Matthew Sontheimer: Within a Name
Matthew Sontheimer, Within a Name, 2003
If art is the most sublime form of communication, what is expressed by an art that obstructs communication deliberately? This paradox underlies the work in Matthew Sontheimer’s New York debut show, Within a Name. Once again, the Houston artist incorporates his father’s handwriting into strange interpolations of the written word that are beautiful but utterly illegible. By focusing obsessively on the tools of communication rather than their message, Sontheimer has created a pictography that, ironically, has become his own artistic signature.
If this gambit sounds absurd, Sontheimer would agree. He’s chosen no less a figure than Sisyphus, the expert on paradox, to lend a mythic futility to his enigmatic project. As the story goes, Sisyphus was sentenced by the gods to an eternity of meaningless toil in the Underworld. Obliged to push a boulder up a hill ad infinitum, Sisyphus pays a stiff price for trickery and indolence.
Stone Study, a large wall work in black vinyl, could be that mythic, meaningless boulder. The deeply seductive form, glossy and jagged-edged, is mirrored on the floor below by a fragmented twin. This second image is composed of hundreds of small, connected shapes and sets up a dual sensation of cohesion and disintegration that is present throughout the show.
Sisyphus is present in other works, as a word which Sontheimer literally touches, letter-by-letter, in contour drawings on Mylar. This “blind” drawing technique produces forms by feeling the image rather than looking at it. The artist further works against the communicative capacity of his source material by scanning the drawings into a computer imaging program, then editing and enlarging them. These new images are machine-cut into vinyl (the sort of system that produces labels and wall texts for exhibitions). Strung together, this meandering script moves across the wall at chest height in a seemingly aimless line, like a snail’s trail or an unraveled skein of yarn. The yarn analogy is the most appropriate given the vinyl’s vivid color scheme that subtly shifts from pale pink to blood red.
Matthew Sontheimer, Stone Study, 2003
86 x 91 inches wall, 86 x 91 inches floor
The linked marks that build this wayward script refer back to ball-point-pen on Mylar originals that are framed and decorously hung elsewhere in the gallery. These images have been subsequently erased with copious amounts of white correction fluid (an act Sontheimer calls “burial”).
By contrast, the vinyl version is sleek, active and not at all demure. What was originally a pen scrawl has been transformed into a trail of voluptuous forms that flow in a shiny rivulet, unhindered by the friction of pen on paper. The precisely-cut vinyl looks wet to the touch and creates small pools of color where the lines of script loop and cross.
Yet, these forms have strayed far from the hand that originally made them. In their present state, one wonders what to make of this script and the way it leaps and crawls across the wall. Are we to discern anything specific from these letter forms that do not form words but flow vigorously nevertheless? There is the sensation that something subliminal might be occurring, below the line that renders the abstraction of handwriting intelligible.
Sontheimer’s obsessive interest in handwriting brings to my mind a college course in communication disorders. I learned that aphasia, alexia and agraphia are beautiful names for injuries that prevent the brain from accessing standard tools of communication. To me, this seems an odious state…to be obstructed when the need, desire and effort to communicate is never more important. Sontheimer’s elaborate object lessons in thwarted communication (and their mythological references) suggest a moral reading. Perhaps desire and effort are the only things capable of transforming futility into meaning. If so, then there is something mysteriously and essentially creative to the work of pushing boulders.