Collage Master Matthew Rose Brings his Challenging Imagery to Atlanta
The End of the World
William Turner Gallery
Through October 15, 2008
The End of the World, Matthew Rose's ongoing show (Sept. 18-Oct. 15) at Atlanta's new William Turner Gallery, is a mix of collages, drawings and “terribly unusual objects” by the American-born, Paris-based artist. “The works are generally about sex, death, the loss of meaning and the joy and jumbo-sized humor in stitching it all together,” Rose said. “It's my handbook for the 21st century.”
Naturally, in a show titled The End of the World, politics looms. One of the works, Trap Souris, is an assemblage of mouse traps painted in red, white and blue. "They can be functional—during the last years of the end of the world, you'll need one of these babies to catch your food,” Rose said. “My guess is the only thing living besides—barely—you, will be mice.” The show also includes works with titles like Visit Iraq, Take Drugs and Karl Rove.
“A number of other pieces touch upon the politics of love and sex,” Rose said. “I have a package of flypaper from Berlin and a little dart board in white with a pink nipple and the word 'HEAVEN' beneath it. I didn't have enough time to do a Sarah Palin piece. I wanted to knit a hockey stick and make some fake lipstick to give away to people so they could wipe on a fake smile if they needed one.”
Rose's artworks have been exhibited in Europe, Asia and the United States for more than 20 years. His highly surreal collages can be complex or simple. The denser collages take some time to absorb, but are worth the investment. Walking around the Oct. 18 opening, I went back to a particular work, The End Of The World (3), 2008, collage on canvas, (50 x 50 cm), two or three times, and each time paid more attention to one or other of the tiny tableau within the collage. On the last pass, for example, I couldn't help but focus on the strangely appealing image of Shinto priests and gunslingers standing over the dead body of a cowboy. The same image includes a 1950s-looking, black-and-white photo of a woman pushing a shopping cart, but her head has been replaced with some kind of oversized, exotic orchid, making her look like some kind of monstrosity out of a sci-fi movie. There is an actual photo of the surface of mars, a bull sculpted out of cut-out images of vegetables and packaged food, its body superimposed over a chocolate cake. The words “Screaming Woman” in calligraphic script loom at the top. And that's just the beginning.
Rose composes other collages, though, with just two or three larger, cut-out images. In his A Perfect Friend print from 2003 (56 x 76 cm, digital print on archival paper), the central image is the body of a nude woman, her head cut off and replaced with that of a chicken. “She reminds me of my grandmother,” one viewer was overheard telling the artist.
To assemble the collages, Rose browses around Paris on a kind of perpetual scavenger hunt for images. “I find things, in the street, mostly, or at a junk store and then drag it home, wrestle it to the ground, cut it up in pieces and stare at the pieces,” he said. “At one point they begin shouting to other pieces in my house, cut up from another adventure. I put them together, for better or worse. Shotgun marriage.” He describes the process as “spelling with scissors,” which was also the title of a 2006 show at Denver's Capsule Gallery, footage of which is on YouTube.
Rose grew up in New York and in the 1980s studied film at the Rhode Island School of Design, and semiotics at Brown University, both in Providence. He moved to Paris in 1992, feeling the need for a major change in his life. “In New York I was going nowhere and needed some global perspective, everyday challenges as well as new words for the same old things,” he said, “In that, I've definitely succeeded.”
Earning a degree in semiotics wasn't exactly mainstream in the 1980s and was parodied, Rose remembered, in an Esquire magazine send-up. “It made no sense to the pre-professional crowd,” he said, “but [semiotics'] applications are extremely widespread—everything from making TV to making music to writing and designing for magazines.”
Rose's interest in semiotics, which involves the study of signs, symbols and the construction of meaning, has been a major influence on his work, he says. “Studying sounds and signs of all kinds opens you up to the real—that is, the fragmentary—nature of reality,” he said. “When people talked about the fabric of the universe, I began to see the threads, and, well, the threads—or words, or sounds, or phonemes, or memes—they began to spill out of the sewing box. It was a delight to not understand the whole, and so the pieces began to dominate my thinking: the connections.”
In a way, his interest in semiotics seems to stretch back to childhood. Like most artists, Rose grew up drawing incessantly, but he also made maps and charts, and kept logs of his trips across the neighborhood. An activity that began with simple geography—mapping out the range of a pair of walkie-talkies—gradually became more complicated. “I mapped out, in shapes, my relationships, particularly with my brothers,” Rose recalls. “I gave them charts, too. Collage came later, during college: the first assignment in a painting class was to cut up rolls of wall paper. I was suddenly quite at home; I stopped drawing in my black Canson books and began to tear apart paper. This method was reinforced over and over again as I began to see my written notes as parts of other things; by themselves they were at best uninteresting.”
Rose is preoccupied with puzzles and with unwrapping riddles. This preoccupation expresses itself at times in expansive, novelistic works like The Sea in October, These 50-plus collages, roughly 9 inches by 12 inches, told through raised cut-outs, letters and words on painted boards, are, Rose says, a sexual coming of age story at once joyous and horrifying.
Massive, chaotic works like Spelling with Scissors are equally puzzling.
Spelling with Scissors forces the viewer, Rose says, “to read and reread, to read without words, then with a word, or a part of a word, perhaps in German or French or Chinese in an order you choose, knowing full well you haven't chosen the path consciously, but were drawn by a certain red or a blue or a shape and found yourself looking at something.” Again, the connection to semiotics is clear. “I'm interested in these streetlights as well as the streets, the dams and curves as well as the rivers of sentences, and meaning,” Rose says.
Though perhaps best known for his collages, Rose sometimes leaves collage altogether and draws in scribbles or cartoons. He did two large series of scribble drawings in 2003 in an attempt, he says, to get at the essence of Abstract Expressionism. He was working with paper he found in Vendée, France, in an entrepôt. “It was from the 1940s,” Rose recalled. “The paper allowed me to trace a path through Pollock in an abbreviated way. I went 'insane' with these pieces, doing three to four a night, burning myself out with the physical activity of scribbling with pens, pencils, crayons, building up strange and wonderful surfaces, then tearing them down. The process was very fulfilling and emotional.”
To say Rose becomes absorbed by the process of creation is an understatement. This encounter with AbEx, for example, was all-consuming. “I let myself go in the privacy of my studio and tried to tap that uncontrollable, often violent part of myself, and literally pour it out on the paper, oftentimes driving the pencils right through the paper,” the artist recalls. “It was totally mad, but after a few weeks, it led me to fully understand the work of Jasper Johns and the nouveaux realists, but more Johns because he kidnapped the AbEx gesture. I took my scribbling to the floor in my studio and in my manic drawing realized I'd made a rubbing of the slats of the wooden floor. The result, in a grey-blue, resembled a flag. I saw Johns immediately and laughed out loud—I'd learned and moved through Abstract Expressionism in six weeks; it took them 15 years or more run it into a tree.”
Though interested in Fluxus, and Dadaism, Rose isn't into labeling his work as part of any particular contemporary movement. “Most artists working today are interested in and influenced by either Duchamp or Picasso; those two major arteries have flooded the veins of artists everywhere,” he said. “I'm interested—no, addicted—to images and image-making. I'm clearly more attracted to the pop surrealists and Dadaists largely because of their outsized notions of the world. Dada, and to some extent Fluxus, was dominated by ideas, writing and theater. I like the loud declarative nonsense of it and the damn-it-to-hell joie de vivre of its artists.”
Other influences include Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and Ray Johnson. The latter was a neighbor and a friend in the 1990s. “Discovering his work and his person was perhaps the most profound influence, not just on me, but thousands of others working in collage and mail art,” Rose said. “He made zillions of connections and was an incredible draughtsman. Funny and serious. His death [by drowning on 13 January 1995] was very sad for me, but I still meet people who knew him, like James Rosenquist and others.”
At home in Paris, Rose follows the work of a few contemporaries such as Claude Closkey, but on the whole does not draw much inspiration from the local art scene. “The most interesting thing about the Paris art world is the museum scene,” he said. “There are dozens of museums that really attempt to nail down the historical and combine it with good pieces, so you come away with a sense of really being in that artist's head.” He cites as an example recent shows by Peter Doig and Bridget Reilly at the Museum Moderne de la Ville de Paris. “At the Palais de Tokyo there is always something very far out, and Gianni Motti's clock counting backwards to the end of the world is over the door. He's fantastic,” Rose continues. “Paris affords me the chance to easily access the global brain trusts in the art world. Plus there's the Pompdou Centre, which is always good.”
Over the years, Rose has enjoyed watching the reactions to his work, which have ranged from, well, reactionary, to kinds of deep responses that elicit tears or laughter. “People look into my works, see themselves and cry then laugh,” he said. “That's very important. I mean if you can't laugh at the end of the world, you're pretty hopeless.”
The End of the World runs until Oct. 15 at William Turner Gallery, the Stove Works, 112 Krog Street, Suite 9, Atlanta, GA
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Joel Groover is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and former senior editor at Art & Antiques magazine.