Perspectives: Francisco Matto
Blanton Museum of Art
Ends September 27, 2009
Post by Lauren Adams
If the name Francisco Matto (1911-1995) doesn’t seem familiar, you are probably not alone. Although he was one of Uruguay’s most accomplished artists, little is known about him outside of his home country. While many of his contemporaries left for Europe or America to make a name for themselves, Matto chose what could be considered artistic isolation; keeping himself and his work close to home. Why would the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin choose to showcase this relatively obscure artist? Perhaps it was the recognition the show received when first presented in 2007 at the 6th Mercosul Biennial in Brazil, the interesting combination of modern abstraction with ancient symbols, or the confusing, yet fascinating ideas of an off the wall artist.
The show, Francisco Matto: The Modern and the Mythic, highlights Matto’s early work made as a student of Joaquín Torres-Garcia through his later work in the 1990s. Included are paintings, sculptures (or totems), and works on paper, grouped not chronologically, but by theme. Simplistic in nature, the varied mediums all have one thing in common, Matto’s quest to find the bridge between the spiritual world and the human. In order to find this bridge, Matto began examining the symbols and artifacts left over from ancient civilizations (most notably the Pre-Columbian civilizations) and combining them with his modern training.
Matto’s totems are the first pieces to greet the visitors of the exhibition. If Matto’s desire was to find the connection between the spiritual and human world, the totem is a logical place to begin. Known as material links to the spiritual world for many ancient civilizations, these towering creations often deify animal or mythological creatures who inspire the cultures who create them. While often imposing, Matto’s totems are conversely cartoon-like, quirky figures, such as his Two Venuses, 1976. Made up of simple shapes, often rectangles and circles, these figures seem more likely to be bouncing around a child’s animated feature rather than directing one’s spiritual path. Considering how the animal world has become less and less intimidating for humanity it is not surprising that Matto would steer away from the traditional depictions. However, why he chose such fanciful creations leaves some questions unanswered.
The exhibition transitions from the totems to the oil works of Matto. Most notable are the port scenes, such as Barcos, 1960. These images are painted in glaringly bright primary colors, yet somehow avoid becoming garish. The composition is layered in such a way that it appears extremely two dimensional, again bordering on the side of cartoonish. The still life images, although less interesting visually, are also intriguing. Arranged in a way that suggests Matto was slowly deconstructing his work, these pieces become increasingly simple, to the point of blocky, solid colored shapes reminiscent of forms seen in so many Picassos. What is highlighted in these pieces is Matto’s desire to embrace the elemental forms of objects, because in his words “If we don’t attain the elemental shapes, we will never be able to solve the mystery.”
The final major grouping are the painted and carved pieces representing Matto’s fascination with symbols. These pieces are composed of many small boxes in a grid which house rudimentary images. The symbols in the boxes are meant to evoke the pictorial language of ancient civilizations that have long since lost meaning. Much like the once unreadable Egyptian Hieroglyphs, these pieces beg to tell a story. However, Matto did not leave behind the key. Mixed together are symbols that are known to have significance in the ancient world (the sun and fish), the modern world (a house or clock), and some that cannot be placed in either realm. The inability to decipher the images is frustrating, especially considering that Matto focused on examining simple and ancient forms in the hopes that he would understand the spiritual and physical world.
And so we are introduced to Francisco Matto, a man with questions who has left even more in his wake. I find Matto and his work both interesting, yet frustrating at the same time. As I walked through the exhibition I was overcome with a feeling of familiarity, as if I had seen his work before, while knowing I never had. It reminded me of other artists, of graffiti I have seen on the streets, and also of artifacts I have seen in history books. The informative blurbs on the walls explained what Matto was exploring, how he was trying to solve the “mystery of life,” and yet his work brought up even more questions. I was struggling to make sense of it all, struggling to find the meaning Matto had hidden in his work. In the end it was almost as if Matto became just as the ancient cultures that so fascinated him during his life; beautiful, fascinating, and inexplicable.