Mateo Tannatt

by Jonathan Griffin

The urban homeless are particularly afflicted by a lack of privacy; faced with performing their private lives in humiliating visibility, many compensate by retreating into the city’s cracks and shadows. When, in 2010, Mateo Tannatt was offered his second solo exhibition at Marc Foxx, he wanted to acknowledge the bustling mid-city environs, adjacent to Beverly Hills, in which the gallery is located. He was surprised to come upon a derelict restaurant, a few blocks from the gallery, which two homeless men had claimed as a temporary dwelling. ‘Rendezvous Vous’, the exhibition that emerged from Tannatt’s fascination with this overlooked space, was a meditation on public performance and invisibility, on social alienation and the role of the artist.

Tannatt tends to circle complex political or sociological themes and then deliver works that are open and unstable, never unlocking the problems at their centre. For ‘Rendezvous Vous’, Tannatt reprinted the building’s notice of abandonment but, erasing the central chunk of its text, drew keyholes over it. He also penned a libretto in which one of the homeless men sings about his life. The character was cast, in this dubious entertainment, as a debonair gentleman-vagrant: the photo-collage No. 1 Hit Song(2010) pictures him with a top hat, cane and suit jacket. The title of the sculpture, Casting Call: Vagrant No. 1 (Mattia) (2010), which places a half-dressed mannequin behind a freestanding metal frame, hints at Tannatt’s own forename – he might be projecting more than just theatrical stereotypes.

Throughout Tannatt’s work, we see personal spaces opened up and the realm of the public shown to be a subjective, inconstant mess. He refers to his painted steel structure Konzert (2010) as a ‘plaza sculpture’; it shows a room exploded into an abstraction, a space turned into an object and then into a symbol (particularly in its slight resemblance to a swastika). He is deeply interested in public sculpture by artists such as Clement Meadmore, Mark di Suvero and Alexander Liberman, whose abstract constructions are frequently degraded into logos by civic or commercial interests.

But these sculptures’ straightforward legibility appeals to Tannatt, as does the aesthetic efficiency of advertising. He draws a comparison between advertising and nature, pointing out that a fruit’s skin is the best possible advertisement for its own ripeness. In Untitled (Yellow for Helio) (2011) Tannatt hangs two bananas and a blond wig on a yellow-painted metal frame; the fruit blackens as the exhibition progresses. If only people, he seems to imply, could be so easily read. A related photo-collage, Last Name Bannana [sic] (2011), is a photograph of a woman gazing out of a window shrouded beneath a stream-of-consciousness text that laments, amongst other things, the difficulty of interpersonal communication.

If much of Tannatt’s work involves narratives and characters, it does so in order to engage rather than to confuse. Cinema and television are, he observes, our era’s dominant art forms, and living in Los Angeles allows him to exploit these industries’ wealth of formal and material possibilities. The Cellar (Orange and Green) (2010) is an enclosure made from props and offcuts of movie sets; Tannatt printed a text onto a glass panel that mashes up sections of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958) with lines from the script for John Landis’s fraternity comedyNational Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). He deploys the cinematic archetype of the frat boy as an ironic readymade symbol of creative freedom. Tannatt subscribes to Johan Huizinga’s idea, developed in the book Homo Ludens (1938), that play is crucial to the development of culture. For Piano Opus 1:1 (2011) he recreated a notorious MIT student stunt in which a piano is dropped from the top of a building; in Tannatt’s sound piece the event is recorded and slowed to a ghostly six-minute moan.

In Tannatt’s eyes, the ongoing privatization and regulation of public space is corrosive to creative liberty. But he is equally sceptical of the fetishization of its supposed antithesis – the artist’s studio. Studio Mahoganny /Studio Agony (2008) was a send-up of the entwined but paradoxical notions of the studio as a site of labour and of decadence. Two ponies, a llama, some goats, rabbits, turtles, geese, chickens and a rooster were hired by the artist and allowed to snuffle, squawk and scratch around his studio for a day. This was their job – to be free. The resulting film is slow going, but it offers a keyhole glimpse into animal sociality. In a follow-up work, currently in production, Tannatt plans to juxtapose footage of animals on a farm with human actors improvising in a studio.

Tannatt is assured enough to allow his own authorial presence to recede when need be. He has titled a curatorial project ‘Pauline’ (2007–ongoing); while its exhibitions sometimes take place in his own home, even with work hanging on or over Tannatt’s own installations and murals (such as the yellow spots that recur as a signature device in his paintings), he nevertheless insists that Pauline is not Mateo. He calls it ‘a performance in the form of an exhibition’. But Tannatt knows, and demonstrates in his art, that there’s nothing unreal about a performance.

First published: Frieze, issue 142, October 2011