Landon Metz, or, on organic painting
by Eva Brioschi

Originally published in Landon Metz, Mousse Publishing, 2015

“A man paints with his brains,
not with his hands.”

–Michelangelo Buonarroti

“Remember your humanity
and forget the rest.”

–Albert Einstein

We've loved painting in figurative, abstract, geometric, surreal, imaginative, analytical and violent, furious and meditative, corporal and mechanical forms. We’ve chewed it up, digested it and spewed it out. We've raised it up and then repudiated it. Now it gazes out at us again in swarms from the vast walls of white cubes, the glossy pages of art magazines, but also—alas—of “how to spend it” magazines. Painting is easy because it’s “easily visible”: a canvas with colors and shapes laid out on it will never get people riled up like an upside-down urinal, no matter how challenging its subject or radical its use of materials. In the West, and especially in America, “BTS” (behind the sofa) painting is often sold by the pound, preferably monochromatic, so it won’t clash with the console table behind the sofa, stacked with monographs on young emerging artists. For these reasons, art purists have a hard time welcoming the return of painting. They love the classic examples, but after Duchamp, after Pop Art, after conceptualism, how can you still believe in its aura? They hate its immediacy, its effrontery. Because there it is, naked for all to see, and can be judged and interpreted by everyone. And because it is the only thing capable of somehow arresting our awareness in a HERE and NOW that anchors our eyes—and with them, our thoughts—to the present moment.

And so we see all kinds of ruses being deployed to make it appetizing again, not just to the market, but to the so-called purists. Young people at the center or on the fringes of the scene take up the challenge of this art form, trying to instill in it the seed of something new that will take them to the heights of Olympus.

It was with these critical observations in my head and Europe in my blood that I encountered Landon Metz and his work. So close and yet so far away from all of this. Metz, born in Phoenix, Arizona, where I’ve never been but which I imagine as a vast desert landscape, sunny and sandy, sweltering hot, with a dry and sometimes windy climate. A borderland, close to the Indian reservations and to old Mexico. And yet the name Metz has a very European sound and history. Metz is a French town near the border with Germany. A town of Celtic origin, annexed to the kingdom of France by Henry II, which now houses a branch of Paris’s prestigious Centre Pompidou.

With such a background of echoes and with a move to New York, or rather Brooklyn, the trajectory of Landon Metz, a modern-day Dedalus, seems to culminate in this intersection between sun-drenched open spaces and the gray grids of city blocks; but there is also the ancestral memory of other landscapes, so different from those familiar horizons, in which to cultivate his idea of art as a celebration of life and of human relations.1 Like Dedalus, Metz has answered a call, joined a mission, felt a vocation. He too decided to become an artist, but unlike his Joycean alter ego, our hero does not need to erase his own face to cover it with a mask. Instead, he works by layers; he is an inclusivist. Rather than adopting the modernist mantra of less is more, he includes everything in a complexity and contradiction reminiscent of Venturi. Unlike the postmodern artist, however, he accepts this complexity, welcomes it into his path, but does not let it overwhelm him. He manages to contain it, structure it and govern it, sublimate it into a painting practice that includes things in order to move beyond them, like an organism that is sated but has no dross to eliminate.

Metz has been painting for a long time, despite his young age, and has already passed through various phases of experimentation and study. He started out with oil paintings in which he approached the canvas from an almost sculptural angle, squeezing the paint directly from the tube in thick clots juxtaposed with other lean, thin brushstrokes. Then he moved on to enamel, working with brushes, rags and his bare hands, experimenting with a more performative, energetic and gestural kind of painting. He then embarked on an exploration of materials that led him to fabric pigment diluted in water, an unfamiliar new medium that immediately confronted him with unexpected issues of control over his tools, but also helped him become aware of the importance of introducing an element of chance into his work. The canvas interacts with these pigments, blurring the different levels of perception of the painting surface. Negative space—the raw canvas, with its unique texture and color—and positive space—the pigment poured onto the cloth—background and foreground, solid and void, coexist within a whole that the artist himself calls inclusive. “I’m an inclusivist painter,”2 he says. And that necessarily means taking a deep interest in the entire painting surface and even the entire exhibition space, composing a rhythmic display that incorporates the surroundings.

Landon Metz tends his paintings just like the plants in his studio, which are green and luxuriant. He assembles each canvas himself, combining the fabric that arrives from India with the frames he gets from Canada. Onto the perfectly stretched canvas he then traces a drawing in pencil. A simple form, not figurative, but not geometric, almost organic. The canvas is then laid on the ground, which becomes the point of encounter between the artist, his mind, his hand, the floor, and the force of gravity, along with the temperature and humidity found in the studio. After the stage of preparation, the stage of actual painting has to be very rapid and precise.
The paint, made by diluting fabric pigments in water, is dripped onto the surface delimited by the drawing, then spread and guided by sponges used to check and channel its flow, at times with the aid of small weights that make it converge at the center of the image.

Metz often makes works composed of multiple canvases on which he tries to reproduce the same creative process. This is an attempt to make “mass-produced” paintings, but the chance involved in the combination of various elements and procedures prevents this goal from actually being achieved. Each painting is the outcome of an inimitable movement conceived in a unique moment of creation, influenced by conditions of light, atmosphere, temperature, humidity, and perhaps even gravity that can never be repeated. Each of these canvases is a distillation of instants frozen in the present time of the action, yet carries with it the whole history of painting and the specific history of Metz, of his most vivid touchstones: the use of color by the color field painters, the collaborative creativity of Marcel Duchamp (who saw the viewer’s perceptions as a key element in his artistic practice), John Cage and his embrace of Zen philosophy, which celebrates passivity and chance rather than a schematic urge to action. Cage’s silence is to Metz’s raw canvas and empty space as sound is to color in his paintings. Positive and negative are mingled on a single plane of perception that mirrors this open, all-inclusive vision of reality.

The first time I saw a painting by Landon Metz, lying on the floor next to the wall on which it was hung was a small orange. A boldly colored fruit that was verging on fully ripe. As viewers less accustomed to the quirks of contemporary art often find themselves doing, I wondered whether that piece of fruit had been dropped there, forgotten, or perhaps placed there on purpose; in that case, what was it supposed to convey? Only later did I realize I was looking at an attempt to bring the antiseptic setting of an art fair booth to life. Landon needed to add a living element to his display, like the plants in his studio, which breathe and soak up light amid his works, while his works respond to their bio-chemical input. Because everything is illuminated by the artist’s gaze as it takes in the world, every detail plays an active role in an inclusive vision, where even stillness and mute resistance become a part of the creative act.

“Stop thinking, start being,” “Now is all that exists” are sayings of Metz’s that have stuck in my mind as an admonition. 3

It’s true, that sums it up. We are no longer just nature, but we will never be just culture. The universe of images that constitutes the collective unconscious, as Carl Gustav Jung called it, now seems to permeate the subconscious horizon of our retinas. A sort of background against which every new image must be set, lacking as we do blank pages on which to trace completely new and original marks. Metz’s art could be grouped with conceptualism insofar that its abstraction is not just random tachisme, but rather a demand for attention and interpretation that implicates the gaze of each viewer, but also the shared memory of visions, sensations and obviously perception. An art that requires commentary, like all conceptual work, but without the self-referentiality that led minimalism to stifle all lyrical aspirations.

Here there is poetry and there is an idea.

In the series composed of many canvases that try to replicate the same drawing as if it were a pattern that could be endlessly multiplied, the impossibility of achieving the same faithfulness in repetition as a mechanically reproduced image becomes a limitation that highlights the performative qualities of the artist’s work. The exercise in imitation becomes an attempt to preserve an equilibrium in the subtle game of balancing the unique and the serial. As if repetition became a way of transcending that uniqueness and arriving at unity (e pluribus unum), like a mantra, a vehicle of thought, through which the mind practices pure knowledge.

Metz often composes forms that resemble single-celled living organisms, which seem to quiver and move despite being still. In the large-scale works, these constellations of nebulae become hypnotic, because the paint—despite being so bonded to the surface and interwoven with the texture of the canvas—is given a truly enchanting depth by its watery quality. Staring at these shapes, these silhouettes, these configurations, I’ve often had the impression I was looking at living, throbbing structures. I’ve felt like the witness to something present and concrete that demanded my attention, offering in exchange a sense of quiet gratification, but which at the same time urged me forward on my path of exploring the world, to more carefully observe its nooks and crannies, the microcosms it contains, the infra-ordinary realm that Georges Perec so aptly described.

“Stop thinking, start being . . . Now is all that exists,” Landon Metz.

October, 2015

1 Essential questions: Landon Metz, interview by Eva Brioschi, YouTube video, posted by adncollection, 09/19/2014

2 The Inclusivist: A Conversation with Landon Metz & Christopher Schreck, Ed. Varie, New York City, May 2012

3 Christopher Schreck, TRUE TRANSLATION: On The Paintings and Practice of Landon Metz, Off-White, New York, November 2013