originally published: February 10, 2017
Legend has it that architect Bruce Graham was asked to explain the stability for the design of what would be the Sears (Willis) Tower in Chicago. Graham gathered a fistful of cigarettes and pushed the interior cigarettes upwards, “higher” than the exterior pieces. The bundled tube system for a 108-story building was demonstrated with a handful of cigarettes at a lunch table. Simple gestures, executed properly, can allow us to dream big.
Picasso’s Guernica started with this 8x10” sketch. It is easy as a viewer to reverse engineer Guernica to arrive at this sketch. The key elements are roughly established in what will be their final compositional positioning. It is another thing altogether to look at this sketch and move forward to the mural-sized masterpiece. Picasso made Guernica. Someone else could make a giant painting of a basketball court.
A recorded gesture is evidence of a human at work. It is a result of a specific, hand-driven thought process. We think differently when our hands are in motion. Thought moves beyond theory to action and therefore receives feedback based on what the hand is doing. We assign value to what is being created and respond accordingly.
Hans Schmitt-Matzen’s exhibition at the David Lusk Gallery, The Leviathan, uses this initial flash of thought and movement as a jumping-off point for a series of white neon sculptures, black or white wall-mounted wood sculptures and prints. Leviathan, the mysterious sea creature of Biblical and literary legend, serves as a symbol for the unknown at work “deep down” in our mark making and gestures. Is there something unconscious guiding our motions, something at our primary source of being human?
Rather than use his own gestures, something that might be too self-conscious as a methodology, Schmitt-Matzen borrows marks from his son’s artwork. He curates, isolates, freezes and expands upon his son’s marks. In the same way that Picasso had to expand upon his first sketch of Guernica, Schmitt-Matzen does have to impose a certain “adult” logic into the process. His son’s sketches are data for sculpture. A child’s concept of line is not going to be accurately captured in the bending of neon tubing or wood. The decision to create something from these drawings demands an act of translation. Decisions have to be made and directions in marks have to be interpreted and refined. The show is also achromatic, devoid of the overt emotional pull of color. This decision can keep the work at arm’s length. It is successful in removing the childlike nature of the work’s inspiration. This is not art made with a youthful spirit. It may start in the hand of a child but it is, at its heart, an interpretation of primal instinct, not juvenile dexterity. Negotiating that space between immediacy and logical reconsideration is what makes the work both approachable and unknowable. The language is familiar but the expression remains mysterious.
Schmitt-Matzen also assigns meaning to the works through their titles. A bottom-heavy swirl with extending, upward-moving “appendages” is titled Hydra. To the informed viewer, yes, the abstracted hydra is there. Other sculptures reference additional mythological creatures, mushrooms or animals. Perhaps a little cloud spotting is necessary as a preliminary way of defining something that we cannot easily measure. Our desire to find images in forms that are otherwise spontaneous and irregular is a simple way for us to wrestle with larger ideas out of our reach. We assign names to complex ideas, almost as placeholders until we are smart enough to truly understand it. This injection of meaning to what is beyond our comprehension brings us back to the Leviathan. Yes, the Leviathan can be a part of the larger unknown. It can feel like a mystery that should be pursued but, ultimately, Leviathan is dangerous. Chapter 41 of Job describes Leviathan as a creature with no earthly equal and possessed of no fear. It rules over all that are proud. Job could not defeat Leviathan if challenged and Job certainly cannot defeat Satan. He possesses neither the intellect nor the strength. God can defeat Satan. God can defeat Leviathan because God created Leviathan. What is unknowable to us as humans is not necessarily unknowable to something smarter than humans. Job can comprehend of Leviathan and name it but never wrestle with it and succeed. We can analyze our mysterious depths but there is a risk of stumbling upon a monster more powerful than us when we get too deep.
John Calvin, in Institutes, explains our relationship to God as an all-knowing force adjusting His language, dumbing it down, so that we might understand: “For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children?” A handful of cigarettes can be used to “lisp” to a less knowledgeable partner. Our children’s untrained drawings can be reimagined by an adult mind as a complex sculpture. These exercises make the complex simple and conversely can also add layers of meaning into what might be dismissed as elementary. What can help save us from the Leviathan, what can keep us from being subject to the one that is “king over all that are proud” is to remember that our most glorious skyscraper is merely a handful of cigarettes to someone that lisps to us but also finds glory in our simple marks.