near and far: Locality at Napoleon Gallery

by Steve Basel

Locality, on view at Napoleon gallery this June, is comprised of a series of six hand-printed woodblock relief landscape works by Matthew Colaizzo. Each large-scale, monochrome print depicts a mountainous landscape, with sloping contours, precarious cliffs, and tranquil valleys from various points of view. Much like how environments we frequent become familiar, the work is at first unassuming, but Colaizzo’s prints exhibit a subtle complexity which over time infiltrates our certainty in what we are seeing. We may wander into the exhibition space the way we slip into a dream: everything is ordinary until it suddenly isn’t. It is only when we’ve woken that we realize how strange our surroundings have become. In Colaizzo’s prints, each mound is abstracted in such a way that leaves the material nature of what it depicts unclear, and its proportions make us question the size that its monumentality might suggest.  Our point of view is also in flux, making the viewer wonder if they are looking down from a perch in sky, or up from their bellies on the ground.

The dynamic which fuels the work comes from the visual choreography/interplay of two different realms. The first includes the pictorially representational elements, e.g. mounds/mountains, skies, light, and shadow, which are made visible with basic shapes and value as opposed to line. The second is the texture, which comes from the incorporation of the grain, knots, the straight seams between joined woodblocks, and other qualities of the wood’s surface into the overall composition. These realms repeatedly fall in and out of discord and unity across the picture plane. At times the qualities in the wood fall in step with the image, and seem to articulate the wind and skies around the depicted geography. At other times it draws attention to the subject’s own unique form, casting a static film over the rest of the picture, emphasizing its making, flatness and materiality.

In its emphasis on composition and imagination, the work calls to mind the Japanese style of Ukiyo-e, in particular the bold, expansive, and colorful representations of Mount Fiji by the Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai. In his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fiji, we see the volcano from various distances and contexts of daily life. Unlike Hokusai, the natural sources for the mounds and constellations seen in Colaizzo’s, prints are not iconic of a specific place, and have been abstracted to make the source uncertain. In reading Colaizzo’s statement and titles, we are told that the mounds are inspired by a series of dirt piles found next to a construction site. Locality does not directly engage with the consequences of modernization, and its overall considerations would lead us to understand his choice in source material not to the ends of a cynical or even cautionary commentary, but as a portraitist, who feels an obligation to leave the scars and real disposition of his subject visible – or at least traceable. The work primarily prompts us to think about the nature of our relationship to our world in a more abstract way.


Colaizzo’s prints put the viewer in between perceptual extremes. In this way, his work mirrors that of the color field painter Mark Rothko. Though they do not depict, Rothko’s works draw attention to the surface and simultaneously convey vast spatial depth. It is this abstractness that is able to give form to an emotional space, and develop an aesthetic experience that engages the psychological. For Colaizzo, both the near and far are comprised of recognizable subjects, and due to their difference in size and scale urge a reflection of our relation to space, time and place.

A key element of the work is the printing process itself and the sensibilities derived from individual features of the woodblock. Colaizzo overtly acknowledges this in the compositional progression of rising foreground in four circular format prints. As the viewer moves through the exhibit, the foreground form in these prints is pulled upwards until it occupies the entire visual field. We are plunged completely into a shadow/abstract territory in the fourth print, Untitled, where the energy and life of the white relief marks of the wood are given their own stage. This piece leaves something to be desired individually, but it punctuates something important in the context of Locality as a whole. The intimacy and embrace of the materials that is evident in Colaizzo’s work is most evident here. Printed by hand, pressing with great force, the ink seeps into the pores of the paper. Out of this contact and pressure, expansive views of earth and sky become manifest, and the viewer becomes trapped like a boomerang, bound between two perceptual extremes. The discord between the relief marks of the wood and the picture is both reconciled and obliterated many times within each work, casting us off into the vastness of space and back. When the relief marks seem to represent stars and rolling mists, we use the clearly defined recession of space as a runway for the eye and mind to take flight. When the lines and blemishes assert themselves, we are pulled back into the surface: the ink, and the mark – to the physical and tangible “here,” instead of the unknown and boundless reaches of “there.”

If there is a sublime experience, in Colaizzo’s work, it is not in response to the total picture, but in conceptually confronting particular moments of contact. In static images, they do something similar to what the filmmakers Charles and Ray Eames demonstrate in their short film, Powers of Ten. By taking the viewer on a journey – first outward into space and then inward into the body, noting distance by powers of ten – they reveal similarities between moments of astronomical and atomic scale through density and empty space. The clearest moment where incomprehensible distances are fixed is in Colaizzo’s, A place on earth (gravel piles) where we see, presumably a moon, made from the negative space of a knot in the wood. Because this is a relief, a pressed record, it is not only a representation of a moon, but a literal comparison of natural phenomena. Like folding together, the distant holes of a piece of paper we have a visual and conceptual portal. Looking through the tangible, we are brought to the incomprehensible mass and force of a celestial body, struggling to hold their size and volume in unison. The tether that holds us between worlds then snaps, and  just as rapidly as we were sent hurdling out into an endless black chasm of giants do we run into the whiteness and texture of the surface. We again meet a fragility which matches our own bodies and travel backwards through the topography of ink and paper, into our immediate physical space.

The traditionally pleasing composition, vivid color, and subject matter of Colaizzo’s work might at first seem ordinary, and subsequently what we are left to contemplate and readdress is the “ordinary” – one that is as ever-present as the skies, common as the universe, unique as the grain of wood, and as momentous as light falling on a pile of earth. The intimacy and embrace of material seep through his exceptional skill and control, revealing a desire of an aesthetic exchange with our world. Without being literal or corny, Colaizzo’s work is sincere, taking us through an exploration of the natural circumstance of our existence, seeking to reestablish its inherent magnitude, importance, and beauty.

Steve Basel is an artist living in Philadelphia.