Matthew Zivich – Empires and Enclaves
What Pipeline Gallery, Detroit, MI
By Cooper Holoweski
*We are impotent giants walking among scenes of tragedy, injustice, and leisure. We move like ghosts through the historical narratives, familiar and distant; unable to alter, fix, or adjust.
As I walk into Matthew Zivich’s show Empires and Enclaves at What Pipeline in Detroit, I am surrounded by five scale architectural models and four paintings of warships made out of household caulk. There is also a wall sculpture resembling a men’s urinal, adorned with a painting of a rainbow and colorful dots. I’m confused, intrigued and instantly drawn to the models.
Right up front is a replica of Mies Van der Rohe’s 860 Lake Shore Drive. The two mid-century buildings stretch upward and feel grandiose even at a 3ft scale. But the real scene is down below; tiny little police and onlookers surround a figure that lay in a pool of blood. My knee-jerk conclusion is that it’s a scene of police violence. Then I think it could be a suicide jump from one of the towers. I cycle through about three more scenarios until I embrace the ambiguity………….and then, the brutality of the scene and the coldness of the architecture begin to congeal into one.
Further on in the gallery, a group of tiny nude libertines lounge about inside scale model of Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Some of the figures are strewn about on furniture, others stare off into the pastoral landscape. These tiny figures are sheltered from the world outside by the sheets of glass surrounding the iconographic home and we catch a glimpse of it all through the glass vitrine; a bubble within a bubble within a bubble. This is a scene of opulence.
The other three architectural models include an anonymous government building from the Third Reich, a fictitious monument to Mussolini, and a skeletal cityscape inspired by Sarajevo during the dissolution of Yugoslavia. They are all fantastic; carrying a historical weight that is palpable, with moments of levity that keep me smiling. The scale provides us a safe distance to chuckle, though, make no mistake these five models tell a story of privilege and oppression, drawn from the histories that shape and echo in our present day. I actually start to feel a bit powerless standing among these miniatures that narrate the story of how we got to 2017.
Just beyond the models is a series of works on the wall. I’m not sure about these caulk paintings at first. They seem disassociated from the models and make me uncomfortable. The architectural models are polished and almost conceal their materials but these paintings are advertising theirs. These paintings are goopy, tactile pieces depicting warships with titles referencing historical vessels like “Potemkin”, “Aurora”, and “Maine”. I later read in the press release that these specific ships were “instrumental as precursors to revolution or invasion.”
About a week later I’m standing in my brother’s kitchen, drinking his coffee and trying to avoid my responsibilities for the upcoming week. I start describing the show to him, and realize that I’m still working through it myself. I talk about my feeling as an invisible spectator standing among the architectural models. When describing the content of the paintings I begin to think about Malcom Morley, Kathy Bradford, and other painters who work with naval imagery; but I keep coming back to the material choice of the caulk. “They’re like these images loaded with history, why not go for a heavy oil paint and seal the deal?” To which my brother responds “I don’t know, there’s something cool about caulk. Anyone can go to Home Depot and get caulk, it’s approachable.”
It is approachable. There is kind of a “folksy” quality about caulk as an art material. If the architectural models made me feel disempowered, then use of caulk in the paintings did the opposite. And then it hits me………there is an unmistakable tension arising from the two bodies of work. I will do my best to unpack it without using the names “Hegel” and “Marx” or the term “dialectic” because this is not October and because, as a reader, I generally give up on a review when those words begin to pop up.
The architectural models are seductive, particularly if you are familiar with some of the references (its always nice to be a part of the inside joke, right?) but they are intended to disarm us, make us feel like we are subject to the historical conditions that brought us here. They all represent the end of something big, the defanging of Modernism, the dissolution of a nation-state, and fascism (an end-game political ideology if there ever was one).
In contrast, the caulk paintings provide us a glimpse of agency. They depict the “precursors to revolution.” They are made of everyday materials. These pictures pull us out of the dream of history and place us into the groundswell that makes history. I won’t go so far as to describe them as empowering, that they are not. After all, these are massive tools of warfare funded by huge national budgets. But these images represent the beginning of something big and the materials highlight our ability to shape that something.
There are a few things about this show that I still haven’t resolved. They keep me hungry as a viewer and they are worth mentioning. First, the cenotaph to Mussolini looks a lot like a gas station, what’s up with that? Second, I can’t shake the feeling that the arrangement of the work in the space is saying something. Standing in the middle of the room, the viewer is surrounded by the models, then the paintings, then and the walls of the space itself. I can’t tell if there is something to these concentric rings, or if it’s just the reality of “sculptures go on the floor, paintings go on the wall.” Lastly, the urinal, what is going on with the urinal sculpture? It really bugs me, but then I didn’t love the caulk paintings at first either. I should probably ask my brother to brew another pot of coffee.