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Matthew Monahan at MOCA, Los Angeles

Nicholas Brown is an artist based between London and California. He makes clunking wooden contraptions that hang somewhere between functionality and aesthetics, so you’re never quite sure if what you’re looking at is the result of a tangled-up performance you’ve just missed, the remnants of some eccentric personal experiment, or an ongoing room-sized project of authoritative sculpture and installation. You’re also never quite sure if you should be making the distinction at all. While he was in LA this summer Nick caught a show at the MOCA that intercepted a lot of the themes of his own practice, and his review (below) follows neatly on from the questions of reality and conceit that I was trying to stumble through in my last post about the Central Saint Martin’s MA show.

Review: Matthew Monahan
MOCA, Los Angeles, 26 July – 29 October 2007

Matthew Monahan is showing a series of semi-figurative sculptures made from non-conventional materials. The room where they’re on show is brimming with them, and their arrangement almost suggests a large installation rather than a series of sculptures. Their arrangement helps to form a tension between installation and series that is very important to the work. Even though there is nothing site-specific, and everything is free-standing, his characters seem to form cliques amongst themselves. It is not hard to sense the intuition that went into their arrangement. More importantly, the work is stated to be a ‘chronicle of his studio practice.’

If we keep this in mind we can see that the transformation of the work that happens between the studio and the gallery is quite consciously dealt with. The works are plucked and chiselled out of his day-to-day studio practice, and their appropriation into a gallery setting plays a catalytic role in their status. Far from being finished works as objects, however, their finished status depends on being unfinished, and therefore renders his artistic process inherently performative. Paradoxically, if this were the original intention of the work it would become a dry and hollow conceptual gesture, which it clearly can’t be mistaken for.

Matthew Monahan 2

Monahan’s work shows a playful sincerity, even amidst its own iconoclastic futility. His studio practice is as much on display as the finished product. The way these sculptures work together (and even with themselves) spotlights the process of the work rather than the finished product. It reminds us that finished products aren’t always necessarily finished. This technique does allow the outcome of his own actions to be managed in a performative way, but that’s not to say that it’s all for show, it’s just to say that everything’s always changing. Today’s bad day in the studio might be interesting for someone to see tomorrow, which gives the objects a refreshing temporal perspective (especially for other struggling artists).

One way to watch this chain of events unfold is to watch his performatively futile attempts to fuse very different media. Attempting to make a drawing three-dimensional, for example, by supplying a shoddily- made wooden shape for it to fold around, conveys a remarkable degree of traumatic frustration. These thoughts start in the studio, but have the mileage to be used as an analogy for further reaching issues that reach further, such as the state of the art world or politics. In another case, a reference to ancient history might very well be infused with his personal life, and conveyed through this naïve and impatient way of working. General mingles with specific, as his studio becomes a microcosm of history, politics, and the state of the art world.

Monahan’s complex layering of narratives onto materials provides a link between his practice and what it deals with. A sphinx-like face is carved out of foam and painted. Another character holds an old and worn piece of dowel. When we look at the wear and tear on this dowel and think about its history, we have the freedom to decide whether or not to suspend disbelief. If we do, it’s a very convincing part of the character, even though Monahan didn’t go out of his way to make it look old. If we don’t we are left with its real history, its studio drama, and each are equally convincing. We can picture it lingering around the corner of his studio, we can even go so far as to think that it was a door stop until two days before the exhibition. Whatever it was, it didn’t have to be altered at all in order to be realistic. The way that it’s the most convincing is as what it really is and not as a well-constructed illusion.

Nicholas Brown

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