JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 digital works, hung unframed on white walls in all the rooms of the gallery. All of the works are digital prints on linen, made in 2018. Physical sizes range from roughly 24×20 to 98×189 inches, and all of the works are unique. A collection of hand painted dropper bottles (containing plant medicine) is installed near the bottom of one of the works. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Two of the most persistent questions that face contemporary photography are inextricably tied up with its newfound digital malleability. The first considers the definitional edge of the medium – where is the dividing line between things that are now “photographs” and things that are not, especially when the works are digitally printed and contain photographic imagery in some manner? And the second wrestles with the forward direction and trajectory of the medium – now that we have so many more software tools that can powerfully manipulate a digital photographic image, what new kinds of aesthetics will develop that push photography into places it hasn’t ever been before?
Matthew Stone’s new show offers an opportunity to tangle with both issues. While it may not be immediately obvious, Stone’s works begin with photography. Gestural strokes of multi-colored paint are applied to glass substrates and then photographed up close, the high resolution images capturing every globular swirl and tactile curve with precise fidelity. Back in 2014 (reviewed here), Stone turned enlarged images like these into digital prints on canvas (or “paintings” if we prefer to call them that), making the push and pull between painting and photography, and between texture and flatness, the effective subject of the artworks.
In his most recent works, Stone makes use of these same kind of brushstroke photographs, but builds them into a much more complex topology. Using 3D rendering software, the photographs are wrapped around “hollow” human forms, the painterly marks aggregated into mannequin-like figures that pose and interact with each other in an empty virtual space (and in one case, are accompanied by a similarly-rendered horse).
Stone’s nudes don’t really function like other painted or photographed nudes we have seen before. While many of the poses are classically familiar (standing, reclining, seated, and a few dense gatherings of multiple figures), their execution is stutterlingly inconclusive. In “wrapping” the brushstroke images around the bodies, Stone has used images of varying scale, color, and general direction, so when a leg is assembled, it is constructed from various brushstrokes that don’t converge perfectly. Tiny strokes abut large expansive ones, tones shift, adjacent marks move in impossible combinations, and in some cases, an entire thigh or belly is made from a single brushstroke, something quietly strange in the larger context of painting.
Set against the blankness of raw canvas, Stone encourages the forms the disassemble. Random brush strokes and splashes of color invade the bodies or hover in the nearby air like fragments of backdrops or loosely controlled decorative effects that seem to have partially run amok. Faces break down into clusters of busy marks, the swirls and squishes of paint becoming like collaged pieces that hint at a multiplicity of realities. In the span of single works, Stone renders parts of bodies with careful attention to muscular curves and undulations, while others are left entirely “open” or hollow, that part of the form effectively unclothed by wrapped imagery, almost like the broken emptiness of ancient bronze statuary. The result is a sense of uneasy jitteriness, like the bodies might momentarily dissolve into some kind of digital crash.
The process inversion here is worth making explicit. In traditional forms of painting, an artist “constructs” his or her compositions one painstakingly applied brush stroke at a time. And what is perplexing here is that Stone has done the same thing, except his brushstrokes are photographs of brushstrokes and his “application” of them (as self-contained building block images) comes within the machined confines of computer software. Perhaps the conclusion is that Stone is “painting with photographs”, and while that is a decent high level approximation for what he is doing, the manipulation and arrangement of the photographs also has definite connections to cutting edge forms of digital collage.
The chaotic feeling of the pictures flickering in and out of control is more prominent in Stone’s largest compositions, where multiple nude bodies (of both sexes) arrange themselves into intertwined clusters of poses and gestures. Play is the single biggest work on view and it settles onto the wall with a commanding sense of confidence. Stone’s aggregations of brushstrokes stand expressionless like cyborgs, tussling and wrestling with each other and with the encroaching swarm of disembodied splashes of paint floating in the air and filling in the middle spaces. The end result mixes the classical arrangement of a frieze with believable threats of complete digital explosion, the combination creating an engrossing (and often unsettling) flickering of figuration and abstraction.
So if we circle back to the first two questions posed at the beginning of this discussion, I believe Stone’s works deliver two answers in the affirmative. Yes, these are photographs – they are photographic images manipulated by the artist into a final composition, and while some may want to call them paintings to make them seem more rare or valuable, they might be more precisely called photographs output as paintings.
And yes, they are one form of the future of photography – they start with photographic imagery, which is then transformed with advanced software into something artistically new and original, and ultimately printed/displayed/spit out in some alternate form. We need to get used to this kind of software-driven photographic reuse, and we can expect it to quickly travel to places that are unrecognizable as the things we used to define as “appropriation” or “collage” or “montage”.
But all of this inward-looking analysis is empty if the artworks aren’t more than just an intellectual exercise. Where Stone’s work shines is in its intentional uncertainty. While some of his figures hint at an eerily perfect human future, his aesthetic present is undeniably messy and teetering on the verge of technological collapse, a process that might, by the way, mix both friction and unexpected beauty. With these works, Stone is stepping further out on the rickety yet-to-be-built bridge to a new kind of art, and while such trips are challenging (especially to those firmly rooted in the old ways of doing things), he’s experimenting with photographic ideas and processes today that we will likely consider mainstream a decade or two into the future.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $7500 to $60000, based on size. Stone’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.
Wow. I’m not a fan of nudes but these strike me as important photographic works, both visionary and accomplished. If I was a museum curator I think I’d be getting the chequebook out.