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Upon entering Park View / Paul Soto’s new Mid City storefront gallery on Washington Boulevard, you would be forgiven for thinking the recent exhibition—four modestly scaled sculptures of painted, bent, and assembled aluminum plates— was authored by a deceased modernist recently being re-evaluated for entry into the postwar canon. However, the work on view was created in the last year by Los Angeles artist Matt Paweski, and a closer viewing of the curving, riveted forms revealed a complex but playful assembly concerned with a more human negotiation of production, technology, and culture.
The largest of the works in the exhibition, Look out (all works 2018), was about the size of a carry-on suitcase, and, while stationed front and center in the gallery, it operated much as the title implied. The focal point of this dynamic combination of flat angles and curves in deep navy blue, canary yellow, and crimson, was a cantaloupe-sized cylinder that pierced through the work around head height. This negative space visually framed two smaller works (Couples and Switch – Switch) at the back of the gallery while also recalling the transgression and transcendence of Robert Gober’s Virgin Mary with a drain pipe thrust through her torso.
These bodily inferences cast the four sculptures in the exhibition as anthropomorphized junctions in an invisible network of conduits; a connective energy occupied the empty space of the gallery. The persistence of the open ducts and planes continued in Fountain—a horizontal composition of three hopper- like modules connected by another cylinder. The work hung low on the left wall, and recalled a drinking fountain while also pointing to a lineage of works by the same title (Duchamp’s urinal and Nauman’s portrait of the artist spitting water). Paweski’s Fountain connected Nauman’s irreverent spitting with two elements of the built environment (one that supplies a biological necessity and the other that receives it), reminding us that we have become increasingly inseparable from the systems that support us.
Although Paweski’s four works displayed a buzzing compositional inter-relationship, what ended up setting them apart from each other was their respective color palettes, which were frustratingly unharmonious when taken as a whole. Deep, rich blacks and midnight hues were set off by bright and saturated tones that would seem at home in a Looney Tunes animation. This created an air of lost innocence, like an abandoned Peter Shire chair sitting on a sidewalk in the rain. In contrast to the reductive palettes of elemental primary colors favored by Joel Shapiro or Louise Nevelson, Paweski injected a sense of melancholy into his work via the combination of dominant dark hues and off-kilter tertiary tones that gave each work a distinct identity that felt at home in a constant state of anxiety.
West Coast Finish Fetish artists like John McCracken exploited polished, mirror-like surfaces on straightforward, geometric forms as a way to complicate the boundaries of their volume. Similarily, Paweski embraced a recent trend in custom car culture, a light absorbing matte finish, to push the boundaries of refection. His finish along with subtle tonal shifts in color obscured and flattened the incised, curving cuts and joints that permeated his interlocking compositions. In addition to chromatic tension, the exhibition projected a physical tension in the constrained aluminum sheets held in exact angles and tight curves by precise lines of rivets. Conforming the cold metal into highly articulated and intricate positions— that took more cues from the natural world than from manufacturing—infused the exhibition with breath.
In pursuing a totalizing vision of pure form, minimalists like Donald Judd espoused a vision of universality that was inspired by the efficiency and consistency of Henry Ford’s assembly line, leaving little room for diversity of experience. Adopting a managerial role that removes the artist’s hand from the work was a useful strategy for questioning authorship for many postwar movements like Conceptualism and Minimalism, but by obscuring the labor required to produce their work, these artists were inadvertently reinforcing the rigid class structure and systemic exploitation of the natural and human resources necessary for industrial production. Contrasted with Donald Judd—whose logical, gridded compositions pivot on an interplay between solid forms and the negative space contained in their precise arrangement—Paweski refuses to fully enclose a volume, creating and insisting on space for transparency and difference.
If Modernism’s celebration of industrial production nurtured its denial of ornament, then the details and complexity at play in Look out, Switch – Switch, Couples, and Fountain could be regarded as a testament to the small-batch, DIY production model described by post-Fordism. Facilitated by advances in on-demand technology like water jet cutting, 3D printing, CNC, and ink-jet printing, today’s artists have no need for the corporate managerial structure and outsourcing of labor championed by the industrialists, modernists, and conceptualists of the last century. Instead, many have chosen to take advantage of a collapsed production chain that can exist in the artist’s studio, of all places.
John Zane Zappas is a sculptor based in Los Angeles. He received his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2012 and has attended residencies at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and Bemis Center for Contemporary Art.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 15.