It's time for art to go grim again. Over the past few years, the popularity of artists such as Winnipeg's Marcel Dzama and Portland's own Chris Johanson has triggered an epidemic of work that situates itself within a decidedly inartistic tradition of cutesy cartoons and faux-naïf illustrations. But what actually makes Dzama and Johanson's work captivating—and what so many imitators have woefully missed—is an adult perspective that complicates all the facile doodling. When all the grown-up dread and neurotic self-examination is removed from the equation, all you're left with is "art" as sickeningly sweet and insubstantial as cotton candy. The Austin-based artist Matthew Rodriguez, whose exhibition Bindle Stiff is on display this month at Motel, embraces this vapid twee aesthetic in one prolonged cuddle.
Rodriguez's work inhabits a world where everything—truly, everything—is rendered animate by a pair of eyes and a mouth. His paintings are full of grinning rainbows, frowning candy corn, French-kissing popsicles, and wide-eyed tofu. On one wall of the gallery, Rodriguez has mounted an assortment of discarded items—the bottom of a Styrofoam cup, a crumpled water bottle, tree bark—and resurrected them with alternately smiling and frowning faces. Even his wall titles spring to life. Scrawled in pencil directly on the gallery wall, the titles' D's and P's bear tiny smiley faces, while its capital S's morph into duckies. Yes, it's playful; maybe nauseatingly so. But the work is so staggeringly depthless that his rampant pranks don't actually serve any larger purpose. A smiley face is a smiley face is a smiley face.
If his illustrations work at all, it's in a series of photographs documenting large-scale paintings in public settings. In one, a frowning face sprawls across a condemned house; in another, a pair of candy corn holds hands on one wall of a dilapidated building. It's easy to imagine the sense of delight and discovery one would experience unexpectedly stumbling upon, say, animate candy corn among strewn rubble. As photographs, though, Rodriguez's trick of placing vibrantly colored, child-like drawings in sites of decay and filth makes for some unbearably heavy-handed juxtaposition. Like the rest of the work in Bindle Stiff, these images unequivocally signify rather than evoke. Maybe this is grim art after all.