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Bart Beaty On The Michael Matthys Exhibition At The Musee Des Beaux-Arts
posted June 11, 2009
 

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By Bart Beaty

Over the course of the past 15 years I would guess that I have seen literally hundreds of comics exhibitions ranging from the truly awful to the nearly sublime. Tin Town, the exhibition of Michael Matthys' work at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Charleroi, was the first exhibition of comics pages that literally took my breath away. I have never, ever seen a more powerful show of comics.

Matthys, who is almost completely unknown in America, is not really well-known in Europe either. An art teacher, he has published comics primarily with Fremok. His first book, Moloch, was based on video that he shot in the Cockerill Sambre factory and is not so much a narrative as it is an immersive experience. This year he has published two new books: Je suis un ange aussi ("I am also an angel") and Ville Rouge. Work from all three of these books was on display in Charleroi, as well as his contribution to Comix 2000 and a series of large portraits.

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The entirety of the Matthys exhibition unfolded in a single room on the top floor of the Museum. The wall nearest the entry was completely covered by a giant wall painting comprised of text written in a ruddy brown, and at a slightly canted angle. The text itself was fragmentary and incomplete. On the opposite wall three video projectors showed footage taken for Moloch. The middle of the floor was occupied by a U-shaped structure, with original pages hung on the outside and inside.

The original art for Moloch occupied the interior of the structure. Matthys works frequently with engravings as the basis of his comics, and 1000 images from Moloch were presented (often as multiples) in an elaborate three-walled collage facing the videos. As these images are overwhelmingly dark, the presentation contributed to a striking sense of claustrophobia that greatly heightened the themes of the work.

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Along the exterior walls of this structure, and the longer walls of the room itself, were presented images from Ville Rouge. Since seeing this book at Angouleme this year, I had wondered how Matthys had achieved the deep reds and browns in his images, as I assumed that he was still relying on his engraving practices. My questions were quickly answered: Matthys' originals, each individual panel of which are extremely large (several square feet), are produced with cow's blood and then sealed with resin. It is probably fair to say that he is the only cartoonist in the world currently working with the medium of blood. Moreover, the visual effect was quite startling and deeply moving -- you could literally see the artist's brush strokes coagulating on his large pages.

Even more striking were a recent series of self-portraits produced with the artist's own blood. Indeed, visitors to the exhibit are literally greeted by two large images (approximately 2.5 feet by 4 feet) that mirror each other. One is produced with thick graphite lines, and the other with the artist's own blood. These powerful images, of a family, are darkly expressionistic and set the stage for an overwhelming exhibition.

Matthys' work has very little (some would argue no) narrative content. He creates mood pieces about the spaces where he lives: a gray, industrial area of Belgium. As I rolled to Charleroi on the train (through the interminable rain) I had found myself contemplating these small towns that dot the landscape, wondering what kind of people lived there. At the Musee des Beaux-Arts I encountered an artist from this place who asks himself the same questions. His answer was a revelation.

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