Exhibition Review: Mary Mattingly: Because for Now We Still Have Poetry
By Ilana Jael
One of the first pictures featured in Mary Mattingly’s Because We Still Have Poetry, on view until this June 9th at Chelsea’s Robert Mann Gallery, repeats a mysterious phrase over and over in bold type framed against a mountainous backdrop; “IT’S BECAUSE THERE IS NOTHING OR BECAUSE I HAVE NO EYES”, a quote from Samuel Beckett’s 1953 novel The Unnamable. The eerie literary offering reappears on a plywood panel in Lead Box, one of three such sculptures deliberately made from the corrupt products of the “systems of mining that support exploitative supply chains” that this exhibit intends to critique. We also find in this box as well as the Cobalt Box aluminum printing sheets, and in the last Mozanite Box another such sheet and a “copper exposure timer for photography”. This highlights Mattingly’s awareness of her work’s central “poetic contradiction”; that the incisive photographic “eye” she casts on the world around her owes itself to the very environmentally destructive “forms of violence” she aims to question.
Materials from these “systems” are also an element of many of Mattingly’s interior shots, which appear quietly sinister in their subtle, too-elegant beauty. But the power of her deliberately placed manmade objects is undercut by unexpected undercurrents of nature; desert floor lurking under a desk or mountains visible out the window. As much as we seem to have taken control, we are making Faustian bargains with a delicate ecosystem; what we have stolen may haunt future generations, or even prevent them. This grim possibility is suggested by the fact that though the objects that appear in these pictures have clearly been meticulously arranged by a human hand, none feature people. “Where is everyone?” we wonder − have humans wiped ourselves out? The only non-plant life in Mattingly’s photos can be found in the stark Endgame, and even that is life once removed, birds not present but in a framed photograph, a place where they could easily be mere relics.
Birds and all other animals remain conspicuously absent from the bleak treetops of Eagle Mine in the Morning and the rest of Mattingly’s external shots. Phosphate Mine, Bone Valley, Florida and Eagle Mine, Michigan seem to emphasize the artificial white and yellowness of their titular constructions, unnatural amid a natural landscape of blues and greens. In two other shots, a manmade Ore Transport Station and Abandoned Mine In Texas also serve as the visual centers of their respective pieces. While we long to be able to appreciate the grass, sand and sky, Mattingly draws our eyes to what is wrong, what is broken; what we have made.
Though Mattingly does not explicitly say how she feels about whether her images are worth the sacrifice it took to create them, answers may be implied in more of the exhibition’s titular poetry; “ENOUGH IS WHEN IS ENOUGH IS” repeated in an image by the same title and “OVER AND OVER” cryptically scrawled in Between Bears Ears and Daneros Mines. Even pictures as beautiful as hers will be useless one day if there is no one there to see them; if there are no more eyes, anywhere at all.