By ADRIANA FURLONG and MOACIR P. DE SÁ PEREIRA December 28, 2023
The familiar, ambiguous image of the “duck-rabbit” stands as one of two late nineteenth-century foundations for Daina Mattis’s latest exhibition at High Noon Gallery, Forever Wild. Perhaps originally appearing in a German humor magazine, it came to us in the section of Philosophical Investigations where Wittgenstein addresses the relationship between our visual encounters and the nuanced comprehension of what we feel and know in the act of seeing. The picture has not changed, but we have noticed an aspect that brings the image into relation with other objects, ducks… rabbits…. Next, the name of the exposition refers to the 1894 State Constitution of New York which established the Forest Preserve in perpetuity. The Preserve, those lands in the Catskills and Adirondacks belonging to the state, would henceforth “be forever kept as wild forest lands.” Over time the Preserve has grown, and parts have been given over to non-wild public use, but the uncanny fantasy of the state delineating with a blue line what is and is not “wild,” “forever,” persists with us today.
Both foundations provide a space for uncanny unease that Mattis has mined throughout her career, featuring (initially) unrelated objects overlapping and asking us to reflect on the emerging aspects. But with this recent work, Mattis has instead foregrounded the instability. The wildness may yet still break out and ensure its foreverness beyond the blue line. The rabbit-duck will become a living animal embodying its rabbit-duckness. In The Fountain, Mattis repurposes an oak Art Deco waterfall vanity to invite us into this ontological escape. Using a name referencing Duchamp’s Fontaine, Mattis literalizes the “fall” of the waterfall vanity by presenting, instead of one’s own reflection, sand encased in thin sheets of tempered glass.
Occasionally flipped and therefore refreshed with some fanfare by a gallery attendant, the sand begins to fall again and create a new, striated image, like a cross-section of Appalachian geological history or the moving calm Apple has introduced with their nature photo screen saver. In the eddy of falling sand, our own anxiety of misrecognition reflects back at us. At the same time however, the sand slipping away means the previous images are no longer available.
Mattis includes three smaller versions of the sand mirror, where the sand is encased in hand mirrors hung on the wall. That irretrievability, that image that once was there, resonates with Mattis’s dedication of the show to her recently passed partner Tim Collins. Forever Wild lures us into a Waldenesque reflection on the person in nature, isolated like we all are after loss, but the works serve less as a commentary on environmentalism than a mining of the muddled discontent regarding our symbolic relationship to nature, especially when we replant it in our homes. In Field Studies, Mattis presents a grid of 24 15” x 12” paintings on linen, where each presents a trompe l’oeil of epochs of floral-motif wallpaper peeling off of each other. The psychotropic strata produce a geologic and kaleidoscopic amalgamation, flock and faux painting engaging with beaux artes motifs jostling against faux-marble backdrops, all struggling for relevance.
With Sundowner, Mattis pushes the wildness to its extreme. Here, a crook of birds on linen are enclosed within clear vinyl, the covering blooming with Fanta-colored sunflowers. The birds choke under the plastic, nature wiping out its own, or at least giving us a lesson in how we can tame the untamable. Perhaps we should follow painter and flaneur Thomas Cole’s desire in the Adirondacks to “set fire to the trees on the summit of the mountain, so as to present an unobstructed view.”
The Forest Preserve includes the famous Kaaterskill Falls, mentioned at the end of 1819’s “Rip Van Winkle” and considered to be one of America’s first tourist destinations, which embody our incoherent relationship to the physical world. The Romanticist sublime of the towering falls has given way to a human-produced sublime in the banality of studies and selfies at the falls over the past two centuries. We know we are in nature because Instagram tells us we are in nature, cashing in on a pay-for-play spiritual tax refund.
The “forever” of the show’s title lives a different, more threatening life today than it did over a century ago. We hear in it Alphaville’s 1984 single “Forever Young” and the name of the ubiquitous fast fashion retailer Forever 21. In the edenic promise of the wild, we remember how “to be young was very heaven,” a drive toward extending one’s youth with lip fillers and striving to keep a waifish figure as frolicing in a pollen-heavy field, hauling handbag-sized bottles of perfume adorned with whimsical plastic daisies, as through Marc Jacobs.
However, as Mattis shows, we should expect the quick change, the shifting of perspective, the sense of seeing the foreverness this way now. Alphaville, themselves named after Godard’s post-love dystopian film, allude to the 1980s anxiety over nuclear destruction in singing, “Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?” The uncertainty over the end of the world mirrors the uncertainty of wanting to live forever, wild or not. WM
Adriana Furlong (b. Berkeley, CA) is a visual artist and writer based in New York City. She works between vernacular and notational history to excavate those residual memories, bodies, and narratives that have been forgotten, lost, and buried. She is a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
Moacir P. de Sá Pereira is the Research Data Librarian at Columbia University Libraries.view all articles from this author