By Steve Basel
It was Beautiful is an exhibition of paintings on paper by Philadelphia-based artist Matt Frock at Tiger Strikes Asteroid. Throughout a series of sweet and sour abstracted landscape works, Frock invokes various movements from the modernist tradition of painting. The paintings refer to a time when form and sensation were privileged over dramatic and anecdotal content as the essential bearers of meaning.
The intrigue and paradox of the work lie in its superfluous quotation of art history: while the paintings do not materially embody the optic and sensorial effects that they reference, they are nevertheless sincere in their modest search to achieve a look. Rather than use abstraction as a method of distorting codes of representation to create or uncover a broader subject, Frock uses illustration to make something that is tastefully abstract, and succeeds. Without cynicism or critical irony, Frock constructs a contrivance whose only deception is that intrinsic to the act of illustration itself.
This exhibition could easily become a critical reflection on the docile existence of artworks which so often suit conservative taste. Its title is either an arbitrary platitude, or an acknowledgment of lost modernist values, intended to cynically frame the exhibit. The work itself, however, does not foreground the look of commodified expressionism enough to make it a conscious subject. The white frames remain a sincere attempt at dressing; the size, manageable; and the color, saccharine yet digestible. A comparison to the cynical and mocking works of contemporary artist Josh Smith shows the oddity of Frock’s apparent sincerity. Frock isn’t interested in performing the amateurish brashness which, for Smith, critically emphasizes style and format; neither does he seem to engage in beating a dead Modernist horse by trying to dethrone their visions of beauty, truth, and transcendence conjured out of poetic formal relations. However, the literalness of mark, color and flatness are similar.
As a whole, the works exhibit a wide range of variation in point of view, composition, paint consistency, mark making, and visual pathways. They carry with them a sense of levity and exuberance and achieve a pleasant appearance through saturated color and atmosphere. The landscapes’ naturalistic proportions, flatness and synthetic quality of color, deadened visual rhythm, and tonal nuance give the work the appearance of being filtered through a digital screen. The paintings are inquisitive in their range, almost playful, but in execution and presentation are rigid and comfortably refined. Frock’s work is consistently uniform in temperature and saturation which gives an impression of regularity and minimal visual depth and complexity.
In terms of appearance, Frock’s work might readily call to mind the Divisionists who utilized distinct marks of saturated color; Impressionists like Alfred Sisely; or the landscapes of Expressionist Alexi Jawlensky. In “Tuscany Green and Burnt Sienna,” each mark seems to decorate the landscape, instead of constructing it. Because of their placement and the similarity in temperature and tone with the larger shape structure they inhabit, they are aesthetically redundant and often inconsequential. Blue Mountain Pass, his most abstract picture, is a floral mass of color and shape. However, due to the monotony of palette, temperature, and stale tones, little anticipation or exchange is built within the arrangement, leaving each shape static and replaceable. The control Frock has with thin consistencies of paint is evident in this picture, as is his knack for compositional balance. Many of his works are curious because the clarity of mark and its direction give the impression of casualness and speed; yet the cleanliness of each mark indicates control, carefulness, and time.
What is interesting are the passages in Frock’s work which are uncompliant with its overall decorativeness; where Frock, when confronted with a space between the beams of pictorial architecture, exhibits a felt responsiveness to the relations between aesthetic frequencies. There, abstraction becomes a means and not an end in itself.
One moment occurs between the horizon and the upper half of Indian Yellow Desert. The landscape, with a lightness and acidic humidity reminiscent of contemporary painter Peter Doig, confuses the distinction between earth and sky, mountain and cloud, rain and atmosphere. In this horizontal passage, variations of color, texture, and shape seem to be ordered under a different logic and bring pictorial distance into a quiet collapse of space and comfort. In this central space decisions do not ornament, but are orchestrated with attention to building the anticipation of each following mark. Here, an interpretive uncertainty between sensorial and spatial anchors is expanded. It calls upon our association and experience to order and respond to what we see. This staging of symbolic uncertainty and dynamic formal relations briefly brings the work out of the illustrative. Another moment occurs in Cranberry Bogs, where objects become confused, and, in the center of the painting, specificity is lost as paint is allowed to mix and lose its sweetened palette, building depth and discontinuity. There we see moments of Frock’s idiosyncratic consideration, of his subjective impulse, manifested through form and material.
Both the landscape motif and vague resemblance to modernist handling seem to be armatures to facilitate and legitimize the act of painting for Frock, instead of meaningful subjects. What he effectively makes, intentionally or not, is a simulacrum of early modernist abstraction. He seems to do this not out of irreverence to modernist sensibilities or to comment on commodification, as is expected, but as illustration which flirts with a fine art look. We are so used to seeing work dressed up to appear to have ends other than design, entertainment and commercial appeal. To see something that is comfortable and genuine about an appearance that suits such ends, within a noncommercial gallery context, is difficult to reconcile. Overall, It was Beautiful privileges the flavor of its subterfuge and challenges one to locate the difference in authenticity between this work and others, which we assume make critical and expressive ends primary.
Steve Basel is an artist living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated with an MFA from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.