Matthew Kirk: How the Rest was Won

by Kristi Arnold

Louis B. James
143b Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
December 10th, 2015 – January 31st, 2016


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Matthew Kirk. Season in the Wow, 2015; acrylic, gouache, chalk, spray paint, brass BBs, tape on sheet rock panels (2);
72 x 96″.  All Artworks © the artist/Louis B. James Gallery

Mark-making as expression, as visual poetry, as symbolism, as representing personal stories. Mark-making as language, as landscape, as history, as depicting ancestral dreams. Long before the act of making a mark on paper or canvas was a mode of artistic expression, indigenous cultures employed visual symbols that told stories. In a similar way, Matthew Kirk creates his own aesthetic language in his artwork through patterns, symbols, and colors. Abstracted shapes and lines recall landscapes and cityscapes, while his color palette suggests sunsets and sunrises over the western desert. Kirk’s paintings bridge the gap between personal style and traditional motifs from his Navajo heritage. How the Rest was Won is Matthew Kirk’s second solo show at Louis B. James Gallery in the Lower East Side.

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Installation View of How the Rest Was Won  by Matthew Kirk at Louis B. James, NYC. All Artworks © the artist/Louis B. James Gallery

Although Matthew Kirk’s artwork is reminiscent of Native American work, his paintings also fit within the category of twentieth century artists such as Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Harring along with contemporary painters like Julie Mehretu. An even further similarity can be drawn between Kirk’s paintings and Paul Klee, as seen in Klee’s piece, Comedians’ Handbill (1938) and also through Klee’s approach to making work. During Klee’s career, he defied academic rules by painting on cardboard and burlap and by spraying paint and stamping shapes, an approach that was groundbreaking at the time. Kirk too, incorporates a variety of non-traditional materials and methods.

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Matthew Kirk. Tiny Animal, 2015; acrylic, gouache, and oil stick on masonite panel, mounted to wood; 24 x 36″.
All Artworks © the artist/Louis B. James Gallery

One of the most compelling elements of Kirk’s artwork is his use of varied materials. Each of the ten paintings in the show, all completed between 2014 and 2015, represents experimentation with surface. Some of the work is painted on unprimed canvas and plywood, while other pieces are created on sheetrock and blackboard masonite. Additionally, Kirk explores diverse methods of mark-making by using chalk, pencil, spray paint, gouache, acrylic, and oil stick. By not committing to one particular medium or surface, an air of freedom exists within his paintings. Because of this, the works are playful and exploratory.

In the large two-panel sheet rock painting, Season of the Wow, little strips of colored tape, string, and metal staples are spread throughout the composition. However, the most exciting element of the painting, besides the whimsical colors and shapes, are the tiny yet wonderful specks of copper, hidden in the painting. These small flecks are brass BBs that were obviously shot into the painting. Shooting ones own painting with a BB gun further demonstrates the playfulness of his work, not to mention the extreme gratification of the act—making art can be stressful.

At the same time, Kirk’s paintings bring to mind Navajo rugs and tapestries and abstractions of aerial views of towns, road maps, mountains, lakes, clouds, basketball goals, and light posts. Furthermore, the beige color of the raw canvas and the grey quality of the sheetrock are reminiscent of the negative space found in Navajo sand paintings. Whether or not these surfaces were chosen by choice or default, Kirk’s paintings seem to reflect on the tradition of Navajo art in conjunction with contemporary painting.

The two black and white paintings on masonite panels, Tiny Animal and Crossed Smoke, embody a different mood compared to the colorful paintings. As opposed to the somewhat controlled and flat shapes of the other paintings, these monochromatic paintings appear more haunting and mysterious. The marks suggest a less calculated approach and bring forth a more physical and energetic quality to the work. Expressive brushstrokes shift between foreground and background, creating the illusion of atmospheric space. Although the colorful paintings are beautiful, the chalkboard paintings embody more personality and imbue a painterly quality. 

Mathew Kirk seems to have invented a symbolic language of his own that examines both contemporary painting and Indigenous symbolism. To appreciate the full scale of the materiality and size of these paintings, each painting should be viewed in person. The joy of searching for the BBs, colored tape, and random staples while deciphering Kirk’s personal symbols is all part of the experience. How the Rest was Won is on view until January 31st, at 143b Orchard Street, New York. 

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