Go Figure

Collection Highlight | By Jed Morse

A large group of sculptures and drawings by Los Angeles-based artist Matthew Monahan joins the ranks of figurative works in the Nasher collection. 


Los Angeles-based artist Matthew Monahan (American, born 1972) works in a variety of media, including drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture, often assembling all of these media and modes into singular three-dimensional works of art.  A product of Cooper Union School of Art in New York and the intensive independent artist training program, De Ateliers, in Amsterdam, Monahan has been an integral part of a prominent new generation of artists living and working in Los Angeles that includes Aaron Curry, Thomas Houseago, Elliott Hundley, and Lara Schnitger among its cohort. His work, which is exhibited and collected by museums around the world, is widely recognized for having reimagined and revivified the genre of figurative sculpture, often suggesting ancient sources from the art historical and literary past yet contending with Modernism and speaking to the present human condition.

Monahan’s work is not new to the Nasher Sculpture Center. His first bronze sculpture, Nation Builder, played a prominent role in the Statuesque exhibition that was organized by the Public Art Fund of New York and presented in the Nasher Garden in 2011. Last year, however, the Nasher received an extraordinary windfall of important work by Monahan donated by several collectors across the country. Such impressive largesse was due in part to the Nasher’s reputation as a leading museum uniquely dedicated to modern and contemporary sculpture, but also to our Director Jeremy Strick’s early support of Monahan’s career: the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA LA), mounted Monahan’s first solo museum presentation when Strick was the director there. Comprising five sculptures and one drawing, the gifts represent different phases in the artist’s career, from important early breakthroughs to large-scale assemblages to more recent constructions in curved bronze sheets. Each of the works connects with the others and with numerous objects in the Raymond and Patsy Nasher collection.

Sir Young Husbands Expedition or Museum of Anti-British

Matthew Monahan, Sir Young Husbands Expedition or Museum of Anti-British, 1994/2005.Sir Young Husbands Expedition or Museum of Anti-British dates from a crucial early period of Monahan’s development which precipitated the innovation of repurposing work he made from the previous decade. In these works, Monahan incorporated drawings and sculptures he had made since 1994 into assemblage sculptures, folding or crumpling works on paper to make them three-dimensional sculptural elements. They share the space of the sculpture with a variety of made, found, and collected objects, including a brightly painted bust of a woman on its side, reminiscent of Hindu shrine sculptures. The arrangement of objects seems simultaneously haphazard and deeply considered. The result suggests both an archaeological display in disrepair and fragments from some future civilization, a ruin as well as an object of reverence.

The works from this period also reconsider traditional elements of museum presentation as evocative aspects of the work of art. As in the work of Brancusi, the pedestal here, handmade of drywall over a wood frame, is an integral part of the work of art.  The assemblage is divided into a series of glass vitrines stacked on one another, some upright, some on their sides. The uppermost vitrine is open at the top, serving as the pedestal for the sculpted head clad in cloak and hat made of folded paper and metal brads. Monahan’s use of vitrines here both underscores and subverts its usual function as a protective device, foregrounding the inherent fragility of culture and the sometimes shaky ground of cultural interpretation.

The work expands upon the lineages of both figuration and abstract assemblage in the Nasher collection, which tend to be represented by works in more traditional materials such as plaster, bronze, and steel.  The carved foam and sculpted paper heads add to the list of materials for figurative works in the collection and suggest the generalized antiquity found in works by Paul Gauguin and Joseph Beuys.  The assemblage engages the carefully composed, bric-a-brac edge of sculptural construction found in examples by Ivan Puni, Jess, Jim Love, and David McManaway, while the organization of the composition as a series of boxes slyly recalls the work of Donald Judd while subverting its precision.

Matthew Monahan, Sir Young Husbands Expedition or Museum of Anti-British, 1994/2005. Floral foam, bees' wax, pigment, encaustic, charcoal, paper, transfer drawing, wood, glass, and drywall, 79 x 17 x 17 in. (200.7 x 43.2 x 43.2 cm). Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Gift of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg.

Incubus

Matthew Monahan, Incubus, 2007.Incubus was included in Monahan’s first solo US museum presentation at MOCA LA and continues the evocative exploration of figurative sculpture presentation first explored in works like Sir Young Husbands Expedition.  A female figure emerges from a carved foam block, tinted in graphite and pigment that suggests the patina of age. The dynamic composition seems to swirl around the figure, whose wind-blown hair is suggested by carved striations. It is unclear if the figure escapes from or is consumed by the maelstrom. The figure encased in the block of material derives from numerous ancient fragments, as well as Renaissance monuments like Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, and is a motif that Monahan would continue to explore for the next decade. The offset placement of the block on the handmade pedestal underlines the difference between artistic and museum presentations: the former evocative, the latter prosaic. The cord (from a museum stanchion, perhaps) gently draped over the figure further calls attention to this disparity while visually tying the carved form to its painted drywall base.

The drama of the figure echoes late-19th century sculptures from the Nasher collection such as Auguste Rodin’s Eve and Boleslaw Biegas’s The Tragedy of Life, while the geometric pattern on the base and the angular blocks from which the figure emerges resonate with constructivist and cubist compositions by Jacques Lipchitz, Ivan Puni, and Pablo Picasso.

Matthew Monahan, Incubus, 2007. Foam, wax, graphite, pigment, cord, ink, and drywall, 90 1/2 x 22 1/2 x 13 1/2 in. (229.9 x 57.2 x 39.3 cm). Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Gift of Sherry and Stuart Christhilf.

Mission + Midnight

Matthew Monahan, Mission + Midnight, 2008. Mission + Midnight dates from the period when Monahan began to expand the scope and ambition of his assemblage sculptures. The support for the folded paper figure, which holds another head, is likewise constructed of glass plates bound tightly to drywall- and foam-clad boxes by ratchet straps, a device that is structural, compositional, and metaphorical. The bound glass structure also gives a view to an extraordinary figurative drawing and a sculpted paper head at the composition’s core. The broad striations of paint and graphite make the figures appear as if bathed in moonlight.

Monahan’s mysterious paper figure resonates with a number of figurative works in the Nasher collection, including Gauguin’s Tahitian Girl in its dreamlike vision, Henri Matisse’s Madeleine I in its exaggerated contrapposto stance, and, in its geometric folds, even cubist figures, like Picasso’s Head of a Woman (Fernande) and Lipchitz’s Seated Woman. The work’s construction also recalls constructivist collages such as Puni’s Construction Relief and, as a container of mysterious, coded narrative, also echoes Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled box.

Matthew Monahan, Mission + Midnight, 2008. Polyurethane foam, wax, epoxy resin, photocopy and charcoal on paper, paint, pigment, glitter, glass, and ratchet straps, 84 x 14 x 24 in. (213.4 x 35.6 x 61 cm). Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Gift of Warren and Mitzi Eisenberg.

Safe Cracker

Matthew Monahan, Safe Cracker, 2012.Safe Cracker dates from the period immediately following Monahan’s first foray into bronze, Nation Builder, made in 2010 for the Statuesque exhibition shown at the Nasher in 2011. The work continues Monahan’s exploration of the human figure juxtaposed with constructivist forms as modes of display. With its squared, blocky form, the figure resembles a caryatid, an architectural sculpture that served as a structural column. Its craggy surface and intentionally unfinished look also lend it an air of antiquity. The bronze is patinated, yet left rough after casting, maintaining the remnants of its production such as the seamlines from the piece mold. The squared pose of the figure complements and provides a counterpoint to the open, rectangular base and the square steel bars running through it.

The work provides a crucial link to the artist’s initial experiments in bronze and more recent ones such as in Fathom Fiver, a promised gift also dedicated to the Nasher with this group (see below).  Safe Cracker resonates with a wide range of works in the Nasher collection, including figurative works from Auguste Rodin to Joseph Beuys, as well as constructivist assemblages from Ivan Puni to James Magee.

Matthew Monahan, Safe Cracker, 2012. Bronze and stainless steel, 88 x 22 x 22 1/4 in. (232.5 x 55.9 x 56.5 cm). Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Gift of Warren and Mitzi Eisenberg.

Bombette

Matthew Monahan, Bombette, 2013–14.Bombette is a particularly impressive example of Monahan’s work on paper. At over 5-feet-tall, it presents an enlarged detail of an expressive head, eyes shut tight, mouth open. Some of the facial features overlap others like a thin mask or second skin. The meaning of the expression is ambiguous, suggesting pain and pleasure in equal measures, an impression enhanced by the delicate, crimson tissue paper collaged over the charcoal and pastel drawing. Drawing has been integral to Monahan’s practice from the outset of his career, informing or even being physically incorporated into many of his sculptural assemblages. The work provides an important touchstone in communicating the full practice of the artist and offers meaningful connections to other works on paper in the Nasher collection, in particular eroticized figurative drawings by Aristide Maillol, David Smith, and Manuel Neri.

Matthew Monahan, Bombette, 2013–14. Charcoal, chine-collé, and pastel on paper, 64 1/2 x 40 in. (163.8 x 101.6 cm). Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Gift of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg.

Fathom Fiver

Matthew Monahan, Fathom Fiver, 2015.Fathom Fiver is a rare example of Monahan’s more recent compositions of rolled and bent bronze sheet. Adorned with copper and gold leaf, the sculpture cuts the figure of a tin man or warrior, its hollow, plated anatomy reminiscent of Samurai armor. The face of the figure appears on the concave, golden interior of the head form. Its visage is stoic, almost beatific. The face is engraved in the gold leaf but has the naturalism and delicacy of the Shroud of Turin.

The construction of Fathom Fiver as a series of connected columnar volumes anticipates a series of grisaille paintings Monahan made in 2018 of similarly geometric, mechanical figures, recalling early 20th century paintings by Fernand Léger and Liubov Popova.  Monahan’s sculpture carries forward Naum Gabo’s premise of suggesting volume through voids in his Constructed Head No. 2 and also resonates with Antony Gormley’s evocations of the interior space of the body.

Matthew Monahan, Fathom Fiver, 2015. Copper and gold leaf on bronze, 67 x 34 in. (170.2 x 86.4 cm). Collection of Warren and Mitzi Eisenberg, Promised gift to the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas. 


IMAGES, TOP: All works by Matthew Monahan. Sir Young Husbands Expedition or Museum of Anti-British, 1994/2005. Floral foam, bees' wax, pigment, encaustic, charcoal, paper, transfer drawing, wood, glass, and drywall, 79 x 17 x 17 in. (200.7 x 43.2 x 43.2 cm). Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Gift of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg. / Incubus, 2007. Foam, wax, graphite, pigment, cord, ink, and drywall, 90 1/2 x 22 1/2 x 13 1/2 in. (229.9 x 57.2 x 39.3 cm). Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Gift of Sherry and Stuart Christhilf. / Safe Cracker, 2012. Bronze and stainless steel, 88 x 22 x 22 1/4 in. (232.5 x 55.9 x 56.5 cm). Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Gift of Warren and Mitzi Eisenberg. / Mission + Midnight, 2008. Polyurethane foam, wax, epoxy resin, photocopy and charcoal on paper, paint, pigment, glitter, glass, and ratchet straps, 84 x 14 x 24 in. (213.4 x 35.6 x 61 cm). Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Gift of Warren and Mitzi Eisenberg.

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