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ART REVIEW

An artist overwhelmed

The Matthew Monahan exhibition at MOCA might be impressive in a gallery. But the setting deflates a talent who could still prove notable.

September 14, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Matthew Monahan may be the most famous unknown young artist working in Los Angeles. Despite inclusion in a few modest local group shows, the 35-year-old, California-born sculptor had not had a solo exhibition here until the Museum of Contemporary Art's current "Focus Series" presentation. It was scheduled before Monahan's high-profile debut in the UCLA Hammer Museum's "Eden's Edge: Fifteen L.A. Artists," which recently closed.

His work's L.A. trajectory has pretty much been straight from the studio to the museum. There, it fizzles.

Monahan makes Expressionist sculpture, in which crude figures are chopped up, torn apart, reassembled and held together by precarious means. Three drawings are interspersed among the show's two dozen objects, although sometimes Monahan wraps a drawing around a sculpture or hangs a framed one on the side of a free-standing figure. The drawings typically show patterned anatomical forms or squinty gray faces.

Like them, the sculptural figures don't have the presence of specific portraits. The bodies seem less individual than generic -- shattered artifacts based on old Greco-Roman, Buddhist, German Gothic and other historical types. Often gray or dun-colored, the bloodless sculptures feel pointedly drained of vibrancy.

Bits of worn gilding compete with tattered gauze and cheap Styrofoam to lend an aura of cheesy veneration, overcome by irreversible decay. One sculpture laid out on a glass plinth evokes a mummified corpse. Hollow, crumpled forms insinuate toppled heroes and false gods.

Some of the works carry multiple dates, such as "1994/2005," suggesting that Monahan is incorporating his own brief history as an artist into a general miasma of cultural putrefaction and social collapse. (He graduated from New York's Cooper Union in 1994.) The art museum as a socially focused institution likewise gets addressed in these terms, since the sculptures are placed on teetering pedestals and in crummy display cases screwed together from inside-out drywall. A museum, after all, is the contradictory place where -- to paraphrase the great curator and historian of Indian art, Ananda Coomaraswamy -- we proudly display artifacts of a way of life we have made impossible.

If this aesthetic of social and psychic trauma sounds fairly familiar -- well, Monahan's work has a very 1980s aura. Its post-9/11 pedigree notwithstanding, the sculptures riffle through motifs familiar from German and American artists as diverse as Georg Baselitz and Jonathan Borofsky, with a bit of the Italian Transavantgarde's Mimmo Palladino thrown in for good measure. The glass vitrines are also familiar markers of the period.

The show might be notable if encountered in a gallery, as the not yet fully formed work of an obviously talented sculptor who reached maturity in the midst of a deeply conservative era, and who smells the rot. But in MOCA's imposing pyramid gallery it just feels thin.

It also feels forced. The show is symptomatic of the degree to which museums now aggressively participate in art's international marketing machine.

Monahan is a famous unknown because London megacollector Charles Saatchi, who buys in bulk, last year put 18 examples of his work in "USA Today: New American Art from the Saatchi Gallery" at the Royal Academy. The show was an American sequel to "Sensation," Saatchi's infamous Young British Artists extravaganza. Essentially, 40 young artists get thrown against the wall to see what will stick.

The works in MOCA's "Focus" exhibition that were not lent by the artist almost all come from the collections of the museum's trustees, past and present; from Monahan's galleries in London and New York; and from two underwriters of the show. The commercial edge is not Monahan's fault. Curators from London to L.A. know which side a museum's bread is buttered on. Let's hope the single Monahan sculpture MOCA owns turns out to be an early work by an artist of note.

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christopher.knight@latimes.com

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Focus Series: Matthew Monahan

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: Oct. 29

Price: $8

Contact: (213) 626-6222

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