The longer a viewer looks at art, the clearer its merit typically becomes. For this reason, I don't believe first impressions are necessarily the right ones. There are always a few shows, though, that give this way of thinking a run for its money.
This week it was Matthew Monahan's fifth solo show at Anton Kern Gallery (through December 23). The exhibition is an explosion of sculptural and painted figuration referencing classical forms and I don't tend to like that. To me, this approach can too easily rest on the laurels of art history—though I acknowledge that this criticism also allows me to disregard untrendy art like semi-academic figuration.
In the past, Monahan has made many sculptures I've liked—his assemblage arrangements on Plexiglas boxes are reminiscent of the best of David Altmejd—so I lingered in the gallery a bit longer. Looking a little closer, I decided his choices of material weren't great. "Choppers Watch"(2010), a bronze figure holding a contrapposto stance, gilded with gold, stands atop a pile of corporate-looking bricks. If there's an implication with this piece that the role of giant companies in the United States today resembles that of the state in years and countries past, it's a common and not particularly illuminating point. Just one street over at David Zwirner, Luc Tuymans is dealing with the exact same subject, and he doesn't manage to offer much new commentary either, beyond what the material already communicates.
I'm not convinced my anti-corporate reading was intended, though. In this case, I suspect the artist meant no more than to draw inspiration from other well-known sculptures. My intern noticed that "Young Nitrate"(2010), an erect torso missing its arm but retaining a hand at the base of the sculpture, recalls a well-known cast of the classical nude "The Dying Gaul." I suppose I could draw further meaning from the material and form—the sculpture's hollowed structure and hard metals expose brittleness within the human figure—but I prefer not to. It's a tedious idea.
Another sculpture, "Buck Skin Signal"(2010), spreads its arms wide in a manner similar to contemporary artist Antony Gormley's "Angel of the North" in Newcastle. This connection is weak compared to the "Dying Gaul"allusion, but it reinforces the point that the poses chosen are not random—they have a history. It also makes a viewer wonder what should be drawn from the show.
In this respect, the drawings in the back room do a better job of communicating. They aren't my favorite works in the world, but a strange portrait of a man touching his face with his hand adds a bit of sensitivity to the human form without resorting to lopping off a limb. That's an improvement on the rest of the exhibition, which ultimately gives the viewer very little to talk about.
(images courtesy Anton Kern Gallery)