Matthew Choberka, a well-liked and influential painting professor at Weber State, can briefly be seen in overlapping exhibits in two of the most progressive galleries in Utah. His work could be called postmodernist, or painterly– environmentalist, but it seems to me that he partakes of a mainstream movement that hasn’t been named yet; it ought to be called Abstract Representation, or, in the manner of its great and direct ancestor — Abstract Expressionism — it might style itself Abstract Realism.
All of the Classical painting modes, like portrait, still life, and landscape, were revived virtually simultaneously in Italy during the Renaissance. Ambrogio Lorenzetti did the honors for landscape in Siena, with his 14th-century “Allegory of the Effects of Good and Bad Government.” Matthew Choberka refers to Lorenzetti in writing but also in painting, in which he attempts nothing less than another reinvention of landscape. In doing so, he follows an important trend in art since Modernism triumphed with cubism just before World War I. Where Lorenzetti set the stage for the invention of Optical Perspective, which unified the deep space of a painting by providing a single vantage point — the viewer’s — Picasso and Braque erased perspective, and with it deep space. But after World War II, painters like Max Ernst and Francis Bacon rediscovered the utility of perspective, which allowed them to make sense of figurative elements presented in defamiliarized ways.
The same subliminal, symbolic distortions permitted by Lorenzetti’s intuitive perspective allow Choberka to distort his representations in symbolic ways. In “Towers to the Sky” (Finch Lane) we see a version of 9/11 that was never broadcast on TV: one that soars above the panic and suffering of the streets to set the events of that day in a wider context. Where Lorenzetti’s context was civic, showing how good or bad governments create peaceful or chaotic lives for their subjects, Choberka’s is ecological, locating the idealized island in a disorder from which its forced geometry emerged, and back into which it could easily return.
As befits a maker of images, Choberka is captivated by boundaries. The “edge of town” appears as a transition zone in many of his canvases. Here the dialogue of manufactured and natural takes on a new tenor. No more the bleeding heart or the weeping tree-hugger, today’s ecologist has a stern message, of which global warming is only the first salvo. Choberka’s brush reminds us that the natural order, made manifest in our response to beauty, is not predisposed to order over chaos or linear patterns over noisy textures. The sinuous, snakelike brushwork of the smoke over his towers, or on the earth beneath his “Tempest” (CUAC) is as rapturously sensuous as the cracked mud of Andy Goldsworthy.
Such exquisite passages also bespeak Choberka’s love of paint as a material with its own voluptuous nature. Whether in the watered silk sky of the “Towers,” the rectilinear color grid of “A Tale of Three Cities (Finch Lane), or isolated gems found tucked among them, the painter makes the case that seeing, reflecting, and acting upon matter — all aspects of the painter’s activity — are things we are meant to do. Why else would we enjoy them so? The uncounted hours consumed in “A Hundred Gates” (CUAC) by building up layers of visual texture, painstakingly masking them, and then painting over them, result is a crazy quilt more representative of our conceptual landscape than the block quilts Grant Wood threw over the agrarian landscape of mythical America. They also produce some of the most sensuous eye-candy ever painted, ranging from the iridescent vermilion carapaces of beetles to the candy-apply maroon metal flake of hot rods. Photographs can’t do justice to the depth of these colors, nor to the size of the larger canvases, which envelop the eyes that perceive them.
Instead of seeing the seal pup on the ice floe as nature beleaguered, an artist like Choberka envisions the order that appeals to us — and sustains us — as only one of the natural world’s many possibilities, including any number that are inimical to us. At the edge of Choberka’s city lies the open secret that what we exhale we must also inhale, and we might better see ourselves in that hapless prey stalked by an indifferent hunter. Viewers who make it to the CUAC in Ephraim will see an unusual piece: a narrative installation based on a scene from Moby Dick. |see video| In “Hast Seen the White Whale?” Choberka transforms Melville’s mock-biblical language into the equivalent of our time’s “Have You Looked in the Mirror Lately?” Using scraps and fragments from his studio activities, including polymerized acrylic paint peeled from its cans and wads of masking tape covered with polychrome paint, the artist conjures the carcass of a whale tied alongside the Pequod to be mechanically dismantled by men even as it is attacked by its natural enemies, sharks, so that its great order and majesty are reduced to dregs and slop: the mere wreckage of the great beast that plumbed the sea’s depths and split the sky. It’s not often that the process by which an artist’s materials are turned into wrenching feelings is so clearly and accessibly laid out. Remarkably, even when the trick is exposed, it still works.
New Allegory, works by Matthew Choberka is at the Central Utah Art Center through March 11. Choberka’s work is on exhibit at Salt Lake’s Finch Lane Gallery through April 11. To see more of Choberka’s work, visit his website.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.