One of the more refreshing aspects of Matt King’s solo exhibition Continental Drift is his sculptures’ quietly penetrating abilities to engender their own reconsideration. Any time spent alone with his lyrical installation at the Lamar Dodd School of Art is time well-spent. The morning I stopped by the light-filled gallery on the third floor, the school was practically deserted, save for a few students shuffling to their summer classes. This seems to have been the best possible introduction to King’s impressive (if demanding) practice. The longer I spent with these pieces, the more familiar they felt.
The precisely selected works comprising the show mark a compelling material gravitas. Almost immediately understood, they slowly expanded upon a prolonged viewing. This is right in line with the artist’s notable catalogue of work, which is primarily characterized by sculpture that examines the distance between mass-produced consumer goods and the realities of the individuals they are marketed towards. Formally, King is a consummate craftsman with a delicate, considered touch; conceptually, he’s able to eke moments of real poetry from the most unexpected of places.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in King’s titular piece, Continental Drift. The modular work asserts itself in the space with surprising force, considering that its primary compositional element is negative space. Welded steel and chrome units stacked precariously on suspiciously prefabricated wood laminate shelving units quickly give way to King’s skills as a craftsman as subtle details, too well crafted to be accidental, quietly introduce themselves to the viewer. If the work appears haphazard or improvised, it’s only a testament to the artist’s talents: the sheer amount of decision making here is worth the trip alone.
Simultaneously evoking centers of commercial display as well as their undoing, Continental Drift takes its time unfolding its sense of material control. Subtle color shifts at the edges of King’s welded box structures gently pulsate throughout the work, as sporadic and sparing bursts of colored residue resound like punctuation marks in King’s elegantly constructed space. Rods of polished chrome (the sexiest of metals) move at lateral angles to the laminate elements of the piece, while tempered glass shelving units redirect visual movement. In the absence of any wall text or statements from the artist, it’s easy to feel lost with such a work—yet Continental Drift feels familiar after only a few minutes alone with it. This is due largely to the fact that King is working with structures relating directly to consumerism and box-store commerce, environments and routines so ingrained in all of our daily experiences that they are as familiar to us as our own homes.
“I’m not interested in a critique of consumerism,” the artist says to me during a recent phone conversation, when asked at how he arrived upon his subject matter. “I’m not suggesting a radical change, nor am I proposing total comfort. I’m more interested in a contemporary consciousness.” In opening up these structures of consumerism, King’s project posits the murky space between the generic design of consumer products intended for broad-ranging appeal and use, and the subjective, individual voluptuousness of lived existence.
A clear example of this is found in his use of preprinted imagery, a diagrammatic tandem to the readymade architectures at work in his sculptural pieces. twofoursixeight overlays symmetrically composed pairs of human hands, all drawing closed the plastic ties of plastic garbage bags. Clearly drawn from product packaging, it’s an image that’s intended to serve as a stand-in for the self—King underscores this by perforating the images several thousand times, and placing it on top of a wall-mounted mirror, creating a dizzying visual space for the viewer to simultaneously behold and occupy. The persons pictured, so intentionally removed of any sense of the individual (and ergo becoming everyman), are spatialized through King’s sculptural touch, which creates hypnotic depth from a visually and conceptually flat document of advertising. For the first time, we literally see ourselves inside an image that we’ve been instructed to see ourselves within.
In the context of our current economics, discussions on the subject of consumerism tend towards pessimistic critique. The quotidian practice of purchasing, inexorably tied to larger notions of commerce, quickly invokes innumerable news reports detailing a flailing economy and rising unemployment rates. Continental Drift examines consumerism, and by extension product design, not from a position of judgment or moral imperative, but rather as ripe territory for the examination of reality, and of our collective consciousness.
Matt King’s Continental Drift is on display in Gallery 307 of the Lamar Dodd School of Art on the campus of the University of Georgia until August 14, 2011. Gallery hours are 9-5, Monday through Friday, with parking available nearby in the South Campus Garage.