At Simon Gallery
By Dona Nelson
I viewed Matthew Craig’s painting show at Simon Gallery in Morristown, New Jersey on December 5, 2014. Craig has two larger paintings in this show, but the best paintings in Craig’s current exhibition are the many 20×22 inch paintings on 2 and ¼ inch stretchers. Craig is extremely intentional in regard to all of the physical decisions that go into making his paintings. The 20×22 inch format stubbornly resists any kind of illusionistic reading. The thick stretchers feature a frank bedsheet fold of canvas at each corner. Many of the paintings are fields of color intersected by one inch wide stripes that are different colors than the field. They read as being the same thickness as masking tape and, at times in the past, although not in this exhibition, Craig has put colored masking tape on the face of his paintings.
One of the paintings in this exhibition, Five, 2014, has a muted grey-green field that is painted in a direct, casual way. The matte surface of the grey-green is opaque and slightly ridged. The expanses of green are interrupted by three hand-painted colored stripes. A large field of green on the left ends with a baby blue stripe that is the same value as the green field, next to a harsh chemical red stripe, (although Craig paints with oil paint, his colors sometimes look like acrylic color). After the red stripe, there is an extended field of the same green, ending with a brushy, somewhat dirty pink stripe on the right hand side of the painting.
Letter features a medium dark green field, brushed lightly over a stained pink ground at the top of the canvas. A slightly garish pink stripe is painted on three sides of the canvas. Craig is careful to maintain the green and pink on the same plane with a slightly off center V of pink coming down from the top corners of the painting, like a flap on an envelope. The brushy top keeps the top “flap” from functioning optically as if it is on top of the bottom green of the “letter.” This is a wonderfully complex painting, which evokes an image without becoming an image. Letter rigorously maintains its status as an abstract painting.
Barnett Newman’s grand existential rhetoric seems a far cry from Craig’s mundane paintings; however, Newman’s early small painting Onement I, 1948, is painted in a direct, plain way, like Craig’s paintings. Newman consciously rejected all of painting’s decorative and illusionistic possibilities, in favor of a way of painting that constantly reminds one of the painting’s making. The press release for Matthew Craig’s show mentions the Supports/Surfaces artists of 1970s France, but Craig’s approach to painting is quite different than these artists who tried to deconstruct the form of painting, often separating the physical elements of the painting. At the time their paintings were made, the Supports/Surfaces artists considered their paintings to be part of a political statement, but these days, at least in the United States, Supports/ Surfaces paintings look wonderfully light and elegant. A major Supports/Surfaces artist like Claude Viallat makes me think of Matisse and bright seaside awnings, whereas Newman’s Onement I maintains its original refusal to be evocative of anything other than itself. In their physical plainness, almost homeliness, Craig’s paintings are very American, but unlike Barnett Newman or the Minimalists, Craig has no quality of ideology. Perhaps ideology suggests a vision of the future that doesn’t seem appropriate or possible in 2014. The only politics in Matthew Craig’s paintings is an affirmation of the day-to-day activity of making a painting, which in the age of Facebook, is political, in that painting is the work of an individual rather than a group activity.
Dona Nelson is a painter and Professor of Painting and Drawing at Tyler School of Art.