A new work by notorious sculptor Tony Matelli at Leo Koenig, NY continues his interest in chimpanzees and a deeply ambivalent attitude toward violence and cruelty. But it is the intricate fabrication and convergence on standards of commercial and educational model-making that firstly direct meaning here. Matelli’s work has not always employed such detailed methods, but in recent years is drawn to the standards of museum and movie special effects modelling. These promote a certain realism, indeed anonymity, but also remind us of just these applications and the assumptions about people and animals that are easily freighted there along with the ‘realism’.
The work falls in with a wider trend that discards traditional materials and methods for sculpture to pursue instead provocative variation on these broader uses, outside of art. ‘Realism’ here no longer rests with formal values of carving, modelling or casting, in stone, wood, clay or metal, but upon current norms for strict illustration and manufacture. Traditional realism in sculpture is of course still practised, (see for example, Robert Graham or Robert Taplin) but a noticeable trend for both abstract and figurative (or concrete) sculpture has been the dissolution of formal values and a shift to extrinsic or wider factors. In fact this dilation of means often merges sculpture with installation, site specific works and even performance. The figurative sculptor drawn to this trend often cannot then resist a setting or environment for the depicted person, animal or objects, soon involves animation, sound tracks, interactive participation.
The trend really gathers momentum in the late 80s and early 90s, with the use of modified shop window mannequins by Charles Ray, and later Jake and Dinos Chapman, with the use of dolls and fluffy toys in the work of a vast array of artists, from Mike Kelley to Jeff Koons, (Kelley has also featured chimps) and from the commissioning by Conceptual artists such as Ray, The Chapmans or Koons, or more recently Patricia Piccinini, to the direct participation by commercial model-makers such as Ron Mueck. The difference there is subtle. A Piccinini projects fictional mutations and demonstrates current standards of realisation, while a Mueck is mostly confined to familiar figures but projected to striking shifts of scale, sustains rendering there to fanatical detail. One pushes standard and anonymous rendering by extreme fiction, is concerned firstly with the process and the artist’s remoteness, or commissioning power. The other pushes standard and anonymous model-making by unusual scale, is concerned firstly with a problematic spatial application and the proximity there to sculpture. Tellingly, Piccinini is drawn to accompanying environments, recorded and marketed through photography, Mueck prefers the isolated figure.
To this, Matelli finds himself caught between fiction and fabrication. The new work (an excellent full page reproduction appears on page 81 of January’s Art Forum) exaggerates proportions of the chimps, concocts an unlikely scenario of strangling a bizarre and submissive larger ape, presumably from somewhere among the missing links of evolution from ape to man (or perhaps back again). The work does not quite achieve the obsessive detail of a Mueck, nor undertake the remote science fiction of a Piccinini, but indicates enough of each to direct the aggression of the work toward other institutions of representation. In this Matelli is distinctive.
His earlier work had similarly dealt in animal distress, while maintaining the smooth standards of commercial display, such as Seals (1995) while the outrageous Fucked (2004) celebrates surrogate torture and dismemberment, either under a pretext to obscure experiment or fanciful fabrication. Ancient Echo (2003) portrays institutionalised or inflicted illness, again depicting a chimpanzee. Yet Matelli has also treated human distress, in the grotesque Total Torpor Mad Malaise (2003) and the versions of Lost and Sick (1996) and (1999) and acute discomfort begins to shape as a more personal agenda, its commercial or institutional treatments only amplifying a private hostility toward the vulnerable and afflicted, enjoining a ruthless exploitation. Matelli’s work is uneasy on several counts, cautions against prompt approval or censure.