Beaver Paintings, 2005
This series could easily be mistaken for a kind of natural history, but really it is about people. I am interested in the way people construct and understand their aesthetic environment, especially when it comes to paintings. Beavers, like people, put incredible effort into making their surroundings safer, more comfortable, efficient and stimulating. Much of this effort is directed by one thing – the organizing motif of beaver society – control over the flow of water. An analogous control of flow is at the heart of painting: the flow of energy in and out of spaces, of capital in and out of marketplaces, of ideas in and out of forms, and, ultimately, of time inalterably running forward. The ability to slow, reverse, and transcend time is one of the most tenacious claims made by the culture of painting. This essential optimism, despite all evidence to the contrary, is what these paintings are about.
This exhibition is dedicated to Anne Rapp Offenbacher (1912 – 2004)
March 15, 2005
Dear Mark and Anna,
The beaver paintings came about from thinking about the "Looking at ...." paintings from the last show. I was thinking about how passive those animals were, staring dumbly out of the picture plane, standing in for a specific kind of stupefying looking and connoisseurship of "great painting". I thought it would be interesting to lend them agency, have them actually do something. The show we did last year with the "Looking at ...." animals and the pelts and the trunk slices was pretty dark. It was about death and how dead things are used, how paintings fail, how modernism failed, etc. I wanted these new paintings to be more about life—still involved in critical thinking about how paintings work and don't work, how they function as tokens in complex systems of exchange, how art relates to art history—but with something balancing out the darkness. I wanted them to show more the possibility for construction, connection, communication, for hope and belief in painting's transcendent endowments. Beavers seemed like good animals for this project because they construct things. They are only rivaled by humans by the extent they will go to in order to make a place livable. Their engineering feats are pretty astonishing. One thing I've gotten interested in is the violent history of their contact with humans, the result of fashion for beaver skin hats. In this country, the Hudson Bay Company (whose coat of arms has the inscription Pro Pelle Cutem, "A skin for a skin") carved a quasi-governmental empire out of large regions of the western territories in the 19th century, bringing New World beavers to the edge of extinction. These new paintings, like my previous ones, might have the look of a kind of natural history, but I really intend them as metaphors for the strange activities of human culture. That is why the beavers in the paintings all try to make eye contact with the viewer; I want you to put yourself in their place. The larger paintings depict beavers building their dams and lodges, which are rendered as these crystalline phantasmagoric encrusted rococo painterly sort of constructions. They are paintings about painters and painting. This self-reflexivity is what I was trying to get at by naming them after Robert Morris's 1961 minimalist "Box with the sound of its own making". I was thinking of these constructions as large, glittery, useless things, like crystal chandeliers, which I think paintings are kind of like. Useless—but here also are the very serious beavers doing the hard and obsessive work of building a home. The way the constructions look have a lot of muddled sources. Among them: French 18th century painting (Watteau, Fragonard, Boucher), 1960s and 70s yarn craft projects (especially "God's Eyes", crochet owls, and bargello, which is a kind of repeated pattern needlework derived from 17th century Florence). Also, the 1966 sci-fi novel "Crystal World" by JG Ballard (not incidentally the favorite book of Robert Smithson), in which the protagonist visits a small, but growing, corner of a South American rain forest which, through some obscure warp in the time-space continuum, is turning crystalline. All the animal and plant matter is dissolving into hard frozen beautifully diffracting inorganic crystal. Ballard's descriptions of the rainbow light effects of this crystal rainforest, along with the plates in a book reprinting Goethe's theory of colors from 1840 that I stumbled across at the public library, are the sources of the strange optical haloing effect around the beaver constructions. Goethe was arguing with Newton in his theory of colors. Newton said colors are slices of the white light spectrum, his theory elegantly demonstrated with a prism (like on Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" album). Goethe was also using prisms, but he was looking through them at printed black and white shapes, and observing the way the spectrum split at the borders between dark and light. He concluded color is an epiphenomenal effect of black and white, and so reason (black & white) has primacy over emotion (color). His physics were pretty much wrong, of course, but his close observation of the perceptual effects of color has had an enormous impact on the history of painting. Espoused by Turner, Romantics of all sorts, impressionists and so on. I think this is all fascinating and painting in the weird optical effect of splitting the spectrum around dark and light shapes, as if you were looking at the painting through Goethe's prism, gives the paintings an strange visual and historical vibration. One thing I think the beavers are doing, in the metaphorical sense of their activities in these painting, are creating dams that are intended to slow or stop the flow of time and history through pictures. I think it is a flow that has been reduced to a trickle by Modernism's effects. The beavers are trying to stop up the almost emptied-out picture plane, to force a deep pool of those things swept away to the ocean, to create a safe place to build their home. Most literally, they (and I should say "I" here because the beavers are shouldering way too much of my own stuff), most literally I am trying to find a way to reverse the drought, to "re-enchant" pictures (to steal Max Weber's term). There is some nostalgia in this, I guess, nostalgia for a time and an art that was more centered and grounded, that maybe looks something like the good life espoused by Scott and Helen Nearing in their 1970 book, "Living the Good Life". Simplicity, social consciousness, harmony with nature, civic responsibility, collective living, volunteerism, moving from induced neediness to satiety. If the Nearings are one pole of these paintings, the yearning for a late 1960s-early 1970s idealistic, Marxist, back-to-nature variety of idealism, then the other extreme is held in place by Robert Smithson, with his nihilism, entropy, passivity, ambivalence, indifference, sedimentation, accretion, crystallization. I think my painting shuttles between these two. I first came across the Nearings as a child in a book my grandparents kept on their coffee table in their summer cottage in Vermont. "The Good Life Album" contained obscure and kind of wondrous pictures of a back-to-land community the Nearings founded in the 1950s in the very place my grandparents cottage stood. My grandparents actually bought the place from one of the original settlers, when the Nearings and many of their followers packed up and left in the 1970s for somewhere even more remote (northern coastal Maine). Anyway, I was always fascinated by the pictures in this book, and, later, by the people from that time who remained in the area. The Nearings and their philosophy are, for me, all tied up with my grandparents, who balanced their summer back-to-land experimentation with a life in Queens, NY as an antiquarian bookseller and a social worker. I have been thinking a lot about them lately (my grandmother died this past year). I think these beaver paintings are also about them, their dramatic life, and its impact on my family. Before Queens and Vermont, they were German Jews who escaped during the war through occupied France (where my dad was born), Spain, Cuba, and finally New York. The beaver paintings are set up with a double structure, like the double structure of rococo architecture, with the smaller abstract paintings conceptually nestled inside the larger figurative ones. These paintings (the "Painting beaver paintings") are the paintings I imagine the beavers would paint if they were painters. I started making them look a lot like cubists paintings, like Picasso & Braque were doing in the early 1900s, the stuff Gertrude Stein championed. I thought the methodical, maniacally additive, apparently analytical, deliberately primitive approach of these paintings somehow related to how beavers think. I also got interested in mid-century geometric abstraction (with all its rationalism and scientific materialism), and 1980s design, especially some of the most repulsive color combination of teal and turquoise and orange. The beavers' paintings are a collision of these things and probably a few more I'm forgetting. I mostly wanted these to look sort of familiar, but also strange, alien, off. The reason I am working towards this strangeness is I want the beavers to function as an exotic other: the inscrutable, mysterious other onto which idealist fantasies can be projected. Imaginary beaver art offers me a method to experiment and think about exoticism in painting. While dehumanization in art and culture is something to take very seriously, with all its devastating political and social effects, de-beaverization is maybe not such a serious problem, and so I think opens up the subject in a new way. Beavers are my Cathay. They are the foreign place I can safely project my most romantic longings for primitiveness, for wolfishness (to steal Ruskin's phrase), for the noble savage, for everything that tries to get at the sort of transcendent experience painting always promises to deliver. Okay, hope there is something in all this you can use. I'm going to attach below an image of the first abstract "Painting beaver painting" because I don't think you've seen these yet. Let me know what else I can do in the run up to the show.
All my best, Matt