Figures of speech

Artist Tony Matelli is known for provocative works that stand the nude on its head — literally, arms at its side instead of on the ground in support as in the traditional headstand.

Matelli has also created hunched men and women, clad only in underpants, reaching in the elements — falling leaves or snow — and seemingly aged statuary, crusted by time. (More on that in a bit.)

But Matelli doesn’t see himself as a figurative artist bucking the current trend toward abstraction. 

“To me it’s about commenting on an idea or a certain thing I want to talk about,” he says, “and the figure represents that.”

What he wants to talk about is the contrast between permanence and impermanence, art and life, youth and decay, death and eternity – all of which are the backdrop for the latest must-see piece in his “Garden Sculpture” series. “Tony Matelli:  Figure” (May 6 through Oct. 22) will spotlight a Greek goddess – headless, one arm broken off – on the front lawn of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield as part of its “Main Street Sculpture” series of site-specific work.

Like other works in Matelli’s “Garden Sculpture” series, it will be “sourced from garden statuary, weathered, sandblasted, sprinkled with dirt and other patinas so it looks like it’s exposed to all kinds of elements.”

In contrast to this “entropy,” Matelli creates embellishments of cast-iron, bronze food — melons, avocados, blackberries, asparagus, cocktail shrimps, crab claws and sausages that look good enough to eat. These perch on statuary of Jesus, the Buddha or the Apollo Belvedere like colorful birds or fallen blossoms. 

The contrast between permanent decay and the impermanent frozen in its freshness could not be starker — or, Matelli says, more poetic.

The Chicago-born artist, who lives in New York City, never trained as a figurative sculptor. Nor did he come from an artistic family.

“I didn’t know what a sculptor was growing up,” he says. But he liked to play with models, tanks and dolls. “I knew it was a way of creating a unique reality, a narrative.”

He became more immersed in art in high school, going on to the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design for his bachelor of fine arts degree in 1993 and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Minnesota, for his master of fine arts two years later. Recent solo exhibits include The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; the Künsterlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin; the Palais de Tokyo, Paris; and The Davis Museum at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Public collections include The FLAG Art Foundation in Manhattan, the National Centre of Contemporary Art in Moscow and the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Aarhus, Denmark.

There viewers have encountered an artist’s vision that “goes back to the fear of death, but sexuality also plays into it. We derive our sense of worth from how desirable we are. Once we’re past a certain age, we’re no longer necessary for existence.”

Matelli — who has created some graphic, Darwinian sculptures of simians — notes that once chimpanzees age, they’re sidelined to another aspect of the tribe.

But he doesn’t want to get too heavy in discussing his work.

“That takes the fun out of looking.”

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