While art historians, archeologists, sociologists and other academics ponder whether there are such things as universal aesthetics and meanings, New York artist Matthew Craven digs up images from diverse cultures in order to reveal pervasive themes, symbols and forms that have recurred over great distances and thousands of years.
His exploration of forms and patterns is purely visual. He doesn’t posit complicated theories or concoct fantastical stories about, for example, aliens having built the pyramids.
“Arrangement,” at Get This! Gallery through November 30, is one of three roughly concurrent shows drawn from the same body of work. The others were at DCKT gallery in New York and Popps Packing in Detroit, where the artist grew up. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts in 2010.
Most of Craven’s works combine collage and ink drawing, the handmade and the mechanically reproduced. Three large pieces contain arrangements of random black-and-white images of artifacts and artworks laid out in an allover pattern, not unlike gift wrap or wallpaper. Any attempt to categorize or make sense of the assortment is thwarted by their incongruous origins and jumbled chronology – — Sumerian ziggurats and Mayan temples, an Egyptian scribe and the Nike of Samothrace, various Buddhas and African warriors.
Just when everything begins to seem ancient and musty, up pops a Modernist building or sculpture. But that’s as recent as it gets. In a few cases, you can’t be quite sure if something is the original or a modernist take on a traditional art form.
Some pieces are divided into gridded panes of sky blue, ochre, and photographic landscapes that could be in the Mediterranean or the American Rockies. Graphic patterns recur throughout, as background and filler, suggesting such diverse sources as Navajo and Roman designs and Op art. They look printed but are meticulously hand drawn in ink, another tidbit that sends viewers back for a second look.
The works gain new intrigue when viewers learn about Craven’s materials. At first the images appear to be photocopies or digital compositions. In fact, they are all cut, not copied, from books. Before bibliophiles get too worked up, it should be noted that these are inexpensive, outdated books that he usually purchases online. He also has multiple copies of some, which allows him to repeat identical images throughout the series. That books themselves are on the verge of becoming artifacts is a perhaps unintended correlation.
Craven prefers cutouts over photocopies because of the textural quality of the paper. For the same reason, he mounts everything on the backs of old posters, which have an aged quality, unlike pristine new paper or more recent posters that are made with glossy finishes.
With each installation, Craven incorporates the walls by painting them to match the color panes that punctuate many of the pieces. In New York, the small Lower East Side gallery was a vibrant orange. At the much larger Atlanta space, where the works are more sparsely hung, Craven painted just a few walls in a subdued ochre that complements more than competes with the works.
Craven’s works are a reminder of a time when civilizations were distinctive, even as they allude to the messiness and blurring of cultures in our increasingly homogenized world.