The straightforward imagery of American wilderness in Matthew Offenbacher’s intriguing paintings arouses curiosity which he sustains with his skillful techniques and intellectual ideas. His recent work resembles cross sections of sequoia tree rings, animal hides and large-scale pages of pressed wildflowers that, in their simplicity, evoke childhood memories of tales about Daniel Boone and the stories of prairie life by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But Offenbacher’s subject matter is not so much a commentary on romantic American idealism as it is a complex riddle that ties the American frontier with American modern painting, painting in general and the myths and nuances that surround these various concepts.
Painting, or rather traditional realistic European painting, was challenged by artists throughout the twentith century, especially by American abstract painters who wanted the flat plane of the canvas to be recognized, and Offenbacher is having fun oscillating between the desire of the artist to vivdly recreate the real while simultaneously commenting on the nature of this act. Nowhere is this more obvious than in four works that resemble their titles. Deer Pelt, Otter Pelt, Skunk Pelt and Squirrel Pelt, by way of canvas shape, paint color and technique, appear to be the real things. Such thorough mimicry precludes comparison to seventeenth-century Dutch painting because they kept their subject matter within the confines of a rectagular canvas that never igonored perspective whereas Offenbacher tricks us into thinking these are actual animal skins.
Offenbacher’s wildflower paintings also tweak our perceptions of reality in that the paper fiber on canvas looks like actual pressed flowers. Pansies, a small oval-shaped canvas that could easily be found hanging in a nineteenth-century American home, is especially remarkable for its authenticity, as is Fern and Dandelion. It is only in a work such as Morning Glory, which is modern in the large size of the canvas and the fact that the flowers fall off the canvas, that Offenbacher’s cunning playfulness becomes apparent. The realism of this work begins to resemble abstraction. What, we begin to ask ourselves, is the artist really depicting?
This question becomes particularly important in the six Sequoia paintings: what appears to be cross sections of unique tree trunks, are also clever allusions to the minimalist pattern paintings of the 1960s. The artist’s toying strategy of placing two opposing American ideals within the same context is most obvious in a number of works that depict illustrated animals but which, in their titles, refer to recognized works by famous American abstract artists. Looking at Big Red by Sam Francis, a small, simple straight- forward drawing of a polar bear in tones of gray, white and black, contradicts Sam Francis’s painting at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which is lush in its field of rich shimmering reds and receding grays. Similarly, Looking at One (Number 31, 1950) by Jackson Pollock (also at MoMA), a small rendition of a bat, in no way comments on Pollock’s drip masterpiece full of dramatic gestures and lyrical movements. Which takes precedence, the image or the title? In many ways this exhibition is about myths but it is also about idealism, ideology and the purely conceptual. Offenbacher, by way of his subject matter and painting style, cunningly makes us think about American values, American traditions, American folklore and the very different aspects of American Art.