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The online editorial and curatorial project for reductive, geometric and systems artists working in the UK

Website: Chestnuts Design

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On Language and Marking Time : Matt Magee


2 December 2016 – 14 January 2017

Eagle Gallery EMH Arts, 159 Farringdon Road, EC1R 3AL


A review by Laura Davidson

A quotation of shapes is spread across one wall of the Eagle Gallery's Clerkenwell space in an orderly grid formation. The painted forms are rendered in muted tones and resemble punctuation marks; there are hyphens, full stops and an ellipsis. Eagle Wall Grapheme (2016) functions as the accomplished centrepiece of American artist Matt Magee's solo exhibition 'On Language and Marking Time'. It is the third iteration of the mural, one instance of which was created for ArtEXPO Chicago this year.  Emma Hill compared watching Magee paint the mural to observing someone writing, and as the title of the exhibition suggests, there is a sense of playing with linguistics throughout the show. This is apparent in two works installed next to Eagle Wall Grapheme (2016): Three Quarters of You (2016) and Poem for Dublin (2016). The former is a study of an incomplete U, and the latter a representation of a found piece of text; a fortune-cookie prophecy that has been overprinted.

Eagle Wall Grapheme (2016) Installation shot courtesy of the artist and Emma Hill Eagle Gallery.

Three Quarters of You (2016) oil on panel,  61 x 51cm

Apart from Magee's obvious interest in the graphic form of language, I can see a sub-plot emerging in the work. There are indications throughout of borrowing from information graphics, or an aesthetic representation of 'big data'. This, of course, is an opinion formed in a culture where this activity is prevalent, but it is nevertheless a worthwhile concept to explore. 'Big data' is the mass collection of information from multiple sources and is often used as primary research for public policy making, consumer research and scientific modelling.  As a result we are accustomed to seeing articulations of human experience in dynamic graphic formats: diagrams of the journey commuters take to get to work in London, public opinion on everything, worldwide migration patterns; the list is endless. Through this ubiquitous computing, as a culture we have become adept at collecting, collating and presenting information through graphics to reveal an objective 'truth' about human experience that may not be possible to articulate by any other means. Some of Magee's work could be likened to this process of collection, collation and visual presentation. However, what makes Magee's practice interesting in this contemporary context is that this process, for him, conceals more than it reveals to the viewer. The viewer is more inclined to ask further questions than to feel satisfied with an answer.

One painting which could be considered in this way is Receipt (2016). It reads as a frenetic verse composed of symbols that can be interpreted as the letters of a language unknown to the viewer. There are questions to be asked here, about semiotics, yes, but for me what over-rode these thoughts were questions about what must have prompted these marks. In essence, what was Magee recording and presenting here? There are ways in which a viewer can find this out, by asking the gallery or the artist a predictable question - was the painting generated from a till receipt? - but there is something more intriguing about leaving the question, of what Magee has been specifically recording, hanging in stasis over a world where we are obsessive about knowing everything. This ambiguity is also apparent in Eagle Wall Grapheme (2016) and is made even more intriguing by the anecdote at the start of this review about how it was produced. Both works act as an inverse of collating information to refine meaning; they are, instead, records of the private development of a linguistic system which does not necessarily want to communicate the truth but is observing a truth about human experience. Magee's paintings in 'On Language and Marking Time' provide a pleasing space to reside, where (visual) language is allowed the honour of being generative, private and contemplative.

Receipt (2016) 24” x 12”

Poem for Dublin (2016) oil on panel, 25.5 x 101.5cm

Matt Magee ‘On Language and Marking Time’ 2016