by David M. Roth
Why, as of late, have so many artists taken up mapping as a means of representing the world? One apparent reason is that maps are prescriptive. They supply directions that can be reliably followed. Artist-made maps, by contrast, challenge consensus reality by subjecting “facts” to experience and imagination, depicting the character of that experience as something shaped not just by geography but by everything else that impacts human life: politics, war, natural disasters, race, religion and culture.
Drawing from literature, art and music, Matthew Picton extends and further complicates his longstanding practice of depicting pivotal historical events with multi-layered cityscapes built of cut paper. The Age of Kali, the artist’s current exhibition, doesn’t adhere to map-based constructions to the degree seen in earlier exhibitions. Even so, the artist continues to use vestiges of them to visually summon the overlapping (and often opaque) forces that have shaped civilization and repeatedly pushed it to the brink.
His primary tool in enacting these visions is the Exacto knife. He wields it with a virtuoso touch, turning visual source material into intricate, semi-transparent skeins held in place by plexiglass “sandwiches” through which photo-based backdrops can be glimpsed. To look is to engage in a mental two-step in which the eye constantly shifts between foreground and background. Given that a good bit of what’s pictured consists of cut-up reproductions of everything from Dürer woodcuts to the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral, it’s not always easy to discern Picton’s intent. However, the preponderance of apocalyptic references, the conceptual linchpins of the series, does clarify one thing: the artist believes we’re on the eve of destruction.
His targets — colonialism, capitalism, tribalism and religious intolerance — come in for serious drubbing, and rightly so. Yet, there’s nothing manipulative or overly didactic about his treatment of these subjects; their shot-through, labyrinthine construction mirrors the murky imprint of the distant past and leaves much to the imagination. And where ambiguity threatens to overwhelm, Picton supplies vital information as a kind of navigational legend. New Delhi # 2, 1947, the most easily apprehended of the 13 works on view, shows a spiky pink orb overlaid with horizontal photo strips. Each depicts the exodus, by train, of some 15 million people who became refugees after India was partitioned into two nations. What goes unpictured (but strongly) implied is the violence that claimed millions of lives in the wake of Britain’s departure and the country’s descent into chaos. Such upheavals, Picton reminds us, aren’t modern phenomena. “Prior to the British,” he writes, “there had been seven incarnations of Delhi. Scattered across the expanse of today’s vast metropolis lie the ruined monuments, mosques, mausoleums of the ancient cities, witness to the rise and fall of past civilizations and empires.” A similarly constructed companion piece, New Delhi #1, shows remnants of those cities (Mehrauli, Siri, Tughlakabad, Firoz Shah Kotla, Jahanpanah, Dinpanah, Shahjananabad) superimposed across a concentric diagram of the British empire’s imperial capital. Atop all this, Picton overlays what he calls an “amalgamated template,” a finely cut paper lattice based on storm clouds taken from Dürer’s woodcuts. The result is a visual maelstrom befitting those events.
The exhibition’s title piece, The Age of Kali, combines Christian and Hindu prophecy with repeated images of the Indian goddess interleaved with a shattered reproduction of Durer’s archangel Michael. Both figures are protectors, but in Picton’s handling, their powers appear to be waning. Indian cosmology, the artist informs, divides time into yugas, with our current “age of darkness,” the age of Kali, ending 70 years from now, at which point the cycle of death and rebirth begins anew.
In two pieces based on stained-glass windows at Chartres — one depicting the Apocalypse, the other the Last Judgement — Picton again calls on Durer using imagery based on Revelations. Both convey, with equal force, the luminescent beauty of the cathedral and the specter of divine retribution. Elsewhere, Spain’s disastrous incursion into the Americas, the firebombing of Dresden and the wildfires that recently consumed large tracts of the West get similar treatment.
The obvious point of this exercise is to induce consciousness. Because as Faulkner famously observed, the past, whether we realize it or not, remains ever-present: a warning to those who willfully obfuscate or unwittingly forget. The bigger question posed is whether remembrance alone can break the vicious cycles that have thus far defined the past.
# # #
Matthew Picton: “The Age of Kali” @ Nancy Toomey Fine Art through February 26, 2022.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.