Mid-Day in Mid-Town



Victor Matthews: Alter Ego Paintings
Wendt Gallery, NYC

I am currently working on two curatorial projects. Nature Calls opens this July at SICA in Long Branch, NJ. The second show, which opens this December at Kim Foster Gallery in Chelsea, brought me to today's meeting at D.C. Moore Gallery in midtown. My goal was to discuss and select works by the incomparable Whitfield Lovell. After my successful tête-à-tête with Heidi Lange, I took a quick look at D.C. Moore’s current show of works by Katherine Bowling, an accomplished painter whose forte is to capture the small miracles that sunlight produces on such things as dewy grass and tree blossoms.

On my way out I grabbed a Gallery Guide. I only had enough time to visit exhibitions in the immediate area -- I need to be back at my studio by mid-afternoon -- so I quickly found some valuable shade on this sweltering spring day and perused the guide. A few pages into the "fifties" section a single name jumped off the page: Victor Matthews.

I hadn't seen or heard from Victor in over twenty years, though he often crossed my mind. We met when we were both exhibiting in the East Village back in the 1980s. Those were fun times when figurative painting, or more importantly, painting in general made its way back into the more influential NYC art galleries and museums.

A few minutes later I was standing inside Wendt Gallery, which was only a block or so away. The exhibition, Victor Matthews: Alter Ego Paintings, is very different from what I expected. I'm not used to seeing so much serenity in Victor's work, as I remember him making paintings and drawings that had shocks of color and symbols that had a sort of seductive tribal-city feel. With these latest works, the palette is extremely sparse. In fact, in most cases, it's white paint on off-white, unprimed canvas.

The symbols are still there, but they are much more tame and specific to the details of city living. Woven into a web of sinuous lines are sneakers, water storage containers, pigeons, bridges, cabs, and fire hydrants, all taking on new significance as cultural references. By indicating oil, acrylic, and wax pencil on canvas as the materials used, I must assume he begins by drawing with free-associative abandon, a matrix of black lines on the canvas. Acrylic paint is next, applied as a thin layer filling in approximately half of the closed shapes created by the crossing or converging pencil lines. This application of acrylic builds a barrier for the thick oil paint that is applied over the acrylic so the oils will not leave their usual dark halo-like stains in the unprimed canvas. This keeps the color and tone of the canvas even -- an important part of Victor's new aesthetic.

I also find Victor to be a whiz at integrating powerful, over-sized suns into his compositions. "Manhattan Sun," "City Sun," and "Early Manhattan Sun" have predominately all-over compositions broken up by off-center solar symbols that spew meteoric balls of blazing energy. A very effective focal point that amplifies the activity in the patterning, while adding a much needed stabilizing organic form.

My favorite works, "Mountain City" and "Obelisk," are the ones where Victor builds up a mound of minutiae that reaches for -- and sometimes touches -- the sky. These works are truly uplifting in a 1970s/'80s cartoon way.

"Me Bicycle" appears to be the most autobiographical piece in the show. It reveals the import of his mode of city travel, as the wheels of the bike shimmer and shine much like the sun in the aforementioned works.

I also find the catalog interview between the exhibition’s curator Steven Lowy and Victor to be very revealing and helpful. There is much greater depth here without all the pretense you often see in too many lengthy catalog essays that overstate the uninteresting. A show well worth seeing, especially if you remember any of Victor’s shows in the heyday of the East Village art scene. Baltermants-Attack-1941s

After exiting Victor’s exhibition, I decided to quickly run through a few more shows in the Fuller Building. The best show, Dmitri Baltermants: Photographs 1940s-1960s, is at Nailya Alexander Gallery. Baltermants was an insider with incredible access into the Communist Party as he worked for such publications as Izvestia during WWII and Ogonyok at the beginning of the Cold War. From Stalin to Khrushchev, Baltermants captures on film stunning war imagery, pandering politicians, and peaceful protests.

Two war photographs in particular are quite profound. "Attack" (1941) (image left) shows the silhouettes of solders in shin-length overcoats speedily leaping across a trench. The shapes, the movement and the composition brought me right to a frenzied and frightening place at the exact moment when bravery, belief in a cause, and unrelenting determination peak in a blaze of glory. "Grief" (1942) captures a small group of women who are beyond grief as they find their loved ones lying in the icy cold mud of a spent battlefield. The combination of the overcast sky, the scale and placement of the figures, and the emotional content is nothing short of monumental.

Other key works: "Khrushchev and Castro" (1963) where the two world leaders embrace in the name of common cause. "Stalin on his Death Bier, March 1953," one of the few color photographs in the exhibition, shows the supine Stalin surrounded by red roses and bathed in a bright light that creates an otherworldly atmosphere. Last but not least is "Nikita Khrushchev" (1955), which shows the dynamic senior Soviet in a white suit as he poses alongside a dining table. I find the casualness of the pose, when combined with the ascending diagonals created by his hat askew and the angled tables, to be a brilliant and subliminal way of showing comfort, confidence, and most importantly, the power and promise of his beliefs. You have until July 30 to see this stellar exhibition. Don't miss it! - D. Dominick Lombardi


(Photo credits: Victor Matthews & Steven Lowy.)

Mr. Lombardi is an artist with representation in Kasia Kay Art Projects and in Chicago, Van Brunt Gallery in Beacon, NY, and ADA gallery in Richmond, VA; a writer with Sculpture, Sculpture Review, DART, and NYARTS; and an independent curator.