Barry Schwabsky on Matthew Weinstein



Matthew Weinstein’s newest work underlines the curious fact that a young artist does not always develop most propitiously by becoming more “mature.” It is quite possible to progress by means of regression; art must be able to retreat, consciously, to unself-consciousness, however false. Weinstein’s giddy, sexual, sometimes psychedelic new paintings made me realize that his earlier work was trying too hard to be serious and consistent, to create a signature style that in and of itself would communicate some content with an inarguable claim to the viewer’s attention. Recent discussions of “content” or “meaning” in contemporary art generally, and in abstract painting particularly, have tended to obscure the fact that what counts, usually, is to eschew or better yet explode meaning—since the problem in our culture has never been a deficiency of meaning but, rather, a surplus of it.

As long ago as 1908, the Viennese art critic Hermann Bahr had noted a certain diremption of the task of modern painting: along with any specifically formal and artistic problems it negotiates, it is also called upon “to be its own poster.” It must advertise its own esthetic project and make the problems it addresses seem like the desirable ones with which to be dealing.

Similarly, in Weinstein’s paintings, each thing tends to become a cruder, more blatant, yet somehow more immediately enticing and legible version of itself: the “painterliness” of impasto is signified by circular elements built up to the point where they become a kind of relief; “process” is there as the all-over drip-qua-idea-drippiness every younger abstract painter seems obliged to acknowledge lately; “representation” is represented by decals of found imagery collaged onto the canvas; even the notion “showing at Sonnabend” seems signaled by a use of organic form that often reads as a send-up of Terry Winters by way of Carroll Dunham cartooniness pushed to a degree that even Dunham would never countenance.

Not that there isn’t a serious side to all this. Certainly, as with so much of today’s art, there’s the shadow of AIDS. The “abstract” imagery of proliferating cells, bones, and organs mixes for the first time in Weinstein’s work with a “representational” imagery in which skeletons and other symbols of death and disaster predominate. But it remains questionable how seriously we should take this seriousness: in As Long As I’ve Got a Face (all works 1992), for example, a skeleton banging a drum that hangs in front of his crotch is a mere Halloween version of the sex-and-death nexus, and tends as easily to undermine as to underscore the import of the swirls and eddies of abstract shape that are the main business of the picture. Sometimes, for mostly formal reasons, Weinstein’s contradictions only cancel each other out, but when, as in this case, they buoy each other up, the effect of volatility is strangely exhilarating.

—Barry Schwabsky