The latest exhibition at Mendelson Gallery is a welcome change from more traditional fine-arts shows. This Way to the Egress: Works by Ben Matthews reveals the twisted mind of an unpretentious man with silver hair who is not quite sure how he arrives at his bizarre imagery.
The paintings are a synthesis of Victorian carnival posters, 1950s advertisements and zany botanical subjects, all approached with irreverent humor. Matthews' work has connections to pop surrealism, which (according to a definition by critic Steven Henry Madoff) combines a dreamlike "fetish for the body" with pop art's "celebration of ... the packaged good." The audience is drawn into the voyeuristic tent curious to see Matthews' "lie-detecting ear" or the man who "decapitates bulls with his jaws."
Matthews entertains himself in these pictures by intermingling cartoons, period script and retro-signology. He attempts to make the paintings look realistic by gouging their surfaces, letting ghost images shine through, and literally tearing their edges. Often, he seems to reference both natural selection gone awry and human tinkering with nature, as in his illustrations of man-made bees, plants that grow "Miles Davis" horns, and "Aftermath Seeds," which produce pollution-spewing pickles.
In an email interview, Matthews stated that he has many influences, including the daily paper. Listening to punk music, he avowed, "swayed" him in a less-traditional direction. "I try to provide an artifact from a time that can't be placed," he said. Some works erupt like raunchy jokes, but others are more subtle transfigurations, like the advertisement for "Chocoless," featuring a purple hummingbird with a sack in its beak, and the bold claim "the more you eat the less you weigh."
Matthews grew up in Munhall, and gallery owner Steven Mendelson once wrote that the artist was probably affected by the view of decaying steel mills there. Matthews might also have been inspired by his mother's collection of early cabinet photos, and exposure to his grandfather's printing firm in Homestead.
Whatever the inspiration, the work — showing concurrently at New York City's venerable O.K. Harris Gallery — is both lowbrow and sophisticated. The paintings capture, in a funny, fantastic way, unspecified periods of Americana. The banners and ads appear real at first. But, like a sideshow, it's all a scam, and we will be fooled into entering by appeals to both our eccentricity and our need to conform.