There’s A Void In The Room

If nothing else, an ancient tomb and Justin Matherly’s new solo both exhibition have one thing in common: absence. In “All industrious people,” located at Paula Cooper Gallery, Matherly presents a series of monoprints based on an ancient site along with one oddball of a sculpture smack-dab in the middle of the gallery space—ready-made metal walkers support a poured and cast concrete “re-imagination” of Hellenistic stone reliefs (stelae), entitled, “Handbook of inner culture for external barbarians (we nah beg no friend).” If that combo doesn’t make your eyebrows scrunch in scrutiny, I’m not sure what will.

Ancient Origins

The exhibition is inspired by an uncovered temple-tomb located in Nemrud Dagi, Turkey which contains stelae dedicated to King Antiochus I. Matherly takes particular interest in a depicted handshake gesture (a.k.a. “dexiosis”) between king and god, which recurs throughout the archeological site and functions as a motif to portray the king’s deification by touch and entry to the community of gods. Matherly depicts dexiosis, one after another, in three of five stelae scenes in his re-creation. The figures are vaguely distinguishable with faint facial features, almost like ghosts.

Nothing to Hide

At first glance, this piece appears a lot like an ancient ruin…except for the fact that the concrete is visibly hollow and raw (not to mention, you can see “Styrofoam” printed on the back). All this draws attention to its modern method of construction. The top of the metal walkers are encroached by slabs of concrete which act as the foundation for the stelae. Unrefined, the sculpture indicates that Matherly chose to expose rather than to conceal his process.

Justin Matherly's installation at Paula Cooper Gallery. Photo: courtesy of the gallery

As I perused the exhibition, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of distance and detachment. Despite the vulnerability and aging suggested by hollow re-makes of ancient ruins atop equipment normally used by the disabled or elderly, I didn’t feel any closer to the ruin via the sculpture. Though Matherly claims the work a “Handbook of inner culture,” it doesn’t have the ease or accessibility of a handbook; rather, the ancient ruin is made even more obscure by his add-ons. Matherly also fails to draw any discernible connection between dexiosis and the ambulatory equipment. Why does a work focused on a gesture of touch evoke such a sense of distance? The exhibit is certainly food for thought, but it might just be a load of empty calories.

  • Paula Cooper Gallery Justin Matherly – “All industrious people” March 23rd – April 27th, 2013 Tuesday – Saturday: 10am – 6pm

​​Article by Margaret M. Wong