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Introduction to BAGIT!

by Anthony Haden Guest


The shopping bag pieces in Matuschka's series are artful in every sense of that slippery word. The materials she uses in Bagit! are just that, empty shopping bags, but she has plucked them from the worlds of shopping, branding and packaging and turned them to her own ends. Which pack a whammy.

At first the viewer may feel that he or she is drifting through the familiar world of pure abstraction but then elements of the real tug at the attention yes, that IS a blue but it is also Tiffany's trademarked blue and these white coils like albino serpents are the cords so that the sweetness is cut, leaving a seductively bittersweet aftertaste. The relevant ism here is consumerism.

That Pinging! sound you hear is shopping, shopping, shopping.

The shopping experience has an archaeology, a history and, necessarily, a literature. "We have been a shopping, "declared the heroine of Fanny Burney's 1778 novel, Evelina, freshly arrived in London town.  The word was then a fairly new coinage and such of shopping's life-sucking fellow-travellers as coolhunting, focus-groups and branding lay in the remote future, which happens unluckily to be our present. Now shopping has acquired an art context too. Matuschka is not alone it this fertile zone hello, Haim Steinbach, Sylvie Fleurie but she is subtle and acid. The sex appeal of luxury products and brand name obsession is based on the gospel of consumerism: I am what I buy. Shopping bags are the eye-catching carriers of this message to the world; colorful containers of secret codes and signals that speak their own language ... or as Matuschkaputs it: "you are what you bag." Incidentally, she created the artwork that she has applied to five of these bags in the mid 70s when she was a student of Jennifer Bartlett's at New York's School of Visual Arts. The notion of art as a "commodity" was much in the art world air at the time. There were serious attempts to subvert the oh-so-despicable processes of the comodification of art. These were not helped by being written in a jargon that usually read as if inadequately translated from a Teutonic dialect. And they failed, of course. The history of art is a history of human abilities suborned to promoting faith, or power, or lunatic reason, or monstrous bourgeois egos. Compared to such, shopping used at least to be comparatively harmless.Note the past tense here. Green grows the art world, oh. I think Matuschka's shopping bags may be simply telling us to bag it.

As to the other disciplines within which Matuschka works, these have been various, highly eclectic. Amongst them are incisive graphics, vivid writings and distinct bodies of photographic work. The body in question, prior to Bagit!, being her own. So a few thoughts about the artist before we focus on the art. Writers do not ordinarily concern themselves overmuch with the biographical data of an artist with whose work they are dealing, and rightly so. What do we feel that we need to know about the upbringing, private life or political actions or inaction of Matisse? Cindy Sherman?  Damien Hirst? There are artists, though, who do create precisely a desire to know such stuff because there is something about their work that gives the impression of clearly referencing their lives, and lives lived with some intensity. Some of Picasso¹s oeuvre makes him the Grand Panjandrum of such artists but others come to mind. Malcolm Morley, Frida Kahlo, Hannah Wilke, say. Matuschka is of their number. From an early runaway juvenile delinquent to a high fashion runway model- to a role model for a serious disease - we can glean an imperfection of the life, perfection of the work. This background is, I think, more relevant than it may immediately sound. History, including art history, normally confines itself to what happened And what happened next? It usually avoids the what if things had been different? But Matuschka's history of experience, and her sheer capacity to recuperate from it, are very much part of her art. At a fraction of an inch under 6 feet she became known for using her body to create art which often mixes beauty with death,disaster, and disease.

As noted she studied with Jennifer Bartlett at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. And she was a model short-term to put bread on the table. At that stage her own paintings were mostly abstract. You will see some of these earlie pieces in the following pages. In the late 80s she began a series, "The Ruins," which can perhaps be described as her first mature work. Using her own photographs, either nudes of herself, body casts or, in one case, herself plus the upper half of a mannequin, she created a haunting world, images that brood upon appearances while suggesting psychological extremes. Matuschka's work is self-absorbed but her self-absorption has nothing to do with either narcissism or the reverse narcissism of self-loathing. She is her own raw material. And she looks at her raw material objectively and manipulates it unflinchingly in a way, which now seem uncannily predictive. For instance, in 1991 Matuschka was diagnosed with breast cancer and I cannot improve on her own written description of what happened."Like astretch of rubber skidding across the highway, my right breast was sliced off", she wrote. In 1993 she became the first "topless" cover girl in history when she appeared in profile, white turbaned, as if a surgeon rather than a patient, greyhound-lean, with her breastless right side bared, on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. She titled this self portrait (appropriately) " Beauty Out of Damage" and in 1994 was nominated for the Pulitzer. Ten years later, Beauty Out of Damage was included in Life¹s special tribute: "100 Photographs That Changed The World" since the camera was invented. Matuschka's work in the nineties undoubtedly had a decisive and enormous impact on public awareness of breast cancer and she found an effective way to put her post-mastectomy body to use. After her breast cancer series she created a new body of work based on androgyny and the effects of globalization in an image driven/consumer based society. In such photographs she would pose herself, very deliberately in the frontal, hard-edged manner of Avedon or Penn. The portraiture of these two studio maestros, though, however stylized, was intended to suggest the capture of some underlying psychological truth. Indeed, in Avedon's case, as when he put off taking his picture until his subject's studied expression was replaced by something more "real," indeed sometimes a hint of desperation, the truth could be a brutal one.Matuschka's self-portraiture was very different, being all about role-playing for a satirical purpose. Now her focus has changed: it's bag it time.

The shopping bag pieces in Bagit! mark a full stop. "Serious" Matuschka, the artist on the barricades, is temporarily confined to the archives. The Matuschka of Bagit! is not frivolous there's nothing frivolous about the impact of consumerism but in these pieces she has taken the world off her shoulders.Her touch is deft. She neither surrenders to her material, nor smothers it. She also teases a great of variety out of it, from the Rococo Minimalism of Orange Sorbet to the lively hominid that bounces across the J. Crew piece to the appropriately rayonniste mini-explosions on Circle in the Square to the scratchy, somewhat pubic look she gets at least equally appropriately -from Victoria's Secret.

The artist of Bagit! is a girl who, at least for the now, just wants to have fun.
Anthony Haden-Guest