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The Janet and Walter Sondheim Prize 2010

Posted 7/7/2010

The Sondheim Artscape Prize: 2010 Finalists

Through Aug.1 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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Matthew Janson's "Childfully Serious"

Matthew Janson

Matthew Janson's Sondheim installation is a scattershot presentation of the artist's diverse studio techniques and material fetishes. It includes two-dimensional pieces and sculptural works that reference home furnishings and domestic function, even though they remain unusable objects. In many cases, pieces feel overly decorated and certain details unnervingly push the work away from refined and toward the garish. The 2009 MICA Mount Royal School graduate offers a body of work that hesitantly wavers between glitz and grotesque. Having followed his work for more than a year, this inconsistency came as a surprise.

Janson is most successful when he separates the ornamental and furniture elements from the conspicuous Great Stuff (industrial canned expanding foam). Selective material combinations, as demonstrated in "Parlor Rat"--a low, squat ottoman/wheelbarrow bursting with crystalline mirror shards--yield the most sophisticated and impressive results. "Parlor Rat" confronts the tropes of masculine sculpture with frill, lace, and a somewhat antique aesthetic. The central mirrored form is propped elegantly on parts of a caramel-colored chair. The top surface is flattened and round, edged in a lace doily. The typically four-legged furniture object has a unique posture, sloping down on one side to rest on a single caster. The piece looks ready to collapse under the girth of its own fanciness, or tip onto its single wheel to act as a vehicle for collecting and removing excess glitter.

The other two sculptural pieces don't share in this fantastic tension. "Total Exploding Millionminded Version II," a massive two-piece, mirrored geode on casters, is impressive and beautiful. The front of the piece has the similar chunky, organic structures of pyrite on a very magnified scale, but the mirror is untreated, a sparkly fool's silver. The backs--sides? bottoms?--of the magnificent minerals are flat and decorated in a silvery fabric like the underside of a couch. Casters hang off these vertical sides, immobile and functionless. They subtly suggest commodity, furnishing, and mobility, while remaining less critical than "Parlor Rat."

Hung to the left of "Millionminded" is a black and pink wall-fixed sculpture that conjures memories of the Franz West survey that occupied the same space. The lumpy, imperfect finish of this mixed-media piece--which incorporates vinyl, paint, and spray foam--has a poised restraint that the other wall works, which resemble horrific birthday cakes, do not.

"Carrion," a brown crib with clumsy red viscera, is where Janson loses me. The works here go from David Altmejd meets a hint of Franz West to a Tim Burton claymation--a dated, cheesy goth aesthetic. The muddy, textured exterior and white frosting-like edging feel hurried and unconsidered. The circular mirrors on each side and decorative fringe lining the bottom feel like afterthoughts. Inside the goopy, messy piece is more goop and mess: String and piles of foam are painted a glistening red to evoke intestines and blood. The work is the obvious black sheep of the installation, its craftsmanship poor, and Freudian undertones somewhat clichéd and repelling.

Overall, Janson's installation is awkward and a little inarticulate. Personal narratives are lost in translation. Rather than a farm-raised and -influenced artist as his statement says, the pieces have an unfortunate chintz that is uncharacteristic of his previous works. (Alex Ebstein)

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