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Matthew Picton @ Toomey Tourell

Moscow 1812, 2011, burnt paper, ink, musical score, duralar, 42 x 42

If you’ve ever used Google Earth to zoom from a bird’s eye view of the planet down to a close-up look at rooftops, streets, backyards and rivers, Matthew Picton’s wall-mounted sculptures of urban environments will seem instantly familiar.  They reconstruct in paper and vellum the kinds of aerial views long used by urban planners.  Unlike street maps, which show how things connect in a single dimension, Picton’s representations are at once cartographic, topographical and cultural.  Incorporating period-specific texts and musical scores, sometimes from different eras in a single work, they present multi-layered views of urban history at cataclysmic junctures: wars, political upheavals and natural disasters.  They represent the urban experience as a physical place and a state of mind whose contours, physical and mental, shift according to circumstance.  

He calls the works on view Fictional Perspectives.  Yet each is packed with historical facts.  That, by itself, represents a departure from most contemporary map-based art, which replaces the consensus “reality” of conventional maps with artists’ visions of how things should look.  Picton has no such agenda; his maps are visual records of his research. The findings lean toward the apocalyptic. 
Saint Petersburg, which the artist presents as a white washed labyrinth of interlocking boxes cleaved by a turquoise Neva River, is an excellent example of his craft and conceptual thinking.  The first is plain to see.  It consists of ribbons of vellum, arrayed into a twisting, irregular grid of open-air boxes of varying geometric shapes.  The second aspect, evident in the micro view, is a literary exercise, incorporating snippets from Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, Anna Akhmatova’s Poem Without a Hero and Joseph Brodsky’s Guide to a Renamed City.  Also interwoven into the piece are bits of Shostakovich’s score for Symphony No. 7.  Each represents a particular period in the city’s fraught history, which Picton, in a wall text, explains is “always a contradiction, at once both elegantly and stunningly beautiful, dark and terrible, rich and squalid; rationally conceived, yet the focus of irrational forces and events, subject to countless floods, fires, revolutions and wars.  Not to mention pestilences and plagues.” 
St. Petersburg, 1703-1964, 2013, texts, music score based on map of the great flood, 49 x 69
Given the physical complexity of this work (and others like it) I doubt that without the accompanying wall text, that viewers would easily recognize or connect Shostakovich’s score to Germany’s 900-day siege of Leningrad (as it was known during WWII) or link Akhamatova’s prophetic lines to Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1950s or realize that Pushkin’s poem embodies the city’s creation myth.  My point is that wall texts are often a crutch for work that is materially lacking.  Not here.  Picton, in the act of transcribing this material, has thoroughly absorbed it into his own psyche and reflected it back into the works in ways that are tangible.
His London quartet, which depicts bomb damage sustained in 1940 by Southwark, Bloomsbury, Clerkenwell and Waterloo, is a fine example.  Working from color-coded maps which show, building by building, the precise the extent of the destruction, Picton re-creates it by meticulously burning portions of his own creations without incinerating them.  Literary guides are employed here, too.  They are, respectively, Rosie Alison (The Very thought of You), Elizabeth Bowen (The Heat of The Day), Graham Greene (The Ministry of Fear) and Christopher Fowler (Full Dark House)
London 1940 Southwark, 2012, created from excerpted text of The Very Thought of You, 34 x 27"

Fire also figures prominently in Picton’s depiction of Moscow in 1812, set ablaze by Napoleon’s army.  In it, a quote from War and Peace (“The comet which was said to portend all manner of horrors and the end of the world”) appears prominently at the bottom, winding in red letters around the contours of a wide boulevard.

Picton, who was born in the U.K. and educated at the London School of Economics, seems to have a keener appreciation of European history than he does of more recent American events.  Dallas, for example, is presented as a maze punctuated by a zig-zagging line of color photos of the Kennedy motorcade; they’re arranged as miniature street-level billboards.  Lower Manhattan, seen through the prism of 9/11, is comprised of tabloid headlines about terrorism. Granted, these are pivotal events in American history.  Dallas may forever be defined by what happened on November 22, 1963, but New York by the attack on the World Trade Center?   I don’t think so.  The city’s literary past, its role in the American Revolution and its 20th-century status as a locus of literature, art, industry, pop culture, protest, fashion, finance and immigrant aspiration will overshadow 9/11 for a long time to come.  All are rich lodes that could be profitably mined by someone like Picton.  
Here’s hoping he digs beneath the headlines the next time he takes on stateside subjects.  Meantime, his contributions to our appreciation of urban history and its links to literature and music remain impressive.   
Matthew Picton: “Fictional Perspectives” through July 15, 2013 @ Toomey Tourell

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