Justin Matherly: Compost
On ViewPaula Cooper Gallery
January 7 – February 20, 2021
Justin Matherly has positioned two monumental busts of the divine physician Asklepios on either side of the gallery entrance: Eat yourself fitter (2020) and Eat yourself fitter (2019). Six cast modified gypsum statues of Telesphoros, the dwarf-like nocturnal companion of Asklepios, may be found in the corners of each room: T1-T6 (2020). This is no superficial quotation of mythology; we immediately sense the artist is working from a place of psychological and philosophical inquiry. The degree of dimensionality found in this work is impressive. That Matherly should give Asklepios such prominence in the middle of a pandemic is cause for reflection on the deepest origins of Greek medicine and the role of the god in the modern world.
Asklepios was summoned during another pandemic, when the plague broke out in Rome in 295 and 293 BC. A sacred serpent from the god’s sanctuary at Epidaurus in Greece was brought to Rome. The serpent escaped the ship and swam onto Tiber Island, prompting an Asklepion sculpted in the form of a ship to be established there. Matherly has given us an updated version of the serpents in the form of tubes extending from the mouth of the deity and circling back into the figure, looped like the ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail. The tubes bring that which emanates from the god back around at a time when what the god represents needs to “come back around.” Matherly’s Asklepios is rough-hewn and down and dirty, not like the pristine image of the god in the Pergamon museum. The six cast statues of the small hooded Telesphoros in the corners are covered in spray paint like urban tags, making them feel Vandalized. Telesphoros had a dual nature: he was called both “the Finisher” (for death too is a finisher), and he was also known as Akesis, which means healer. I long to see him as Akesis the healer in his polished marble versions. But Asklepios and his sidekick have entered a distressed urban landscape, and this is not the sanctified abaton/temenos of antiquity.
Asklepios heals through a process called incubation, a “sleeping within.” The god, his dog, serpent, or his daughters visited those who were sick in body and mind through dreams. It is this healing ability of the dream world, aided by gods who reside in the basement of the psyche, that we so crave in this time of a global pandemic and spiritual collapse. We don’t always acknowledge transformational powers residing below the threshold of consciousness as a possibility. It is nice to see Asklepios and Telesphoros pulled from obscurity, agents of the healing found in sleep.
Asklepios is often shown with Hygeia, who is his daughter and, in some versions of the myth, his wife. The healing cult may have originated with goddesses. In Matherly’s exhibition, works inspired by the Gallo-Roman deity Sequana, the goddess of the Seine, take us to her healing sanctuary at the river’s source near Dijon, France, and the artist nods to such feminine healing powers. To repay the goddess for a healing, votive offerings, amulets, and figurines were left, some referencing anatomical parts. Embrace (face hugger) (2020) shows a spinal column with a nod to Brâncuşi. A larger double tub—I’m sorry to be such a bore but I am feeling rather sorry for myself (2020)—spilling forth with intestines is less appealing, and the cuteness of the title does not help convince the viewer. Perhaps the best piece in this collection of votive objects is a strange portrait torso, False self, portrait (2020), which resembles Cycladic figurines.
The artist has brought the myths forward with roughly carved and spray-painted surfaces, a departure from how we see them today in antiquities museums. Here, they inhabit an urban landscape where they have been debased and neglected since the fall of Rome. Sleepers camped out at Epidaurus today are still visited in their dreams by Asklepios and his companions, and we wonder how this practice can be transported to New York. Honoring the god will require a devotional attitude and a respect for the contents of the unconscious as a spiritual realm. This represents a departure from much of our current cynicism, dead secularism, positivism, and rejection of what Goethe referred to as the Einfall. It is these “bright ideas” or Einfall, that are sent by the gods to inhabit our dreams and heal us. The mystery and roughness of Matherly’s sculpture remain a puzzle, and we are left to contemplate why he has summoned this god. We can only hope that Matherly comes to praise the god and not to mock him.