October 10, 2007
Matthew Offenbacher is involved in a practice that still is startlingly dangerous, although it is not new. "Bad painting" began in the 1980s. Offenbacher's update on the genre continues its flaunting of conventions of taste (though with all the ironic reversals, it's hard to remember whether tie-dye and mosaic are out or in at the moment), but deletes the attending sneer. His folksy '70s scenes populated with animals—beavers, otters, horses, weasels, owls—channel historical modes of "transcendental" painting (Kandinsky, Robert Delaunay, Malevich, Rothko) as well as the spiritualist crap sold at, say, Pike Place Market. They draw together those old poles of avant-garde and kitsch under an umbrella of tenderness. Which is weird. And risky.
He doesn't always pull it off. An Alfredo Arreguin—style painting of a coyote on a hippie-dippie pointillisty ground is just a bad painting, not a good-bad painting. Paradoxically, it suffers not only from simplistic derivativeness but also a failure of skill. The coyote is inert, the background muddy instead of sparkly.
But when he does pull it off, the paintings have good hearts and a lot on their minds.They're trying to figure out, like so many post-abstraction post-figurations, how to square the voyeuristic, religious sublimity invested in wilderness (and painting) with the total skepticism of modern life and art. Where many artists draw out the doubt of the viewer in order to toy with it, Offenbacher wants to draw out faith as an equally fecund proposition. It's timely, considering the coinciding popular terror of both religious fanaticism and natural disaster.
His show's title, Captain of a Huckleberry Party, invokes American transcendentalism by referencing a criticism of Thoreau by Emerson. Thoreau could have been somebody, captain of the world, but he just hung out in the woods, captain of his own little huckleberry party, Emerson charged (in a speech at Thoreau's funeral, no less). The notion of private pleasure versus public action has echoes in historic constructions of femininity and masculinity as well as in historic theories of painting (the picturesque and the sublime, swishy pop and tough-guy abstract expressionism).
Burlap covering the white gallery walls and a cheesy dark-wood molding form the ideal innocent yet lightly knowing backdrop for a painting of two cavorting otters (even formed loosely into the dreaded yin-yang pose!) seen from underwater, the aqua-stained canvas bleached to depict the light of the sun above the water's surface. In another painting, Some Rothko Problems, three adorable white weasels feast on the psychedelic, floating carcass of a horse. They're almost paintings that a New Ageist might hang in the den, but better. Or worse?