Whitehot Magazine

Christy Matson's Textiles Defy all Categorization at Chicago's Volume Gallery

 Installation view 2024, Christy Matson, Volume Gallery, Chicago Il



Never was more of a fuss made over illusionistic perspectival space than in 20th century America. Clement Greenberg and his formalists endorsed it as the fundamental quality of Good Art. Minimalists like Donald Judd and Richard Serra denounced it as false and deceitful. I would’ve liked to see how these two factions tore into each other over Christy Matson’s current show at Volume Gallery, because Matson’s rigorous interrogation of perspectival space knows no parallel throughout art history. 

Subject-wise, Matson’s work isn’t all that special: the Los Angeles-based artist’s show at Volume features such well-trodden subjects as blazing hillside sunsets and artificial mountainous landscapes. What sets her apart from the Diebenkorns and Thiebauds of Californian art is her medium: Matson creates her work using a Jacquard loom. Despite the industrial nature of the loom, Matson finds ample opportunity to insert her distinct sensibility and refined touch into these works. The warp of her textiles – that is, the vertical threads held stationary while the horizontal weft is drawn through them – consists of strings of paper which the artist has painted by hand. The weft typically comprises beige, cotton threads, and is not added in a uniform manner: in some regions, only one weft thread flows through the warp, while in others as many as three are present. 

Installation view 2024, Christy Matson, Volume Gallery, Chicago Il

Matson uses this inconsistent weft to effect stunning chromatic phenomena within her pictures: selectively applied beige highlights cause uninterrupted monochromatic regions  to seem as if sunlight is bouncing off their sheeny surfaces. This reflective quality imbues them with certain palpable physical characteristics, particularly a slight, tantalizing curvature. Unlike the painterly medium, which creates an illusion of three-dimensionality by a recession backwards into pictorial space, Matson’s textile-focused method creates forms which seem to protrude forward toward the viewer, beckoning you to come closer. They’re infinitely more inviting than the painted fields of Frankenthaler or Rothko could ever be – fields which, after seeing this show, appear more like obdurate black holes than spiritual masterpieces.

Installation view 2024, Christy Matson, Volume Gallery, Chicago Il

The fundamental trait of perspectival space is that it is false, a deliberate pictorial effect which gets the viewer to perceive a region which isn’t truly there. In much of traditional formalist painting, this falseness is the source of grandiose drama – take, for instance, Frank Stella’s 70s paintings depicting rectilinear forms decreasing in size as they near the center of the canvas. Though these paintings are quite simple in composition, the tension between their recession into pictorial space and their undeniable flatness resembles all-out warfare. Matson’s works, on the other hand, are breathtakingly still. This can be attributed in part to Matson’s muted palette, which fuses the pastel warm tones of Southern California’s landscape with the synthetic blues and greens of Los Angeles. There seems to be some tacit agreement between her works’ flat surfaces and the illusionistic space they delineate: if the civil wars which rage in formalist masterpieces left pictorial art an empty, unsaturated field, Matson’s current output shows that field to be a verdant pasture, burgeoning with possibilities for the future. (They’re profoundly funny, in a way: while formalists pontificate about the “end of art,” Matson chuckles to herself, continuing to contrive pictures which intrigue and satisfy in equal measure.)

Matson’s greatest improvement on the tradition of formalist painting seems to be in the genesis of her textiles: while abstract painters make something out of nothing, Matson makes something out of something. The painterly method is additive, constituting a pictorial reality where there previously was none – Matson’s, on the other hand, seems to momentarily gather the world’s entropy into particularly pleasing arrangements of color and form. (This is perhaps why her work holds none of the hubris of formalist painting – she lays no claim to being God in the world she depicts.)

Installation view 2024, Christy Matson, Volume Gallery, Chicago Il

But that’s enough about Matson’s technical innovation – how do these works feel? In a way, they depict something beyond visual experience. Their oblong forms are rendered with something of a flat affect – I see no attempt to draw upon the theatricality with which our eyes convey the external world to our brains. They do, however, possess the immediacy of tactile experience. (It’s no wonder my first mental comparison of Matson’s work was to the paintings of Sargy Mann, the blind British artist who had to rely on his sense of touch to render his subjects.) In works like Kaleidoscopic Sky, beige granules seem to attest to past physical contact – think of the indelible mark made by a curious child leaving their handprint in wet concrete. It’s undeniable that Matson’s textiles carry out a fierce formal task – they lend a disturbing degree of credence to apocalyptic declarations that “painting is dead” – but the ideological framework they’re rooted in is loving and humanistic. What a fortuitous accident it is that in the process of creating her earnest, warmth-suffused landscapes Matson happened upon some of the most formally innovative art of her generation.  WM


Charles Venkatesh Young

Charles Venkatesh Young is a journalist and art critic based in Chicago. He is the founder of online journal Meaning Without Form (meaningwithoutform.com) and has contributed to Newcity, Bridge, the Chicago Reader, and Whitehot Magazine.

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