Screaming in a Cage in Hell
30 May - 10 June, 2016
What remains of the private self has become something of a contentious issue within the culture at large in recent years. In an age of constant surveillance, where every personal preference is tracked, monitored and aggregated by massive corporations, our tastes would seem to have become utterly predictable, and individuality a thing of the past. If this state of affairs has preoccupied, and in some cases been openly embraced, by many recent art practices, Quintessa Matranga’s work pushes against such bland homogeneity in favor of an intimate practice in which the personal resurfaces as that which is fundamentally concerned with style.
Her work, which over the years has comprised painting, sculpture and drawing, elaborates a form of domestic surrealism in which decidedly mundane elements take on an existential significance. Drawing on vernacular modes of expression—such as street wear, comic books, childhood fairy tales and cartoons—which are deployed in a reliably warped, bastardized manner, her work hovers between providing a key to understand our current cultural moment, and radically unhinging it. The world that her practice brings into being is one populated by misfits, miscreants and signifiers of the disillusioned. But these figures aren’t to be taken directly as models for how to live your life, how to dress, or what politics to adopt. Rather, like a mood board, they illustrate the fine-tuned play of referentiality in any attempt to fashion oneself.
The title of this exhibition, Screaming in a Cage in Hell, comes from the mis-remembered title of a wrestling series called Hell in A Cell. Much like wrestling, intensity and pain has been hyperbolized to numb meaninglessness—a state of mind to enter into willingly, and exit from whenever. The show’s five paintings feel a lot like studies in an affect and style I’m tempted to call ‘middlebrow counterculture.’
Take Full Blown Freak, a portrait of a gender-ambiguous punk whose purple mohawk has detached from their head and is floating above a sickly green background. Evoking the dregs of a dead (but somehow still kicking!) Bay Area counterculture, the painting’s mannered color palette suggests the descent of an abrasive aesthetic into the easily manipulable signifiers of kitsch. In Life is My Favorite Drug of All, a woman, outlined in black and white like a tribal tattoo or a car decal, sits facing the viewer at an angle against a subdued, moody, rainbow background. The relationship between the polite, almost office decor-esque abstraction and cookie cutter symbols of rebellion is only exacerbated by the two large flies that have been rendered in considerable detail on the canvas. Both are visual languages with highly particular origins that have nonetheless reached a level of ubiquity that has diluted them beyond recognition—relegated to the background, they sit gathering dust, and attracting flies.
The remaining three paintings are lighter and more fantastical. I Can’t Stop Dreaming depicts a woman levitating while lying on her bed, depicted in a style that recalls a certain neo-gothic illustration sensibility, while All My Roommates Are Evil But I’m Evil Too is based off a box, gift wrapped in black paper and decorated with bootleg Monster High doll stickers that Matranga and her frequent collaborator Rafael Delacruz found in Ridgewood, New York. A time capsule in another sense, The Bubbley B recreates the design of a t-shirt by a 90s skateboard company. Running across the work in this exhibition, and Matranga’s practice as a whole, is a belief in the remarkable capacity of images to act as vessels for identification, and to project this onto the viewer in turn.
By Tim Gentles