"The Inspection House," the October show at the Atlantic Works gallery in East Boston, brings together recent work in painting, video, and installation by two local artists, Martha McCollough and Matthew Keller. The theme is the Panopticon, Bentham’s model prison that persists in popular culture and high theory alike as a haunting metaphor for the omnipresent techno-security state. It’s a broad remit that the exhibition successfully focuses through the lenses of voyeurism and surveillance, looking and being looked at.
Matthew Keller’s installation, "the ecstasy (the ritual)" dominates his contribution: a board splashed with white housepaint and the repeated affirmation of a stenciled "yes," punctuated by holes dribbling a brownish-yellow liquid into ceramic basins, where it pools like old urine. The presence of bottles of motor oil and a funnel disambiguate the liquid only to amplify the uncertainties at another level, allowing the piece to raise questions about the links between public and private, pleasure and dependency, and biology and technology while retaining its clammy intimacy.
These strategic ambiguities carry over to the rest of Keller’s oil-on-wood offerings, including panels of single males nudes whose fugitive outlines suggest receding into shadows as much as moving into light. The hunched figure in "secrets of men" might be spitting saliva into his palm to quicken masturbation, but then again he might be spitting post-interrogation tooth shards and blood — the stenciled command "Become an Animal" doesn’t really settle the question. The rough, textured surfaces of Keller’s works, from the globbed oils of the male nudes to the flecked flooring-board of "the desire to throw rocks," underscore the idea that the permanent war on terror has irrevocably shifted the terrain on an earlier era’s preoccupations with affirmation and identity.
"Six Masked Portraits" marks the transition to Martha McCollough’s half of the show. One head in a Pussy Riot balaclava and one in a burka, one hooded as a ninja and another as an Abu Ghraib detainee — each portrait occupies its own acrylic-on-wood square, giving them the deceptive banality of social media profile pics. This humor is characteristic of McCollough’s other paintings, which unite a strong graphic arts sensibility and a hint of surrealism and can touch on "issues" without being reduced to them. On one wall the Invisible Hand crushes the All-Seeing Eye, while across the room the sawn logs of "Ghost Dryad" have given up their ghost, whose soulful dreaming recommends that we take the cosmically long view. It’s an impression underscored by the matte off-whites and shaded ultramarines of the artist’s palette, which make the works seem not so much created anew as unearthed and restored.
McCollough’s videos maintain a dialogue with her paintings, sharing an iconography from birds to black helicopters that feels personal without being private. From the gentle dismemberments of narrative and human form in "That’s My Story" to the return of nature’s repressed in "Supervillain," they are animated poems of image and text, sound-effect and voiceover, that examine how our own pleasure in looking might be implicated in our most paranoid anxieties about post-industrial civilization. The warm, layered voices in "I Spy" make its coldly orbiting satellites seem like a loving, watchful presence. Might that, in fact, be our wish?
The themes of the show are brought together in "The Inspection Room," an installation on which Keller and McCollough collaborated. Viewers stoop to squint through a discreetly-placed peephole only to witness a scene that provokes a shiver of self-estrangement followed by a laugh of uncomfortable recognition. The fact that to say more would amount to a "spoiler" is a testament to the exhibition’s capacity to make us think about how we fit into the nexus of media and power. It’s an effectively unsettling collection that imprints a kind of night-vision image of itself on the mind’s eye for days after seeing it.
"The Inspection House" is on view October 4-27, 2012, at the Atlantic Works Gallery.
Atlantic Works is open Fridays and Saturdays 2 to 6 pm or by appointment
Third Thursday Gathering: October 18, 6—9pm
All images are courtesy of the artist and Atlantic Works Gallery.