In his third and best exhibition, Matt Bollinger: Independence, MO, at Zürcher Gallery (May 11 — June 26, 2016), the artist continues to remember and invent aspects of his youth, family and friends, while growing up in and around Independence, Missouri, a suburb of Kansas City. Bollinger is an archaeologist intent on examining the artifacts of a bygone era and the role they might have played in someone’s life. Born in 1980, the period Bollinger focuses on encompasses his parent’s early life, before he was born, to the present — the past fifty to sixty years.
The exhibition includes paintings on unstretched canvas and paper, trompe l’oeil sculptural objects, animations, and drawings done in graphite and charcoal. In this exhibition, Bollinger has largely moved away from collaging painted pieces of paper to a larger paper support in order to construct his scenes. Paintings such as the large diptych ”Independence I & II” (2016) are literally and figuratively seamless.
There is a lo-fi feeling to the work that is in keeping with the subject matter. In “Reel by Reel” (2016), the artist has used matte board, paper and other common art materials to make a tape recorder (ca. 1975), with headphones and a digital sound system. The latest technology meets the old and obsolete, resulting in a recorded interview that the artist conducted with his father about his business, a car parts store that he had to close after failing to compete with large chains, and run out of the family garage.
Chain link fences and windows — signs of limited physical access and separation — are recurring visual motifs. In “Morning After” (2016), which is done in Flashe and acrylic on paper, Bollinger depicts a portion of his father’s store window, with its logo and the words “Going Out” written backwards. Visible through the window, there are two cars in the parking lot, and both of them are red. It is early in the morning and everything has changed.
By making the window synonymous with the picture plane, Bollinger is able to explore different effects of light, the abstraction of the letters “painted” onto the window, and the dance of solid forms in reflective and transparent surfaces. His use of a closely related palette of muted violets, reds, pinks, and browns suggests that Bollinger is a tonalist. What makes this painting more than an autobiographical anecdote is the artist’s ability to come across as dispassionate observer, an archaeologist. This isn’t his father’s store window, but a common feature of America’s changing post-NAFTA economic landscape and the triumph of corporate business over family-run enterprises.
In a related painting, “Dad’s Home Office” (2016), which is done in Flashe and acrylic on paper, and pinned to the wall, Bollinger depicts a computer screen casting its light on a green rolling office chair and, in the foreground, part of a desk cluttered with an old-fashioned dot-matrix printer, a can of Budweiser, and an ashtray, a cigarette still burning in it. Whoever was sitting in the chair has left but will likely be back soon. Bollinger’s attention to detail — such as the row of baseball caps, with their distinctive logos, on the top shelf of the crammed home office desk, its shelves filled with manuals and papers — is what makes Bollinger’s paintings stand out. His affection for the mundane is evident in such details as the pink and yellow Post-it notes stuck to the bulky desktop computer and the glowing red switch on the four-outlet surge protector, a talent for observation matched by his sensitivity to color and light as well as by his handling of space.
In the diptych, “Independence I & II” (2016), which is done in acrylic and Flashe on unstretched canvas, Bollinger depicts his parents’ apartment across two separate panels. The two images share a lot of visual echoes – a large, multi-paned window, a floor lamp, and a stereo turntable on top of a case crammed with LPs — which suggests that the spaces have not yet merged together, become one apartment occupied by the artist’s parents. A portable television sits on a small table, part of it in one painting and the rest in the other painting. It is daytime in the left panel of the diptych and nighttime in the right. A man in a plaid shirt is standing outside the screen door on the left, while the blurred silhouette of a woman is visible in the window on the right.
The painting on the left is full of dusty pinks and grays, punctuated by diagonal lines of red (sides of album covers) and turquoise green (the plant in a hanger, which reappears in the painting on the right), while the painting on the right consists largely of greens, buttery yellows, and browns. The formal use of echoes, repetition, and separation, as well as the image of Bollinger’s father hazily visible through the screen door and his mother rendered as a silhouette, makes this painting ripe for interpretation. And yet, none of these details seem contrived or directive. There is something plain and direct about the painting, with particular and tender attention paid to details and products (turntable, albums, ashtray and cigarettes, Budweiser, and portable television) that we associate with a particular moment and economic class in American history.
In a small gallery — and literally it was the last work I came to — there was a charcoal and graphite drawing, “4 AM (2016), of a man lying in bed, wide awake, while next to him, and turned away, his companion lies asleep. The sweet melancholy of this drawing is present everywhere in this deeply moving exhibition.
One of the foundations of America is the belief in upward mobility, the ability to move from one economic class to another. When a well-known art critic tells you that he once drove a truck and is now a writer for a nationally distributed magazine, he is reinforcing the myth that everybody can make it. That belief is fallacious, of course, a hard fact that the art world routinely ignores.
Bollinger grew up in a family that belonged to an economic class that has been cut off from mobility and left to stagnate. By approaching this historical moment with a potent mixture of empathy, objectivity and curiosity — in other words, the qualities of an archaeologist — Bollinger challenges us to look at the world we have helped create. When we listen to the recording of his father talking about his car parts business, can we actually hear what he is telling us, not the surface incidents but the deeper story?
At the same time, by bringing this subject into the domain of painting, I cannot help but think that Bollinger is making a connection between the person running his own business out of his family garage and the artist working in cramped circumstances. Both work alone, without the luxury of assistants and go-fers. Is Bollinger relating the rise of the globe-trotting artist-cum-entrepreneur and the destruction of a once-prosperous economic class in America? Does the real difference come down to the painter who makes his or her own work and the entrepreneur who can afford to outsource?
By working on unstretched canvas and paper, isn’t Bollinger trying to remove painting from the domain of preciousness some people hold against it? Isn’t he also saying that he must make things that are easily transportable, in case his neighborhood is gentrified and he suddenly has to move? When the barbarians arrive at our gates, as they seem to have already done, do we throw in our lot with the makers or the outsourcers?
These days the art world seems to care mostly about the latter, perhaps because the outsourcers and destroyers of an economic class are happily pumping their wealth into the art that best mirrors them, showing how much they care about culture. I am happy to know that Bollinger works in a tradition that isn’t associated with entrepreneurship, and that he is not alone.
Matt Bollinger: Independence, MO continues at Zürcher Gallery (33 Bleecker Street, Bowery, Manhattan) through June 26.