Puzzled Bipeds | Matt Dibble
Douglas Max Utter
Matt Dibble has created two distinct, almost opposed bodies of work since the 1980’s. Probably he’s best known for his numerous experimental, gesture-filled paintings, wholly abstract and executed in a heavily textured, expressive manner. But if those works seem to respond to the clamor and complexity of life, his other paintings, more rarely exhibited, turn inward. They explore a tentative figural subject matter which in the context of Dibble’s abstractions is like a search for spiritual renewal. These are the works that make up the fascinating show Puzzled Bipeds at Tregoning & Co.
Puzzled Bipeds is made up mostly of larger paintings – often diptychs and triptychs, which have a public, mural-like presence. And while their crisply layered materials, attractive weathered tints and half-tones lure the viewer toward them for a close look, they remain anything but intimate. In paintings like “Dreams Machine,” “Clever Shandy,” and “Night Drill,” Dibble deploys tangled linear forms on top of physical layers of detail. These details are textual in part, recalling classic modernist collage techniques. Skin-like sheets of newspaper seal the canvas, or sometimes Dibble uses blueprints, or dress patterns. Delicate substrates of background “information” – unreadable columns of text, photographs that sometimes reveal an anonymous modern face -- act as counterpoint to Dibble’s developing imagery, which is just recognizable as the distorted outlines of human or animal limbs, knotted across the picture plane or distilled into separate creatures. If his abstract paintings bring the dimensions of life experience home in candid handfuls (or at least use painterly frankness as their point of departure), the Biped milieu is diffident and fragile, skimmed from a more subtle layer of being, as if Dibble were grafting daydreams and shadows over the gridded noise of wakefulness.
Dream Machine, 62 x 68
The graffiti-like drawings found on many laboriously inked medieval manuscripts -- not to mention the gargoyles perched on the gutters and eaves of otherwise gloriously abstract Gothic structures -- remind me of Dibble’s haunted aesthetic dimension in the Bipeds images. Serious illustrations are the official “face” of a text or structure, but whimsical characters peeping out of capital letters, slithering and padding along the margins, are the personhood of the copyist monk, both confessional and artistic, offering creative comic relief and admitting messy, inadvertent human peevishness into sacred precincts. To be human is to transgress, to be bent into strange shapes -- like the animal sketched down-page in a well-known 14th century English Book of Hours, whose long neck is tied in an elaborate knot.
Dibble began making drawings of abstracted figures, single-line essays in posture and presence, a long time ago, even before he started painting. More recently he has added new drawings of that type done in ink on sketchbook-sized sheets of paper, some of which are on display at Tregoning Gallery. In relation to his Biped paintings these linear works function like musical canons, acting as core structural elements within fugue-like variations. Dibble, like many others, has observed that it’s difficult to paint or draw anything fresh when representing the human body. His answer is to bring his own hybrid population, part after-thought, part hieroglyph, to the shore of painting, creatures that aspire to a new outline of self. These refugees to the present arrive at an intersection of worlds where the rules are different, where anatomy and geometry have been oddly amended.
Paintings like “Venus Amigo,” and “Cabinet Eagle” come close to not being about the human body at all, while giving a nod to recognizable shapes like elbows and toes, or facial features. As works of art their closest categorical affinity may be to the Pattern and Decoration movement of the late 1970’s, in which color and repetition assert a quasi-animistic dynamic, inspired by feminist critique and positing a foil to the figural bombast of Neo-Expressionism. “Ancient Twisting Gladness” reads one of Dibble’s titles; exactly. “Twisting Gladness” describes the dance-like movements of this phase of his art, and “ancient” points to their most exceptional quality and real strength: these figurative patterns are like a cry for freedom, shouted de profundis, from the depths of the spell of history. Among artists associated (at times) with the P&D Movement, Nancy Spero in her margin-obsessed installations of classically-inspired cut-out figures also sees history as a palimpsest, a magic lantern of circling forms. The knotted, woven bands of opaque paint in Dibble’s almost fresco-like, frieze-frozen mummers echo the force of traditional decorative styles. Circles and loops, like torques and crowns, tattoo the pictorial surface, unsheathing the limbs of brawny ghosts.
Cabinet Eagle, 58 x 76
“Modesty” and paintings related to it, featuring one or two statuesque figures presented in a geometric, agora-like public space, reveal other concerns and influences. “Modesty” is as usual based on one of Dibble’s line drawings, with a whiff of Picasso or Cocteau mixed into a fluid design that could be a Druidic cloak buckle. It’s elegiac, and it’s (intentionally) funny. In the center of the canvas an inscrutable animal-being with a human face supports itself on one hand. It twists its head to gaze backwards at a complicated alter ego growing out of its rump; it could be wearing socks. There’s a streak of savage satire here, but Dibble’s invariable seriousness about the formal balance of figure and ground, persona and associative matrix persists throughout the series. The specific canonical figures that Dibble has drawn for decades he paints now in steady quarter inch lines. They’re like hieroglyphics or runic confabulations -- part pictogram, part symbol, serving as the artist’s secret names, an aboriginal alphabet of being. Ultimately Dibble’s quest is to touch the quick of painting as an activity, when it finds a way to reach back to the world before any names. Such elusive, ineluctable truthfulness can vibrate, when the paint is right, like an urgent membrane in the soul.
It’s been said that even the angels ache for a body, sometimes. If I did figurative work what would it look like? I asked myself this question often. I soon realized that figures were part of my work for many years, an ongoing series of pen and ink drawings.
Projecting them on larger canvases I was able to find many new compositions and entanglements. I’m often asked where the figures originate. There is an ache in my body, on the outside everything is calm the inside is much different.
The postures here are not meant to be literal. I’m trying to create an impression, as simply as possible that describes my two natures. One grasping and one allowing.
This is my situation, moment to moment, day to day and year to year. Where the figures in these paintings come from is a mystery. Dominating the scene, they emerge like rebellious children seeking attention from their elders
- Matt Dibble
Puzzled Bipeds | Matt Dibble
Matt Dibble’s Puzzled Biped series presents an enigmatic array of
converging forms that puzzle and delight. The figures are ambiguous hybrids of animals and humans, sometimes encased in architectural structures. He rearranges body parts, some articulated; other’s obscure, with continuous contour lines that convey volume and mass. The images seem to carry an abundance of historical and aesthetic references, including Ancient Greek vase painting, Ancient Roman architecture, Pop Art, and the figure drawings of Matisse, among others.
The backgrounds or fields, in which these figures exist, are comprised of old newspapers or sewing patterns. They are collaged, often entirely intact, on to the canvas. Others incorporate paint scrubbed into or washed onto textured surfaces. The perplexing figures both symbolize and depict. Their placement reveals an interactive process that capitalizes on, even as it relinquishes control of the design.
These large scale works unite symmetry and asymmetrically placed “bipeds” with recurring iconic symbols. Spears, weapons, armor, twisted gestures, giant heads with small muscular limbs and feet combine with the seemingly random placement of the newspaper ground, whose photographs and text are folded into the composition. The color choices further serve to integrate the figure ground relationships. Flat shapes float and settle between the figures, coordinating with the background in both color and design.
There is a matted down, metallic quality in several of the paintings, which gives them elegance amid an occasional comical irony. The color schemes are particular to each work. At the same time, there are recurring color and compositional themes. Some use primary colors reminiscent of Fernand Leger, others have pastel, muted color arrangements, always bounded by the contour line.
Architectural references such as columns, frames, arches, and circular roundel-like portals are inhabited by the figures. There are several double archway paintings in the group; figures in these paintings overlap the arched portals (another reference to Roman art and architecture, or move in and out of their space alternately).
The pushing and pulling in a contained space and the cropped figures at the edges of several of the paintings imply space and activity beyond the picture plane. While the figures are visually interacting, they seem to have little emotional or psychological connection to each other, except that they are flying, cavorting, or twisting in the same space. In some cases the background is embodied in the contours of the figures, yet they are always distinct as a function of the line. In this sense, the artist again breaches the space between drawing and painting in this highly imaginative and highly personal body of work.
Carol Heft is a New York City based artist and educator. She is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and her work has been exhibited internationally. She teaches Drawing, Painting, and Art History at several colleges in New York and Pennsylvania, and is represented by the Blue Mountain Gallery in New York City.