The New Guy
Matt Browning's Massively Promising Debut About Men and Sports
Matt Browning's first solo show, Home Field Advantage, has only seven sculptures and a single (finished) one-night-only performance piece in it, but the glimpse it provides gives a little thrill: This is one of the most promising debuts by a Seattle artist in a long time.
Take the quiet heart of the show, what appears to be a small scrap of dark carpet cut out and mounted on the wall as if it were a painting, apparently stretched over and stapled to an armature the way a canvas would be. It doesn't look like much at first. It even seems like it might be a smug, low-rent hipster take on abstract painting. Bo-ring. Until you read on the label that it's made of yarn from deconstructed baseballs, carefully knitted and lovingly presented. The artist made this plain little thing painstakingly; the scene conjured up is of him toiling in a rocking chair by the entrance to a baseball stadium. This drab-looking rectangle has an amazing quantity of life.
You wouldn't guess Browning has a background in fiber arts. His show is full of sculptures that represent adolescent masculinity by combining its scrawny, cocky ways with the codes of "adult" masculinity inherent in cold-eyed, professionalish minimalism and heroic monumental abstract sculpture. Thrillventure is a long miniature ski jump pieced together from cut-up downhill skis, standing precariously and sloping from the gallery wall down to the floor. Small in scale and sloping in angle, Thrillventure can't help but double as a thin, limp dick and a commentary on the social link between physical bulk and masculine value. (Before the piece is displayed again, it needs to be brought back up to standards: It collapsed the day before the opening, and Browning had to reconnect the sections with unsightly material. Properly, um, getting it up is imperative to the symbolism.)
Following up on the practices of artists like Brian Jungen, who filter contemporary social situations through "primitive" or tribal forms (in Jungen's case, the place of First Peoples in Canadian culture), Browning segments baseball skins and glues them into the shape of an animal pelt or a pre-Columbian figure drawing in Trophy Trophy. He takes the association further, though, because each leather piece is a small square, like a digital pixel, making the figure look just as much like a video-game character. Browning is tracking the cultural transition—which he probably experienced personally—from baseball to video-game boyhoods.
The Things We Did? It Wasn't So Much the Thing as It Was That We Did 'Em is a contraption made of metal and worn wood that looks like an innocent device planted in the wilderness (a birdhouse?) but is actually a beer shotgunning machine. Self-Portrait as Christmas is a funny little thing, a snapshot of the artist mounted on wood the size of a baseball card. He's tough-looking but skinny, in need of a change of clothes and a shave, and the quality of the photograph is so bad that one of his eyes turned out red, the other green. He's clearly no sports hero. In the show, only Room with a View, a row of cut-out mountains from Busch beer cans mounted on the wall, leaves me cold. The row of mountains seems neither decorative nor obsessive enough, too abstract.
Browning is one of the guys, but the one who eyes the group with a little suspicion. Other artists are positioning their masculinity in similar ways, especially sculptors in Los Angeles including Sterling Ruby, Nathan Mabry, and Aaron Curry. Clearly conversant with Ruby's clean forms with marked-up surfaces, Browning's Roughed-Up Gem is a Formica desktop jutting straight out from the wall with no visible supports (in a reference to Donald Judd's wall hangings) at the height of a classroom desk. Nonsense numbers and words referring to crews of guys ("TEAM BRUCE") appear to be scratched into the surface, but if you lean in closer, you see that they are stitched, perfectly, impossibly, into the surface.
For a performance at the opening, Browning separated himself from the crowd by pedaling a stationary bicycle attached to a large battery in order to power the refrigerator for the party's beer. In reference to a Chris Burden performance, Browning called it Honest Labor pt. II, and it mock-raises the question: What does an artist do exactly? Browning is just playing; he already knows the answer.