A Reaction to Tony Matelli’s “New Gravity”

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After my post about Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker at Wellesley College, I have received an overwhelming number of responses. Some people strongly supported my stance, as I called Tony Matelli’s work irrelevent to Wellesley College, while others suggested that I rethink my opinion, suggesting a bit of closemindedness.

“Me, close-minded?” I thought, perplexed. “Never!” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was not looking at Matelli’s work with an objective view. Also, why should the ICA get exhibitions like “New Gravity” and the Davis Museum get “safe,” prim, and proper exhibitions? Wellesley students and other visitors of the Davis Museum are just as capable of digesting the work of Tony Matelli as urbanites.

One of my favorite things about the Davis Museum is that its exhibitions take risks. The recent Glass Heart (Bells for Sylvia Plath) exhibition featured a light and sound installation; the Louise Nevelson exhibition was shrouded in darkness. It was cool; it was edgy. They made the Davis Museum special. I have been attending Davis Museum exhibitions for years, and I grew reasonably familiar with the types of exhibitions that went up.

Now, the Tony Matelli exhibition was a risk that threw me off. And my instant reaction was that it simply did not belong. Perhaps it has been so ingrained in my mind what is an “appropriate” exhibition. All of these exhibitions are risks, and “New Gravity” is another one. Why should I immediately shut it down?  Also, who am I to judge what is “relevant” to the Wellesley community?

On Thursday, I attended the Davis Museum’s official opening celebration of its spring exhibitions, which of course included Tony Matelli’s “New Gravity.” It also included a short lecture by Mr. Matelli, as he went through several of his works throughout his career, with some explanation. This provided insight into the ideas behind the works. Matelli described himself as a “romantic type of artist.” He called some of his works an “acceptable social antagonism,” with such titles as Fuck the Rich and (my personal favorite) Fuck the Rich Deluxe. He has an interest in exploring the concept of adolescence, “male anxiety,” and “masculinity in crisis.” Perhaps Sleepwalker is a vision of male vulnerability, baring it all to the world, unknowing, and frightened. Extended, these concepts are relatable to every visitor to the museum; people worry about being strong and “grown up;” no one wants to show that they are vulnerable.

Matelli also explained the process with which he expected people to view his work: people would first “see the thing for what the thing is.” He was exactly right; unknowing Wellesley students thought that the Sleepwalker was a real man lost in the snow at first. Then, as Matelli said, “you understand it as sculpture.” This is also a relatable idea; art has the unique power to play tricks on the mind. Sometimes, as Wellesley students, we like to think we know and understand everything; but occasionally, this is upended. Sometimes, there are just things we cannot possibly understand, and Matelli’s work demonstrates that.

At the exhibition opening, I had a moment to chat with Lisa Fischman, the museum’s director and exhibition curator, as well as with Tony Matelli. Of the exhibition, I asked, “Why here, and why now?” Mr. Matelli responded with the ever-so-diplomatic answer, “I was invited.” Ms. Fischman explained that Matelli’s work deserved to be seen in the museum setting, with the context of the rest of art history, as the Davis collection displays works ranging from ancient to contemporary art. This is absolutely reasonable, and as I had a chance to walk through the show, I myself became mystified by the illusion of Matelli’s work.

Before I saw the show, I was concerned that it would include some works like this:

TERRIFYING.

Or this…

Good luck sleeping tonight.

But instead, I saw works like this:

Magical!

And this!

How is this even happening?

I suppose my main concern was that the work would have such a high shock value, that viewers would not see through to the underlying message that Matelli was trying to send, about the vulnerability of human nature.

Instead, the works in the exhibition forced me to question reality. I was stunned by their incredible balance. I looked at them with wonder; I wanted to touch them; I wanted to trace my name in the dust on the dirty mirrors in the exhibition. Matelli’s work dances on the line between reality and imagination.

What is my final conclusion? The Davis Museum did something vastly unexpected. And that is not such a bad thing. In the history of art, the most important art movements began with a maelstrom of criticism. Why shouldn’t Wellesley be the host of such work? Wellesley students should be exposed to all types of art, even if it is shocking. Not all art is neat and pretty, and the the most significant, groundbreaking works in the history of art caused a stir that rattled the conception of art.

Tony Matelli’s work threw me off balance, but quite frankly, I am enjoying the ride.

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2 thoughts on “A Reaction to Tony Matelli’s “New Gravity”

  1. It’s interesting that the first reactions to art are often aggression and defensiveness. I’ve been guilty of that… It can be a big step to learn to just non-egotistically expose oneself to art and quietly see if there is anything to learn from it. That knee-jerk reflex to judge is so common (I myself do it all the time), and is also so useless, even damaging. But it does show that art has real power, or there would be nothing to get incensed about. But if someone can push through that ego-reflex, like you have, then the universe just opens up, doesn’t it?

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