As a collector of social references and pre-existing visual material, Mathew McConnell is an artist who views contemporary culture as a resource for new aesthetic propositions. The harvesting, assembling, and curation of images is as important to his process as the creation of his work. Although his use of technology often employs the techniques of cooptation, appropriation, and fragmentation, he has no interest in parody, kitsch or self-conscious irony; instead, he focuses on what lies beyond these categories. He is fascinated with the way the Internet transforms ideas of identity, social connection, and the nature of memory, specifically focusing on the way certain contexts affect the perception of art objects. His work plays with diverse art historical moments, using different notions of what sculpture can, can’t, or should do. What interests him is form combined with his own varied techniques for dealing with fabrication, content, and information. He makes visual objects that defy any notions of taste or aesthetics; he is not so much making things as referencing them. Although his work deals with kitsch, he doesn’t resort to irony; his work questions definitions of authorship, originality, art, and creativity. The questions he asks are underscored by a practice that interrogates history and involves collaboration with viewers and other artists.
French composer and pianist Erik Satie had a term, furniture music, for background music played by live performers. McConnell’s installations function in a similar way—the most important thing they do is evoke a mood, what they are is the conceptual furniture in the room. All the action is in the viewer response, individual objects are orchestrated into groups within the installation and are not in themselves interesting; they have no meaning outside their arena and only make sense through proximity. McConnell underscores the divergences between what an object is, what it means, and how we remember it. The installation is a cerebral background, nothing is explicit except for the almost-recognizable sources of the objects in art history, popular culture, or daily life.
McConnell finds much of his imagery online and reworks the two-dimensional art images he finds there into three dimensions. As the Internet is already several removes from factuality, his process further dislocates his subject matter, changing meanings and complicating notions of reality. His work is more about how we regard art and the situations it appears in than the reconstruction of other artists’ objects. Like a novelist, he gives the viewer characters and a context, but leaves it up to his audience to find connection and meaning; he isn’t presenting a narrative.
McConnell is heavily invested in the risks and mechanics of working in ceramics; the physicality of the process, the process of making, and his skill in working with the medium are important to him and inseparable from his ideas. He handbuilds or uses press molds; after firing, if he wants color, he paints the surfaces, never using glazes as they don’t produce the kind of surfaces he wants. He uses raku firing to achieve matte-black surfaces. He is very methodical in his approach; the objects within his installations are produced in what he considers to be a formal way and constrained by a set of rules. In one of his installations, he decided to make everything by hand without the use of tools. In another, everything was press molded, all edges remaining rough and unfinished. He has re-used and reconfigured separate pieces into new groups but in a way that preserves the tone of the original installation.
The Story That Isn’t as Good represents one of McConnell’s most condensed installations. It consists of numerous ceramic objects held up by a cluster of six tightly packed steel pedestals sitting on or capped by shiny red and lime-green boxes. Two pedestals bear a white tabletop lit from within by a fluorescent light. This top supports a regimented cluster of multicolored cast Kong-brand dog toys. Looming above them are two tall faux brick smoke stacks, each with a cottony puff of smoke. A big, white, handbuilt cartoon head with a wriggly smile is placed next to these. Behind these are a bowling ball and a geometrical stick structure. The installation alludes to Minimalist sculpture, particularly to the work of Donald Judd (the colored boxes), and Sol LeWitt (the gridded, aluminum pedestals). The crudely made smiley head seems a response to the rigid self-containment of Modernism. The Story… is a display of faux-virtuosity and a commentary on Postmodernism.
Although color played a very strong role in McConnell’s work previous to 2010, his subsequent work has been uniformly black, raku-fired earthenware. The numerous objects that populate the recent installations are presented on shelves or tabletops. The pieces Between One and the Same, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, three variations on a theme, are on shelves accompanied by small drawings that differ in each version. The imagery of the drawings is abstract, cartoonish, and colorful, originally inspired by Richard Tuttle’s work. Each variation of the installation uses some of the same pieces, all various types of vessels that are crudely handbuilt and presented in tightly composed arrangements resembling a Morandi painting. The pieces are placed on starkly white shelves that are just big enough to support the number of objects placed on them. The installations resemble high-end product displays and bring to mind the fetishization of the handmade in those contexts.
What it Means to Move consists of a extensive array of stoneware objects pigmented with bone char and graphite. These objects have been placed on a 37-foot-long white table. The uniform blackness has the effect of making every object equal, regardless of content. All the pieces were fabricated by press-molding; the prominent lines from the molds have been deliberately retained. The small, randomly placed pieces represent a wide array of objects taken from daily life or art history, including a piece of toast, a pile of sandbags, an X, a folk-art chicken, and several Modernist mini-sculptures. One of the more prominent pieces is a word (helpless) written in script and raised on delicate posts above the tabletop. This cryptic word seems to communicate everything and nothing, yet seems crucially engaged with the objects that surround it.
McConnell’s work plays games with the high-low, high art/popular culture split, exploring relationships between art and the mass-produced products of popular culture. He also pointedly comments on the shifting values placed on the original and its reproduction. His methods of replication expose his involvement with this immediate cultural moment as well as his identity as an artist. He draws on the legacies of Constructivism and Minimalism to engage in a critical dialog with Modernist icons and contemporary visual and material culture. Context is everything in his work as it involves taking literal or replicated objects from one setting and putting them in another. Anything he uses may be regarded not for what it is or seems to be; he lets whatever new or implied meanings come about as a result of his charged environments. Appropriation is a gesture central to all Postmodernist art-making strategies and McConnell gives this decades-old strategy a gentle tweak using various techniques to combine objects derived from multiple time periods. His installations breed an atmosphere of bemused detachment permeated by a feeling of nostalgia, all elements that give his work an air of playful humor and a non-judgemental sweetness.
Between One and The Same, Part 1, 9 ft. 2 in. (2.8 m) in width, raku‑fired earthenware, mixed media on paper, frames, dyed plywood, steel supports, fasteners, 2011.
To see more of McConnell’s work, visit www.mathewmcconnell.com.