June 9, 2005
Do beavers do architecture? Sculpture? Matthew Offenbacher's art makes you think about such questions, which are fun to ponder and a touch provocative in their implications.
After all, we tend to think of culture as something separate from nature. And while beavers aren't about to make objects from marble or galvanized steel, might their impulse to build go beyond the merely functional?
Offenbacher, who lives and works in San Diego, clearly enjoys parallels between nature and human culture, which is one reason why he's chosen to paint beavers. Then, asking you to suspend disbelief, he makes paintings as he imagines beavers might—if they had the wherewithal to paint. Thus, the two meanings of his exhibition title—"Beaver Painting."
This show, Offenbacher's second at Quint Contemporary Art in La Jolla, picks up where his 2004 exhibition left off. Then, he was looking at the gray area between nature and culture from a different vantage point. The paintings exploited the similarity between animal hides—deer, otter, skunk and squirrel—and the sort of color field paintings of the 1960s that emphasized flatness and pattern. Sequoia resembled a slice of giant tree trunk that led you to the same sources in recent art history.
They were conceptual art with an Americana bent. They were also trompe l'oeil paintings—though their illusionistic effects weren't as proficient as they should've been.
Now, with the beaver pictures, he's rendering landscapes of a sort. Painting With Picture of Its Own Construction is thick with line created by branches and twigs—its structure derived from the sort of building that a beaver might do. And right in the middle of the scene, hovering on a branch and casting an eye the viewer's way, is a rather charming looking example of the species.
There are two beavers in Painting Thinking More or Less, one on a beaver-built structure and the other in the water. Of course, the artist is thinking about painting in the making of this canvas and this show. But the implication is that we are to consider about how much a beaver thinks about what he constructs.
Once we start looking at the wood configurations within the paintings, other parallels appear. The beaver edifices have "God's Eyes" macrame patterns within and prismatic colors, as if there were something retro about musing on nature at all. And there is a nostalgic aspect to communing with nature, of course, which Offenbacher is planting into the mix with his allusions to a 1960s craft craze; it was a back-to-the-land era.
His different concerns don't quite cohere. There is a stream-of-association quality to these paintings, in which he's thinking about the intersections of human and animal creativity at one moment and the relationship between nature and the 1960s in the next. All quite interesting, but the thematic road map to these works takes you in too many directions at once.
Then there are the paintings that beavers would have made, if they were in a modernist frame of mind. Geometry dominates: the little canvases mingle flourishes from cubism and one of its American offshoots, synchronism. One wonders how these beavers learned their art history—or maybe they just don't know they're repeating it. At any rate, their abstractions need some work.
Offenbacher has surely anticipated the fun a viewer can have, spinning scenarios about the paintings "made" by beavers. But his images of beavers turn out to be a lot more engaging.
— Robert L. Pincus