlarging the paint on the wall behind; to the naked eye the wall looks smooth, but seen through the beads it's a tiny world of lumps and bumps. One's attention is directed away from the beads themselves and toward previously invisible aspects of the wall's surface.

The work is even more impressive when the gallery lights are turned off, as will be done briefly on request. Seen from the side, each bead becomes a tiny bluish globe filled with daylight from the windows at left; seen head-on, the piece nearly vanishes against the dark wall--the beads appear to be mere bumps on the wall, not unlike the magnified lumps of paint.

By arranging her beads in an almost random pattern, and by making her work depend as much on its setting as on the beads themselves, Matzko rejects the conception of the artist as great form giver--the reshaper of our world or the creator of a new one. Her sculptures are never detached objects to be venerated from afar; her distrust of language is a distrust of all traditional power relations. Her works, and their surroundings, encourage the viewer "to listen in a new way," as she says. "I'm trying to level the playing field in terms of hierarchies. . . . I'm trying to allow the piece to be filled out by your image . . . your input."

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