For over a decade now, Brooklyn-based artist Justin Matherly has been exploring the art of Roman and Greek antiquity and its reinterpretation in his work. One monumental example is his New Beaches, 2012, which was presented for the first time as part of the Public Art Fund’s exhibition The Common Ground in New York's City Hall Park. New Beaches depicts a detail of the Laocoön Group, an antique sculpture that was unearthed and proved exemplary for Renaissance art after its rediscovery. While the ancient marble sculpture, a copy of which is now in the Vatican Museums in Rome, shows the priest Laocoön and his two sons in their death throes with two snakes in rich detail and in full view, Matherly's sculpture presents only the head and partial arm of Laocoön, monumentally enlarged, transferred roughly into cast concrete and supported by a pedestal of 31 walker frames.
Installation view Common Ground, Public Art Fund, City Hall Park, New York, 2012
© Photo Jason Wyche
At first glance, the original and New Beaches appear to have no clear connection. The rough concrete and rudimentarily applied spray paint in Matherly's depiction of Laocoön create a great contrast to and distance from the smooth, flawless surfaces one associates with ancient marble sculptures. Yet it is precisely the raw concrete in Matherly's work – the dominant material in the artist's oeuvre – that bridges the gap to the original and revives an ancient discourse. At least since its first recorded appearance, artists and scholars have asked of the sculpture, “Why is it that Laocoön does not scream?” Some theorists, such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the father of the disciplines of both art history and archaeology, saw in Laocoön's stoic facial expression a “noble simplicity and (...) silent grandeur” and thus a paragon of how art once expressed the Classical order. For Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and others, on the other hand, the absence of Laocoön’s painful expression was essentially an aesthetic device, holding fast to the idea that art should not represent the ugly, that the inclusion of a screaming face would have evoked more disgust than compassion.
Matherly’s Laocoön does not “scream” either; his face is only partially visible. This fact is less the result of some calculated response to a discourse on the beautiful than of Matherly’s intentional concentration on the abstraction that unfolds naturally through the concrete casting process itself. Nevertheless, and in spite of this, Matherly still takes up the question of the “why” again, ironically breaking earlier patterns of thought and in the process taking a dusty, art historical discourse ad absurdum. The “why” becomes a "how so.”
Installation views Common Ground, Public Art Fund, City Hall Park, New York, 2012
© Photos Jason Wyche
With New Beaches, Matherly creates an obscured but timeless Laocoön that engages in a contemporary examination of the question “What is an ideal?”, deliberately leaving the question unanswered. For ideals do exist, but they are not everything.