It is hard to tell time when you're in a spaceship. Biorhythms are lost in the absence of an earthly day and night, just like during a 24-hour sunlit day in the arctic, or a sensory deprivation chamber, or a place where you just can't move around that much, like a nursing home. Matthew Offenbacher's newest show, Decor for Interstellar Flight at SOIL Gallery, is a proposal for how painting might solve the problem of having your natural self interrupted.
It's both funny and sincere. In several shows over the last few years, the Seattle artist has experimented with making art powerfully transformative while also helpful or healing instead of domineering or egotistical. His aesthetic is political: Feminism and queerness are central to what he makes, and how do you make a queer painting? The answers he puts forward are itchy and witty and unexpected.
What you see at SOIL is a patchwork of painted panels, like a solid quilt covering two walls and the corner joining them. A gap in the upper-right corner of the quilt is a blank where another panel could go; leaning against a wall nearby is the missing panel, suggesting the quilt is unfinished and unfixed. Offenbacher has made many paintings on stain-resistant fabric that look like the paint is hovering over the stubborn surface. But those, on wood stretchers, would be entirely too heavy for space travel. So the Decor for Interstellar Flight paintings are instead paper collaged onto Styrofoam panels (so light! So practical!). The patterns—wavy lines, hand prints, fields of color, vines on a trellis—still have a strange look, not sitting firmly on the surface. The effect this time is because the artist applied clear acrylic medium on the paper to glue it down, then poured and smudged powder pigments.
Many of the surfaces have raised portions, because in his research, the artist discovered that texture helps renaturalize the body. These panels are prototypes for a whole system of lightweight two-sided pieces that astronauts can switch out every day, providing a choreography of humanizing scenery inside the ship. On the floor is a pile of oranges in an oversize, pearly papier-mâché seashell, completing the set piece. (These oranges taste like they're from outer space, and they may as well be; they arrived at a local grocery store from New Zealand, the artist notes.)
Offenbacher is also a writer; he publishes the artist zine La Norda Specialo and at SOIL created a takeaway newsletter on cheap gray paper in typewriter font. The text—you'll love it, don't miss getting a copy—is a collage of writings from spaceship interior design researchers, Greek mythology historians, tales aboard a long ship voyage, and a calendar of birthdays in August from members or relations of SOIL Gallery (the closed community at hand), all peppered with erotica. "Compared to 'normal' life on Earth, the relevance of social interactions increases considerably when individuals live under extreme conditions in a harsh environment," researchers write. But what defines a normal life on Earth? It's a question worth contemplating among New Zealand oranges and white-cube rooms.