Matta-Clark measures up at the MCA

By Mitch Montoya

Strange things happened this past weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art, even by contemporary art standards. An enormous black-and-white picture of a man with his head in a hole adorned the entrance of the museum; a compacted, but very large, cube of trash conspicuously sat in one of the gallery rooms; and 30-year-old dreadlocks rested in a glass box on the wall. Walking into the museum, I thought I had either entered a really bad thrift store in Belmont, or that this artist needs some help.

Of course, after coming out of my delirium and leaving Belmont behind, I realized that the exhibit, a retrospective look at Gordon Matta-Clark’s You Are The Measure, is much more than a mélange of “artistic” pieces. Rather, it’s a social dialogue that crystallized from Matta-Clark’s entire career. By deconstructing spaces—cutting holes in walls and splitting entire houses in half—he hoped to bring a new sense of awareness to the viewer. At the entrance to the museum, a quotation boldly printed on the wall sums up Matta-Clark’s views on his own deconstructed work: “The first thing one notices is that violence has been done. Then the violence turns to visual order and, hopefully, then to a sense of heightened awareness.” At this point, the massive sections of wall that were removed from houses and the large granite blocks taken from the foundation obtain a significance that may have otherwise been ignored, and the gallery finally comes to life.

As a young artist, Matta-Clark made use of his New York location and raided abandoned buildings, using them to embody his self-definition of an “anarchitect.” Though he studied architecture at Cornell, he felt that the field—and conventional art more generally—had gained some type of false ownership; he wanted to bring back a sense of space that people had lost. By cutting odd and distinctive shapes in the walls of warehouses, he forced viewers to perceive and experience light in a profound new way. In true rebel form, he bought homes in New Jersey solely to make a crack running down the entire vertical plane of the house, putting the neighbors in the somewhat unwelcome position of being art critics. Amazingly, this single crack changed the entire dynamic of the house and brought attention to the way the light penetrates the space. Not so amazingly, this deconstruction also brought the attention of the police and eventually these spaces were torn down.

Also in the exhibit amid the collection of photographs are some mesmerizing and, at times, confusing “performance” pieces that Matta-Clark made to further his social relevancy. The aforementioned 30-year-old dreadlocks, entitled Hair, is actually a piece meant to show how a person’s body and soul can exist past their time. After growing out his hair for many months Matta-Clark attached labels and a map of where the cut pieces went, so that a wig could be created that would replicate his hair exactly. Though the piece was never finished, he did accomplish his aim of living on forever with the hair immortalized in a glass box. From hair to trash, Matta-Clark hoped again to create an immortal piece of art by showing the cyclical nature of material in Garbage Wall, a compacted trash cube the size of a car. Here, he explored the urban ecology of materials and how the essence of a person’s life can be placed with other’s belongings and made into something greater. In Food, an hour-long film playing on continuous loop in the museum, was the artist’s idea of a perfect restaurant. Matta-Clark opened a diner, run by and frequented by artists. His hope was to create a sense of community for a disillusioned group, but on a much stranger level he experimented with artists as food. To a friend he once said, “Lee—just imagine what a fabulous treat you would make. It seems to be the perfect achievement for the artist, lover or saint, to give all of himself and be well chewed before swallowing.” Hannibal Lector–esque? Yes. But his candidness brings his work an emotive quality that makes it personal and discernable.

Matta-Clark’s sincerity sets him apart from many other contemporary artists. His inhibitions were simply nonexistent in the exhibit, and the walls he broke initiated a dialogue concerning the many individuals forming any community. He sets the standard that “You are the measure,” and you can make a change. Walking by these performance pieces and witnessing their sheer audacity makes you wonder if you have the guts to really be the measure.

Yes, many strange things did happen at the MCA this past weekend, but above all of the strangeness was a discovery: that even the most unassuming objects can be socially relevant, and if a recycled “garbage wall” can be revolutionary, maybe rebellious college kids can too.

Also, the photograph of the man with his head in the hole? That’s Matta-Clark.