Whitehot Magazine

February 2013: Matt Wardell: Hair On My Tongue (No Seas Cabrón) @ Commonwealth & Council

Matt Wardell, 2012, Three Chihuahuas Wearing Bikinis, acrylic ink on paper

Matt Wardell: Hair On My Tongue (No Seas Cabrón)
Commonwealth & Council
January 5-19, 2013

by Shana Nys Dambrot

Matt Wardell has been teaching an art history class, and it shows. On top of his existing penchant for combining wry joviality with an exuberant palette, serious figure study, and confident draftsmanship, he now seeks to organize the flow of his torrentially interconnected thoughts into a classicism-infused structure -- albeit a “multiple, non-hierarchical” structure. Combining large-bore pointillism with an Etruscan-fresco style armature as both the architecture and content of a sprawling compositional lattice. The grouping functions both an inspired and salient installation design for the display of hundreds of individual works on paper, as well as a signal that the entire three-wall layout ought to be read as a single work. That is, an overarching concept within which each painting exists as both subject and sovereign. The threat of TMI overload (the checklist itself is a Herculean, diagrammed feat) is related to the fad for salon-style paper-piece bonanzas, but Wardell’s refined version of this strategy instead remains legible, sophisticated and charming as opposed to chaotic. Did I say sophisticated? Because there is finger-painting, pretty ponies, and Phersu mystery men.

Something about an eggplant. Something about dealing with death, life, not life, not death, and assorted. Something about not dealing with death, life, not life, not death, and assorted. Something/ will/ occur. The usual, but not usual, tasted, again, always different. Affections rekindled for text and small things.

Due to the presence of larger individual portraits in a sort of paid-for nobility or church patron format -- subjects include his paternal grandmother and assorted majestic figures from art history books -- there is an urge to read the spread narratively, like a board game pathway, or the friezes in a royal tomb. Due to portraits of small dogs in bikinis (a cheeky reference to his even cheekier “Pregnant in Bikinis” paintings), interspersed with hand-scrawled messages like “baby cats,” and “Donald Judd with a drinking fountain,” you are off the hook in terms of following the storyline. Wardell describes his method of creating and accumulating pictures and information as “archiving and surveying an exceedingly abundant databank of personal and collective images.” Thus Hair on My Tongue presents a compelling combination of rigid design and stream of consciousness aesthetics, and a canny riff on fresco-classicism, wherein the crosscurrents of hilarity periodically resolve into oases of straightforward (and really very good) painting.

Matt Wardell, 2013, Hair On My Tongue (No Seas Cabrón), detail of installation (Horse with Diagram)

A further incentive to read this installation as a single piece is the nearby, inescapable presence of other multi-element situational installations, all of which are about as site-specific as it gets, and at least one of which requires an adventurous spirit and a certain comfort level with possible physical injury. (It’s worth noting that the windows were very effective as an element of the painting installation as well.) The rear wall of the gallery space was apparently nearly destroyed in a fire, a temporary drywall barrier erected, then torn away, revealing the shaft and landing of a charred staircase. Both the loft  platform and the spooky staircase well leading down from the gallery space contain sculptural and/or hanging banners, objects, and painted paper. These relate more directly to Wardell’s quasi-Beat aesthetic favoring the found and rescued, with a little family-man sentiment around the edges, and also to his curiosity about the danger and history of the space -- itself damaged, found, and rescued. Like surfing the shoots and ladders of the painting layout, physical engagement and a little moving around enhance the experience and draw attention to the use of space -- but by contrast the painting installation seems downright traditional.

Matt Wardell, 2013, Hair On My Tongue (No Seas Cabrón), installation detail (Green Babies)

Matt Wardell, installation view

Matt Wardell, installation view

Matt Wardell, installation view

Matt Wardell, Guardian Figure (Chinese Baby #2), 2013, fabric, blanket, wall decoration with armature

Matt Wardell, The Shaft or Crypt



Shana Nys Dambrot

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.

She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.


Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff


Follow Whitehot on Instagram 


view all articles from this author