My first impression of Matthew Deleget’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (continuing through Dec. 7 at UTC’s Cress Gallery of Art) was that he was an artist speaking narrowly to other artists. But within a few minutes he won me over.
“Softedge” is a wooden panel thickly covered with layer after layer of two-inch blue painter’s tape, 10 rolls to be precise.
“Pleasure Zone” is three rolls of 3/4-inch masking tape hanging on pushpins. Both the rolls and the pins are red, yellow and blue, but the colors alternate.
Those same three rolls seem to have been used in “Note To Self,” a blank 27 x 18-inch sheet taped to the wall with two rows of the same colored tape, from left to right, red-yellow-blue on top and blue-yellow-red on bottom.
“Color Vulture,” the largest piece that dominates the gallery’s back wall, is three off-the-shelf white canvases with red, yellow and blue spotlights playing over them.
OK, I know it’s conceptual art, but it struck me as a collection of distancing gimmicks, as if he were saying “Art is no big deal, I can make it with light. And who needs to paint when you have painter’s tape?”
But then I started reading. Most of Deleget’s pieces are accompanied by long paragraphs of text.
All that blue painter’s tape in “Softedge” not only turns the tool into the medium, it is applied to the surface underneath in a grid, another artist’s tool. Deleget sees subtle color variations that are hard to control, just like with monochrome painting, and “The panel is transformed into a soft billowing pillow of blue by ‘I wonder what would happen if?’ a question that has driven the expansion of thinking in art, technology and science for centuries.”
In “Zero Sum,” Deleget comments on the commodification of art by himself commodifying the work of fellow artists. In this piece, he presents a set of five art books on well-known living abstractionists that he purchased from the sale section of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Like raw materials, these works of abstract art have been packaged into a museum exhibit, manufactured into high-end art books, remaindered to the sale table, then recycled into conceptual art—even more abstract—by Deleget.
“Nuclear Error” is 25 black plastic garbage backs pinned flat to the wall. According to the accompanying text, it is a subversion of “monochrome” painting. Turns out that both black trash bags and the acrylic paint used in monochromes are pigment mixed in a plastic binder. Art = trash bag. And these trash bags are held flush to the wall by static electricity, a benign manifestation of the same atomic particles that filled so many body bags after the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima.
These texts are mostly free of the ethereal over-thinking that can be so off putting in artist statements. Reading one of these notes prompts a little “aha” of discovery that makes what might have seemed like an opaque inside joke for artists into something a little richer and more subtle.
True, his work depends on the commentaries for some of its effect, but what doesn’t need accompanying text in these times?
Maybe a beautiful wooded landscape is self-explanatory, but when you drive through the Smoky Mountains, you might want to know why so many trees are dying (acid rain and Wooly Adelgid infestation). Digital devices strive to be self-explaining but most never seem to make it. And are the biggest events of our lives really lived until we tell someone about them?
We talk about everything, so why shouldn’t art come with words attached?
For me the bottom line of good art is that it’s cool stuff from the mind of someone who looks at the world and says, “What can I do with that?” From someone working with clay or paint to a conceptual artist pushing ideas around, artists spend their days attempting to create artifacts or performances that can go out into the world and hold their own next to everything else in the natural and human environments.
Deleget’s exhibition of visual-verbal jabs shares its title with the 1874 musical composition by Modest Mussorgsky, an abstraction of visual art into music that was the only record of the exhibition viewed by the composer. Deleget completes the circuit by showing pictures that embody abstractions and are best viewed by also reading.
“Pictures at an Exhibition” has been reviewed in the current issue of ArtForum, the ninth Cress Gallery show to be reviewed nationally, according to Director-Curator Ruth Grove.
Matthew Deleget: “Pictures at an Exhibition”
Through Dec. 7 - Cress Gallery of Art
UTC Fine Arts Center, 736 Vine St.
(423) 304-97891 cressgallery.org