Magic and Miniatures
Charles Matton’s boxed constructions at Forum Gallery

CHARLES MATTON IS A CONCEPTUAL ARTIST with the soul of a charm-struck miniaturist. He draws from the early European tradition of hand-made cabinet houses and the trompe l’oeil illusions inside 17th century Dutch perspective boxes. His interiors, real and imagined, elude contemporary categories. Magical, meticulously detailed maquettes conjure into adulthood a child’s love of all things lilliputian, precise and make-believe.

Library: Homage to James Joyce (2004)

Born in 1933, Mr. Matton exhibited in his native Paris in the early Sixties before turning to magazine illustration and book publishing. He continued to create art for himself and a small circle of collectors while he worked (in New York part of the time) on contract for “Esquire” magazine and several French publications. He reemerged as an artist in 1983 and has shown regularly in France since. Six years ago Forum Gallery gave him his first show in New York. He is a rare find.

Boxed formats recall Joseph Cornell yet Mr. Matton’s work has more in common with Lewis Carroll and fastidious stage designer David Belasco. Mr. Matton’s wizardry with lighting and spatial depth is a distinguishing characteristic. Mirrors are cunningly placed to create the illusion of deep space. Meticulously accurate sets, their inventory shaped from cast and carved resin, continue into a distance that is not there. A combination of reflections made by the speculum effect of mirrors mirroring each other create imaginary expanses. The result is a looking glass world as formal and fey as that of Carroll’s White Knight with his upside down deal box.

Many Matton boîtes have been faithful replicas of such pilgrimage sites as Sigmund Freud’s study and Proust’s library. On view now are 12 fictitious locales, each a testament to cultural memory or the arts: various artists’s studios, a music room, libraries, even the architecture of grand hotels. One moody tableau presents a derelict apartment that extends a specific Edward Hopper motif, recreating the source of Hopper’s light and stressing the loneliness peculiar to it. Another, “The Shadow of the Painter” (2002) makes exqusite use of theatrical lighting to create a strangely menacing intimation of an unseen painter who haunts the studio.

“The Bedroom of a Collector” (2002) is a witty diorama on the hazards of an obsessive pursuit. Compulsion distracts from practicalities; so the narrow room — a monk’s cell, really — is a mess. The chaste single bed is rumpled, the night table cluttered. Slippers, books and artist’s portfolios lay scattered about, all dimly lit by a lamp shaded with folded newspaper. A miniscule copy of “The Art Newspaper” and an art market report litter a faded oriental rug. Paintings, some with letters tucked behind their gilded frames, hang delicatessen style from floor to ceiling. A collector possessed needs wall space, not living space.

A genial homage to Lucian Freud, “The Narcissistic Fat Lady” (2003) reconstitutes the studio setup for Freud’s well known 1994 painting “Benefits Supervisor Resting.” Here, the bulbous model, relaxing behind a screen between sessions, reclines as she does in the painting. Shielded by a screen and viewed in a mirror, she looks quite at home in her exhibited bulk, not at all the distressed figure of Freud’s rendering. “Debussy’s ‘Poisson D’Or’” is an optical conundrum inhabited by a hologram of a man playing the piano.

Mr. Matton’s graphic fluency animates the beguiling drawings and tiny watercolors that dot the walls of two imaginary, sky-lighted sculpture studios. Both the Classical Sculptor and the Contemporary Sculptor tack their drawings up for study. Whimsical as these are, they display an elegant hand. So does the tenderly carved tour de force “Saskia Awaiting Titus.” An absent sculptor has left unfinished a chiseled likeness of Rembrandt’s pregnant wife Saskia, nude and seated in the posture of an ancient limestone figure from an Egyptian tomb.

“Yverdon Hotel, Genoa” (2002) and “Hotel Hall No.3” (2004) look down the vacant corridors of an historic building. Only the architecture, graceful and intact, relieves the desolate mood that seeps in with veiled light. A fragment of the University Club’s majestic library becomes a metaphor for learning itself. A lovely decorated archway is lit by a skylight; darkened old books are pressed together in rows like the black beads of an abacus. Entry to mysterious depths, the arch recedes into infinity, an extension in time no less than space. It is a culturally charged mirror trick that satisfies intellectually and aesthetically

The most complex construction is the beautiful “Library: Homage to James Joyce” (2004). An elegant bookcase stands on the other side of a book-lined arcade that seems to reflect a mirror image of itself but does not. The mirror is not where we think it is; rather, it hides in the wings and out of sight. Imperceptible reflectors permit us to look sideways past the central bookcase and above it, to crowded shelves on a balustraded catwalk overhead. It suggests the archive of Dublin’s Trinity College Library, Ireland’s oldest research library, and conveys the reverence due a tabernacle of “the best that has been thought and said.”

Orthodox artlings will be uneasy with Matton’s diminutive verisimilitude. Did Greenberg not warn there is only the avant garde or kitsch? Yes, but that was a false polarity to begin with. There is more than one way to be modern.

Mr. Matton’s modernity traces an ancient route, one of enchantment. Art began in magic and, despite dogmatic efforts to rationalize it, resides there still. It is refreshing to meet a reminder of that. We can consume art all our days but once we are no longer enchanted, we take it in as a dead thing, inert fodder for “discourse.” Mr. Matton’s uncanny cabinets operate in a world of feeling — primal delight — that comes close to bewitchment.


“Charles Matton: Selected Works” at Forum Gallery (745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, 212-355-4545).

This review appeared first in The New York Sun, August 28, 2008.

Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey

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