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ABOUT THE HOUSE
At the List Visual Arts Center, MIT
Through Oct. 13
At first, Matthias Mansen's art seems oddly out of place at MIT. One wonders what these primitive-looking woodcuts, portraying simple domestic scenes, are doing in the glass and concrete confines of the List Visual Arts Center. The works, however, which Mansen did while living in New York between 1989 and 1992, subtly begin to show that they are far more contemporary than they first appear, that Mansen has reinvigorated the traditional art of woodcut printing under the 20th-century influences of cinema and collage, and in reaction to changes that have taken place in his first medium, painting.
Mansen himself, in Cambridge for the opening of the only American appearance of this show, looks less like a woodcut craftsman than the contemporary German artist that he is, dressed in the black suit and black turtleneck of the Continental avant-garde. Asked why he chose, in these works, to focus on domestic topics, Mansen responds: "When I was a student, everyone was painting crazy things, like giraffes in gas stations. That was fine to a point, but I wanted to do something different. There is something very simple, and familiar, to the domestic." Mansen explains that, even when working in woodcut, his choices are influenced by the art of painting. "I was trained as a painter. I think of my woodcuts as a dialogue with painting."
One of the pieces in the exhibition, "Studio," deals with Mansen's relationship to his art, in a scene less ostensibly "domestic" then the other subjects collected here. The piece simply displays the artist, printed in red, watching himself, printed in blue, chiseling himself, again printed in red, into a woodcut. "Studio," self-consciously enacting the artist's relationship to his art, seems to be more straight-forward than the other prints in showing Mansen's thoughts on his art. Here, the artist and his act of creation take preeminence over their own subject in a way that is less obvious, though perhaps equally true, in the other works in "About the House."
"Studio" also, in its juxtapositions of time and space, shows the influence of cinema and collage in ways that are taken up in other of Mansen's works. "Schlafzimmer" (Bedroom) is a work composed of four prints. The first shows a bedroom backdrop, done in monochrome. The next introduces a green figure; the next a red blanket; the next a yellow figure; in a simply elegant way, Mansen gives woodcuts the power of cinematic narrative. Another print, "Kuche, Telle" (Kitchen, Parts), simply shows the objects to be found in a kitchen, a pot, a bowl, a fork and knife, in a two-dimensional still-life that creates, by abstracting the objects from their usual context, a strange tension between objects that seem, at first, remarkably ordinary.
Of course, descriptions of the subjects of these pieces do little justice to Mansen's art, since, as he says and a work like Studio implies, his subject, ultimately, is the artistic object itself. Mansen speaks convincingly of the care he takes in choosing the discarded lumber and furniture he uses to make his wood blocks, how the difficult process of woodcut creates a beneficial restraint that painting lacks. One cannot even begin to describe a work like "Das Haus" (The House), three 24-foot prints which depict all the residents of a house, and their activities. Mansen comments: "Over the past 15 years I've made occasional retreats into painting, but when I look back, my prints always seem more interested than my paintings. So I always return to woodcut." One hopes that Mansen will, and continue to create works that are as deceptively primitive and as utterly contemporary as those displayed in "About the House."
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