You’d be forgiven for wanting to dig your fingernail under the masking tape stuck to the surface of a Matt Schust painting, but you wouldn’t have much luck peeling it off. The trompe l’oeil is effective and not something expected in what is ostensibly dyed-in-the-wool abstraction. The commitment to the pictorial space of abstract painting is, ironically, what saves these representational tricks from being a banal gimmick. It’s an irony made credible, perhaps, by earnestness.
The picture plane, the ineluctable surface, its ever-fertile puzzle of optics and tactility, has been at the heart of much important historical painterly activity—a paleolithic cave artist exploiting a bulge of rock to depict the hunched back of a bison; Leon Battista Alberti proposing the flat plane as a window into mimetic space; Harold Rosenberg in the mid-20th century suggesting that a painting be acted upon and looked at rather than through; Jasper Johns’s conflation of abstraction, representation and object in his American flags; or Jonathan Lasker’s scrawls of material substance confounding the image of gesture. Matt Schust’s “New Build” paintings are as dedicated to the conundrums of tangible surface and illusional space as any of them.
At first encounter, these paintings feel as if an overtired squatter in a derelict building tried to shut out the sun by covering the windows with whatever detritus was at hand. The detritus most immediately at hand? Here are the formal remnants, discarded process marks, the unwanted dross, broken shards and inherited junk of historical colour-field abstraction—all that abandoned and useless modernist flat stuff. Noticeably, our squatter carefully sifted the heaps for pieces that fit (or almost fit) the hole he was trying to cover. He artfully affixed his pastiche with the attention of a fastidious zealot. Though images of ad hoc assemblage, they are crafted with tenacious deliberation and exactitude, the chaff of abandoned legacy wielded like treasure. Matt Schust trusts that these scraps have value, even held together by a few flimsy strips of leftover tape.
Matt Schust, Installation view, “Matt Schust: New Build,” 2019, Renann Isaacs Contemporary Art, Guelph, Ontario.
There is no grandiose existential gesture. The heroics are found shattered and strewn on arrival and the goal is not to resurrect canonical narrative. Like Tom Waits sings in “Come on Up to the House”—“Come down off that cross, we could use the wood”—there is a more vernacular repurposing of material at work, without regard for its pious source: meagre thrift, “reuse and recycle,” “waste not, want not.” Though the “New Build” of these paintings looks impoverished, the industriousness and care given to its construction are vital. These paintings attempt to make a workable shelter, a home, of humble circumstance.
New Build II, Painting 9 is a four-foot-high rectangle. Acrylic on muslin. It looks like something pulled from a dumpster out back of Mark Rothko’s studio—a blackstained field of paint that doesn’t reach the exposed margin of canvas, loosely outlined with a darker black as if to emphasize the “almostness” of its rectilinearity. It’s a big enough painting, like a decent-sized window in an old house, but it feels like a hasty scrawl on a napkin. A black-on-black cloud is scrubbed with open gestures across the lower third of the painting. Above it, Schust stacks more black clouds, looking as much like the residue of a mopped-up oil spill on tarmac as figures of aesthetic contemplation. With contrasting temerity, a black line traverses the upper quarter, a truncated Newman-like “zip” on the horizontal. This assertive taped-edge line, on closer inspection, appears to be an actual strip of tape. It isn’t. A student of sculpture as well as painting, Matt Schust has made a casting, a painted relief of tape, adhesive residue fringing its torn ends. It’s an image as indistinct from its model as a Warhol Brillo box.
Two opaque overlapping black squares, the same size as the floating stains, haphazard and akimbo, as though Ad Reinhardt or Kazimir Malevich showed up to do a quick patch job on a blown inner tube, hug the right margin, throwing the symmetry of the painting out of kilter. The right-most square is flush with the edge of the actual canvas, a reminder that the rest of the paint does not reach the canvas edge. The black squares look like collaged paper. They are, in fact, another deceit.
Centre stage, stuck to the lower middle of the painting, is the inch-wide green painter’s tape overlaid with two strips of wide “uncoloured” masking tape, semitranslucent, revealing the black undersurface and the green tape they cover. It’s an extraordinary trompe l’oeil, torturously begging to be touched for verification. Painters have always understood how much the eye depends on the hand, that visual art is never solely visual. In the “you can look but you better not touch” environment of an art gallery, it’s a poignantly redacted document. Despite the virtuosity of the rendering, the tape looks like an accident, an unpackaging oversight, something meant to be removed. If the trompe l’oeil were more ostentatious, it would still be impressive, though the trick would be done in a wink. But it could go unnoticed. Even a discerning viewer might just think it a punk move—to leave tape on your painting. The conceit is so unassumingly integrated into the “junk” aesthetic of the assemblage.
Look in any alleyway, at a boarded-up strip mall, the DIY body-fill on a rusted fender—you’ll find myriad evocations of modernist abstraction and minimalist courtship of industry anywhere, and just as beautiful, treated with casual and rude functionality to the point of discard. Matt Schust has a hobo’s eye for this, a schooled eye for dumpster diver’s treasure—whether found in low-grade urban decay or the exalted vaults of art history. He has a gift for rendering precariousness with balance, neglect with attentive precision, impetuousness with breath-halting patience. In the end, a painting might be something you only hang on a wall to hide a crack in the plaster. Still, Schust tells us, it’s worth the time, care and finesse to get it exactly right. ❚
“Matt Schust: New Build” was exhibited at Renann Isaacs Contemporary Art, Guelph, ON, from March 2 to 31, 2019.
Greg Denton is a visual artist and musician living in Guelph, Ontario. He has taught as a sessional instructor in the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph for 20 years.