Bright, intense color bombards you the moment you enter Matt Pinney’s solo exhibition Lost Time, now on view at the Brentwood Arts Exchange’s Lab Gallery through October 20. The electric shades of blue in The Moon Harvester give way to the hot yellows and pinks of Garden of Eden which vibrantly battle with the ochers in History Painting (After Rubens) on the facing wall. This beguiling mix of color draws you in, animating the dreamlike scenes arrayed across the gallery. The nine works displayed punch above their weight in representing age-old myths: the spark of creation, the battle of good and evil and modernity versus Primitivism. Though the cacophony of ideas is at times jarring, Pinney’s exuberance for his subject matter is visually palpable.
Pinney is interested in connecting ancient myths and archetypes to situations in the modern world. Representations of Adam and Eve play a starring role in two of his paintings, while the Garden of Eden is referenced at least obliquely in several other works. Scenes of unscathed, forested greenery also serve as a backdrop for the depiction of innocence in the face of modernity. These careful considerations of Christian origin stories are not surprising, given that Pinney holds a degree in religious studies in addition to his fine art background. His referencing of painting masters Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Hans Holbein (1497-1543) displays a desire to revisit historical allegories, reframing them in a modern context. In his exhibition statement, Pinney notes his inclination to examine these tales partly through the lens of his own life experience; those personal cues are not obvious to the viewer, perhaps being woven into the larger historical narrative.
The variety of genres (portraiture, landscape), styles (baroque, abstraction, pop art, cubism) and narratives referenced can become a bit overwhelming. Luckily, his compositional framing, brush stroke technique and approach to color create a sense of visual cohesion through a good portion of the exhibition. In the majority of works he flattens the picture plane, eliminating the horizon line and melding the figures into the surrounding landscape. In a sense this action merges the historic with the contemporary, creating a sense of timelessness. We could consider these figures as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or contemporary lovers trysting in a city park.
Pinney offsets this lack of visual depth in two key ways. The artist’s use of color blocking, such as the juxtaposing shades of green, tan and aqua in Bacchanal, does not allow the eye to fixate on any particular section of the image. This “visual dance” around the scene, moving between figure and backdrop, adds a sense of energy to the work. In Garden of Eden, the electric blue of the mid ground contrasts with the yellow “sky” and red Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, with the tree’s limbs setting the stage and creating a proscenium under which Adam and Eve carry out their fated actions. That same fuchsia-red tree makes another appearance in Lovers in the Park, underscoring its connection to Judeo-Christian Creation Myth, where the color tone again sets off the Tree of Knowledge from the deeper greens of the surrounding woodlands. Contrasting colors are also used in Yo’ Oko and the Ambassadors where brocaded blue, purple and green cause the eye to dance back and forth between the two main figures at the forefront of the piece.
The flattened aspect of the picture plane is more subtly subverted through vertical, shimmering brushstrokes like those seen in The Moon Harvester. The scrim these vertical brushstrokes create layers of haze across the scene, like a heat-inducing mirage from a hot desert sun. Here Pinney follows in the footsteps of contemporary painter Gerhard Richter, casting a veneer of light over the action displayed. Like that mirage, we do not know if the scene we envision is fantasy or reality. In this way the artist conjoins fact with fiction, further cementing the contemporaneity of these ancient fables.
This blending of timelines is most effective when Pinney uses his personal imagination to create works that allow color, shape and line to drive the historic narrative while sparingly adding a few key components to inject shades of modernity. In the Garden of Eden for example, Pinney utilizes a straightforward figurative painting style, allowing a Fauvist-inspired scheme of high-heat colors to enliven the creation narrative. Within the historic scene are distinctly modern items: a pail at lower left, triangular-shaped structures that form latticed arbors on either side and finally a stepladder in the center of the image. These inclusions blur the ancient and modern together, adding a cyclical dimension to the work and forcing the viewer to consider how origin myths are readapted by each passing generation.
Though his painting Erinyes is inspired by ancient Greek myth, Pinney injects modern elements into the work through creative use of color and composition. The Erinyes (also known as the Furies) were three goddesses of retribution, doling out punishment for crimes against humanity. Said to be terrifying to look at, in Pinney’s imagination these three figures are left visually vague by the umber shadowing of their torsos; a simple basket or fishing net in the hands of the left figure is the only indication that these figures are vaguely historical. What reads like a riverbank at their feet is really a tiled floor; further adding to the confusion is the small cocktail table in front of the middle figure and the banded chaise lounge upon which the third figure on the right sits. This work notably has a fixed horizon and thus more spatial depth than seen in other paintings; a serene pool lies just beyond the three figures and, in the distance we can just make out a landscape in shades of tan populated by a series of high rises that signal the presence of city life. Here the major compositional lines of the work run almost uniformly horizontally which works to blunt the spatial depth created by the horizon line. Also of note is the Pop Art-inspired, Ben-Day dot technique in the lower left quadrant of the painting, most notably on the surface of the cocktail table and legs of the left-hand figure. This small inclusion of a contrasting pattern serves to add a retro-1960s veneer on top of the dominant flat brushstroke technique. In Erinyes the scene is less about a specific myth and more about the timeless push-pull between history and modernity – rural and city life or even just innocence in the face of depravity. It is a scene that we can easily place the artist (and even ourselves) into, as it encourages us to examine our own journeys from a time of naiveté to one possibly of world weariness.
These two works demonstrate how mining his own imagination and sticking to a cohesive painting structure creates a unique scene that conjoins fantasy and reality. Unfortunately Pinney’s intent becomes diluted in works which mix too many disparate painting styles or seek to reframe the famous allegories captured by past masters. Sycamore/Travelers and Garden of Earthly Delights both address similar topics, featuring figures that move through a forested landscape. In the former work, the color palette of grays, browns and blues remains consistent throughout the work and the all-over figurative painting style allows the viewer to consider the work’s intended metaphors. The latter painting however mixes such a wide variety of both painting styles and figuration that the subtle allegorical details are difficult to decipher. This work may take its cue from Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of the same name. Like its namesake, the work features a variety of figures in various poses. A statuesque woman in the center of the work is placed between a figure whose torso is defined by Cubist-lines topped with a more traditionally-styled face and more abstractly defined figures on her right. Heavy, swirling layers of color on the left side of the work devolve into daubs of oil paint in the middle of the canvas before reverting to the more figurative style that encompasses the two figures at right. Finally, the hazy vertical lines are bisected several times by brushstrokes that forcefully crop the “scrim” through which we view the action, disrupting the notion that we are glimpsing a timeless scene. Instead of considering the intended storyline created by the scene the viewer’s eye is forced to jump from point to point within the work in an attempt to create a cohesive thread.
In his two works that recast myths attributable to past master artists, Pinney similarly mixes painting techniques and visual cues in a manner that muddles his intended desire to create a dream-like narrative. Yo’ Oko and the Ambassadors recreates Hans Holbein’s Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (The Ambassadors), painted in 1533. The figure on the right (Bishop de Selve) is copied more or less from Holbein’s earlier work. For Ambassador de Dinteville, on the left, Pinney has chosen to render the figure invisible, with a bodily form delineated by the figure’s cloak. Holbein’s original work is rich with nuance about the garnering of worldly knowledge in the face of death; a memento mori in the form of a skull features prominently in the bottom of the painting. Pinney reinterprets the work by adding brocaded color blocking in the background and placing a leopard skin prominently in the center of the work. The animal skin appears to be a reference to one of only two living jaguars in the United States that was shot sometime in 2017. Named Yo’Oko by students at Tucson’s Hiaki High School, its inclusion in this painting, prominently positioned between the two men is unclear and disconcerting. Holbein was more focused on the accumulation of knowledge over material wealth. Is Pinney trying to draw a line between knowledge and greed? Unfortunately these design changes, though bold in terms of color, do not steer the painting into new thematic territory. In transcribing the earlier work to such a great extent rather than obliquely referencing it, Pinney does not adequately dissociate Holbein’s original narrative from his contemporary interpretation which seems to question our dominion over the animal kingdom. History Painting (After Rubens) suffers from a similar lack of attributional dissociation punctuated by a visually-jarring change between painting styles. Pinney’s work appears to be based off of an early painting of Peter Paul Rubens titled The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt, painted in 1615. The original work is painted in a Baroque style; Pinney’s version abruptly pits the colored outlines of the hunters at the top third of the picture plane against heavy, dark swaths of browns and ochers that cover the majority of the canvas. Though Pinney’s intent seems to be to depict a contemporary interpretation of the work, the ideas espoused do not depart significantly from Ruben’s Renaissance vision.
While at times uneven, Pinney’s work is certainly never dull. When he follows his own, inner voice and allows the colors themselves to dictate a concise, tempered narrative the results are mesmerizing. He would do well to continue honing his own instincts to develop these unique visual parables, trusting that the audience will recognize the universality inherent in his solitary visions.
‘Lost Time’ is on view through October 20, 2018 at the Brentwood Arts Exchange. For more information, visit their website here.