Matt Haffner’s human subjects exist along the fringes of society, within virtually dystopian urban playgrounds. In Haffner’s solo show at Whitespace Gallery [closing on May 9], titled “The Old Gods and Their Crumbling City,” they are gods, though a peculiar type of god: they are bums and outcasts, blue collar and low-wage workers; they are the inconspicuous bodies and abject creatures of urban life that prowl dimly lit parking lots, scavenge dumpsters, wait at the bus stop, or play chess on a park bench. Haffner mythologizes these persons of the shadows in silhouettes and stencil portraits (techniques—and subject matter—that attest to the artist’s street art background and interest in film noir).
In Urban Dogsledding, a man wearing baggy clothes and a beanie carries a load of bags over his shoulder, pushes a grocery cart filled with his belongings, while two dogs, their leashes tied to the cart, lead the group’s journey. All are rendered in silhouette on a spray painted panel of shiny muted blues and ochre.
Lesser God (The God of Hanging Shoes) is a stencil painting of a man in a thick coat and a baseball cap gazing down at the viewer, a look that is both aloof and dauntless. Behind him are silver silhouettes of utility poles with sneakers hanging from their power lines. In the gallery itself, hung from the ceiling across from Lesser God, are cardboard shoes, much like the sneaks represented in the portrait.
Cockroaches, crows, and dogs are prevalent throughout this exhibition—whether contained within a composition’s frame on the gallery wall or in real space, as black cutouts of aluminum or PVC scattered throughout the space.
Five of these roaches of varying size occupy one wall. Their individual titles—Persistence, Tenacity, Determination, Resourcefulness, and Adaptability—allude to their role as shepherds of the margins, quite akin to Haffner’s riff-raff.
In Guardians, three cut-out pit bulls—two standing, one sitting on the gallery floor—appear alert and defiant below the painting Dusk, which portrays industrial buildings made of painted Sintra attached to the wall. This notion of animal-as-defender appears again in the large-scale work The Banshee and Her Conspiracy, where an unconscious female nude —seemingly at ease in her torpid state — is sprawled out horizontally on a painted plywood board, surrounded by silhouettes in aluminum of black crows. More birds are depicted outside of the picture — on the floor in front of The Banshee are more black crows, these too made from cut-out aluminum. They don’t peck at the messenger of death (in Irish mythology, the banshee is a female spirit, usually seen as an omen of death from the underworld), rather, they seem to be guarding her, as if she is an intimate friend. These animals resonate as something of a totem for Haffner’s tribe of the economically marginal.