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At art school in the 1990s, while fellow students were making videos and installations, Matthew Monahan was battling with questions such as “How do you put a shadow under a cheekbone?” Yet there is nothing old-fashioned about the range, wit, and ability to fuse past and present of this highly individual young Los Angeles artist.
With a formal rigour underpinned by superb skills as a draughtsman, Monahan collapses the boundaries between drawing and sculpture. Distorting traditional figuration to near- abstraction, he glamorises references to European art, from constructivism to Gothic, with a surface glitter – silver foil, nail polish, lacquer – that makes his work arresting and contemporary. His subject is the human figure. Fraught torsos in wax or florist’s foam are topped with charcoal-drawn faces on crumpled paper; heads are stuck on pikes; bodies are pierced by nails, sliced by glass. They are slapdash and robotic, ironic and expressive: Fritz Lang meets Naum Gabo meets Matthias Grunewald meets Joseph Beuys.
Born in California in 1972, Monahan is representative of a new excitement in 21st-century American art. This multi-media generation is sophisticated, playful, globally aware, energetic even as it is marked by an apocalyptic, post-9/11 tone. Monahan’s broken bodies suggest the wreckage of ruined kingdoms but also movement, dynamism – an art of construction, collage, pasting together diverse elements and cultures. What distinguishes Monahan is exceptional talent, imagination, an easy, enthusiastic appropriation of European history – he studied in Amsterdam as well as New York – and fearlessness. Most young American work is crippled by its own irony. Monahan is as sardonic as they come, but he incorporates conceptual games as today’s natural language, and goes beyond them.
New York’s Anton Kern Gallery and Galerie Fons Welters in Amsterdam were the first to show Monahan, in 2005-6, and he stood out as a powerful presence among much Identikit dross in the Royal Academy’s USA Today last autumn. But 2007 should be his breakthrough: an exhibition at Dublin’s Douglas Hyde Gallery (February) is followed by his first solo museum show, at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (July).