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Issue 139

Mattea Perrotta and Jonathan Ryan
by Natasha Young

To begin with, a coincidence. I went to a show at Café OTO in London because Mattea Perrotta recommended I go there when we met over coffee in LA. (Perrotta is an LA-based artist in that she was raised there and her studio is in LA; but she is, in essence, a woman of the world, with deep family ties in Italy and France, travelling frequently and gracefully everywhere from Central and South America to North Africa.) At Café OTO, I met a friend well-versed in etymology and showed her Perrotta’s work on my phone. She at once explained to me the origins of the word “grotesque”: from the ancient Roman artwork found in a grotta (cave), often sublimations of the female form in arabesque environs. Perrotta’s sensual, fleshy obelisks, rendered in thick layers of oil paint, take this ancient and sultry convention into modern abstraction. Indeed, she paints grotesques immersed in the Rothko universe; profoundly saturated blocks of colour ensconce the levitating bodies with gravitas.

  •  Mattea Perrotta, <em>Words in Reverse</em>, 2018, oil on canvas, 48” x 48

Paradoxically composed of organic curves that invite embrace and geometric shapes that confound recognition, her surreal figures – somehow intuitively identifiable as female bodies – are satisfyingly tactile and resplendently subvert convention. At her works’ most naked, tender and vulnerable, these bodies are a Rorschach test: initially, I perceived Secondary Witness (all works 2018) as spread legs; later, looking closer, I see that the rolling flesh-hills are breasts, nipples subtly etched into the paint, protruding from a nubile cylindrical creature whose secret eyeball has been gazing back at me all along. You may not hazard a guess about where the head is and where the body is until you see one of her large canvases up close and in person. In Comfortable Silence, an eyeball and mouth protrude from the thick layers of monochromatic fleshlike paint. These textural, gestural notions of facial features invite you into intimacy with the deceptively simple, amorphous figures. Suddenly, these angular protrusions become the appendages of a woman at rest, rich blue-black perhaps her bed, the black square in the corner a window looking out into the night. I imagine these as proud, joyful women in their power, full-bodied and free, unconstrained by our subliminal superimposition of how a woman’s body should look. These are voluptuous souls, aura made flesh.

Where, in Perrotta’s works, the body is distilled into primary shapes, her contemporary and fellow LA-based artist Jonathan Ryan imbues primary shapes with rich colour and tactile textures. Also inspired by travel abroad and melding minds with artists before his time, Ryan renders the deep historical landscapes of Oaxaca, Mexico in rich, tactile abstractions informed by Mexican arte popular and the likes of Josef Albers: To Monte Alban (2017) is a reverential nod to Albers’ To Monte Alban (1942) (the latter work I have recently seen, in another fortuitous coincidence, at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin). The works are fraternal, not identical, twins: each evokes the surreal structures and ancient temples found at Oaxaca’s historic centre, but Ryan’s rendition is softened around the edges, his oil paints enriched with sand for the structures alone, to imbue them with hyperreal tactility.

Elsewhere, Ryan recreates the region’s already- surreal landscape in striking surrealism. Like the negatives from a photographic memory, the ziggurats in Purple Mountain, Lavender Steps and Neon Mountain (all 2018) juxtapose supernatural colour with earth tones enriched with literal earth. Lavender Steps, in particular, impresses a dreamscape facsimile of preternatural labyrinthine constructions in an anodized hue. In Split (2018) and Cone Field (2017), geometric objects are implausibly arranged in desert scenes, reminiscent of some of O’Keeffe’s later works. At play in most all of Ryan’s works are deceptively simple linework and colour contrasts that function as trompe-l’oeil.

What struck me immediately about these paintings was their unexpected emotional charge. To experience them up-close is – as with Perrotta’s paintings – to be as captivated, inexplicably, as you would be flying over any grandiose organic landscape. Every one of Ryan’s works gives you the God’s-eye view and immerses you in sheer mortal awe, at once. The earthy consistency of the earth-tone oil paint and unpretentious yet tasteful use of gaudy colour vacuum all your attention into a strangely intimate atmosphere.

Each artist manifests their womblike imaginative worlds that, together or on their own, make even the cavernous whitewashed environment of the gallery feel warm and inviting. Fittingly, a rug recreation of one of Perrotta’s paintings lay on the floor of the gallery, as if a reflecting-pool mirror image of the paint- ing on the wall behind it. At the show’s vernissage, a friend of the artist brought a dog, who promptly lay down on the rug and rolled around; friends joined, reclining on the rug with a glass of wine, as the artist encouraged guests not to treat the beautiful piece, handwoven in Morocco, as “too precious.” I wanted, too, to lay down in one of Ryan’s paintings, swathed in humid air amongst the ziggurats, which appear to be soft and warm like beach sand.

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