By ANDREA BELL, July, 2018
There has always been a competition in art history between art’s ability to express emotion and its ability to clarify an idea. Ever since the eighteenth century, when Western art history began to interpret the calm, rational beauty of Greek sculpture as antithetical to the theatrical decadence of the later Romans, a divide was opened up between artwork that passionately expresses and that which coolly simplifies. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the difference between Expressionism’s attempt to move the viewer emotionally through a deep connection with the artist’s own feelings and experiences, verses Constructivism’s use of geometry as the only truly universal language. If Abstract Expressionism culminated in the passionately flung paint of the ür-artist, Jackson Pollock, then hard-edged minimalism saw itself as a dispassionate, even objective activation of universal systems, once again through geometry. One delights in the abundant varieties of individual experience, the other searches for underlying structures.
One essential question of contemporary art, then, is where does material-focused abstract art go after Post-Minimalism? Post-Minimalism is a nebulous term that encompasses sculpture, painting and performance in all of their expanded fields. With no need to represent something outside of itself, one strain of post-Minimalism has investigated how artists might interact with and manipulate their materials, and to what end. Matthew Adam Ross asks these questions in the interest of recuperating just this expressive, human element that was rationalized away by the razor-sharp perfection of High Minimalism.
Ross began as a union welder in New York City, building sets for events like fashion week, and storefront installations for John Varvatos and Alexander Wang. But producing such “expensive trash,” which would be disposed of only a few days after its completion, was ultimately unsatisfying, and Ross recalls turning instead to doing structural work for buildings. This background informs Ross’s interest in the structures that physically undergird the city, geometries that include the grid, that fundamental minimalist form. At first, when he began painting more seriously, Ross looked to the expressive, naïve gestures of Cy Twombly that skip across surfaces with the playfulness of a child’s early mark-making, as well as to the graffiti he both witnessed and practiced in NYC. In early paintings like Untitled, Urban Vernacular, there are traces of Clyfford Still and Robert Motherwell, and the indebtedness to Abstract Expressionism is clear.
But when Ross, encouraged by the photographer Brandy Eve Allen, began to engage the industrial materials of his trade, his art started to look past the precedent of gestural expressionism. Now Ross makes assemblages of concrete and various industrial metals, sometimes painted, sometimes not. They oscillate between being formalist, abstract compositions that respond to the artist’s own internal landscape on the one hand, and seeming to be slices of city streets or archeological sites on the other. One wonders, for example, what prior golden city is being excavated from under the layer of concrete in the untitled assemblage above. What has been pried away, leaving gouges in its surface? In works like this one, Ross was inspired by Rudolf Stingel’s Gold Paintings, created for the latter’s mid-career retrospective at the MCA Chicago and the Whitney in 2007. Stingel covered the walls of the gallery space with panels of aluminum-faced insulation material, turning the room into a Byzantine jewel box of otherworldly, golden surfaces. Rather than preserve the unblemished integrity of the panels, Stingel allowed visitors to draw and scratch into them. In a similar conceit, Ross’ assemblages also simulate the ways that surfaces record the passage of time, the accumulation of marks that are built up, destroyed, and that resurface just as the morphology of the city itself shifts and changes.
Ross’s compositions could be fragments of a larger urban environment that bare the marks not of natural weathering – the metal maintains its sheen – but of human intervention. This idea ties his work to a longer tradition that contemplates the multiplicities of time: both human and cosmic. One thinks of the archaeological interest of Aslem Keifer or of Robert Smithson, for example. Installations like Keifer’s ziggurats collapse historical time and lived time, so that an artifact from the ancient past might be re-created, its descent into ruin vastly accelerated. Unlike Keifer and Smithson, however, Ross is interested in the intentional degradation of a place by human hands. Ross likens the surfaces of pieces like Untitled, above, to the façade of the Parthenon in Rome, whose bronze decoration was carried off during the barbarian invasions that toppled the city. The marks of this violence still pock the Parthenon’s concrete. It is the active chipping away at the city, its organization and re-organization as an organic process of repetition and modification, which Ross’s assemblages seek to capture.
Ross is interested in the connection between the pure, chaotic energy of experience, and the rigorous structures over which that experience is enacted: the chaos of the street and the vernacular materials, often unnoticed, that support it. In his most recent work, Ross returned to the form of the High Modernist Grid, whose structure has inspired modern formalism since Mondrian’s De Stijl. But rather than a contemplation of geometrical rigor, these mark Ross’s first forays into freeform sculpture. Ross pours concrete onto the amateur of the grid, which suggests the grid of a city, the structure of a building, or the partitioning of a map. The concrete covers and reveals part of this underlying structure as Ross begins to hammer out certain areas, expediting its decay. The sculpture could just as easily be a piece of the street, the concrete eroding, traces of yellow paint warning drivers of the curb.
Ross’s compositions are part of his environment. They are marked off as art, they re-create the city’s erosion and accretions, but in a controlled and manipulated manner. The materials themselves will continue to change, and some quite quickly if there is no intervention, such as the copper that will begin to oxidize. The works therefore look both backward to prior arrangement of the city, and forward to the new morphologies the city will eventually assume, with the present moment situated precariously, and fleetingly, between the two. Asked about the inevitable transformations that his materials will continue to undergo over time, Ross quips, quoting Eva Hesse, “let them worry about that.” WM
Andrea Bell is an art historian, critic and writer. She received her PhD from NYU and has held fellowships in both Europe and the United States, including at the Morgan Library and Museum’s Drawing Institute. Based in New York City, Andrea teaches Art History and Criticism at Parsons School of Design
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