Wonder BoxJune 2, 2010
In “Wonder Box” at Baer Ridgway Exhibitions, Matthew Palladino presents a series of intricate large-scale acrylic works on paper that draw upon the visual language of illustration and graphic design. The pieces playfully reference pop culture; art history; the carnivalesque; and the wonder box, an early, portable peephole viewing device used with images of landscapes, animals, classical narratives, and pornography. Although they reference antiquated viewing technologies, Palladino’s images refrain from the predictably nostalgic. Rather, he explores ideas of viewing, the voyeur, and the diorama, using bold colors, a graphic sensibility, and pop-cultural references that make his work contemporary and fresh.
With a deft hand, the artist presents compositionally and spatially complex images that organize disparate imagery and plant seeds of illusion. Palladino’s compositions vary from straightforward grids, as in Costumes 1 & 2 (2010), to the more complex, as in Private Pleasures 1 & 2 (2010). In his Costumes series, Palladino establishes a grid, referencing offset print sheets of paper dolls or stickers, composed of neat rows and columns of clowns, skeletons, firemen, and recognizable icons such as Snow White, Uncle Sam, and the Easter bunny. The cast of characters, sometimes upside down and warped, coexist like odd leftovers culled together to complete a print job.
In his two Private Pleasure images, Palladino expands his grid to create a three-dimensional rendering resembling a curio box. Within each unit, a mini tableaux exists; within them, Palladino juxtaposes images of Titian’s Adam and Eve (c. 1550) and Peter Paul Ruben’s The Abduction of the Daughters of Leucippus (c. 1616) with simple folded chairs, arranged as for a peepshow or lap dance. While the artist’s imagery suggests the sexual licentiousness of strip clubs and the topsy-turvy world of the carnival, its rich visual language makes it about more than a mere adolescent testing of limits.
In Space Shuttle Columbia (2010), Palladino’s composition becomes even more complex, as he constructs a three-dimensional trapezoidal form vertically divided into three hierarchical sections. In the upper section, Palladino presents an image that references Michelangelo’s Creation of Man (c. 1511); the middle section is occupied by the Space Shuttle Columbia; while the lower section is further subdivided into six niches in which Guido Reni's Archangel Michael (1636) is contrasted with a provocative female devil figure. A ladder, a street sign, and a traffic cone are placed outside the form, while a man enters the structure in its lower left side. These elements suggest that multiple routes exist, and point toward a system created by repetition, as in a mandala.
Through his structured compositions, Palladino not only organizes his images but creates illusions and ambiguous relations within his images. He does this most directly in his Private Pleasures images. In Private Pleasures 1, Palladino plays off his rigid structure and creates an area in the top of the curio box‑like structure that looks as though it is compressed or melted, like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. In Private Pleasures 2, the center of the image spins in a cartoonish, carnivalesque way.
In Space Shuttle Columbia, Palladino’s structural composition and flat illustration technique create an intriguing ambiguity, particularly in the way the space shuttle exists within the rest of the image. In the lower region, above segmented rooms inside of which the Archangel Michael resides along with the female devil, Palladino has painted a crisp black line outlining the top of the center wall, which also extends upward toward the Columbia. As a result, the Columbia’s simplified form appears both as a flat diagrammatic image within the work and as a representation of a model space shuttle propped up by a stand.
In The Guillotine (2010), Palladino departs from his geometric compositional structure and creates an image that simultaneously exists in perspectival space and flatly on the surface. The vertically stacked apples create an architectural form from which a cut-out Snow White dangles. The perspectival renderings of the funhouse clown and the Snow White create an area of deep pictorial space in the upper left side of the image, which contrasts with the flatly rendered ladder, mice, and jack-pot fruit on the lower right side.
While stunningly executed and formally satisfying, Palladino’s The Rapture (2010) lacks the compositional and spatial complexity and layered imagery of the exhibition’s other works. The strong horizon line creates a rather straightforward interior space with a clearly delineated foreground and background. In the background, men and women raise their arms in exaltation to a central figure, appearing as a backdrop to a group of skeletons and a clothing rack. While the horizontal banding within Space Shuttle Columbia creates interesting hierarchical levels of meaning and a sense of a repeated narrative cycle, here it appears simplistic. Though The Rapture could be read as a composition of the various characters in the Costume series, the skeletons, with their clothing presented on a garment rack, their various accessories lined up, seems too literal.
Despite these reservations with The Rapture, overall Palladino’s work in “Wonder Box” is full of interesting pictorial tensions and layers of meaning that pull the viewer into repeated viewings and contemplations about his imagery and its significance. Moreover, Palladino’s carnivalesque and illusory imagery raises questions about how much the viewer should trust the artist's visual constructions. The range of characters, contexts, and optical devices that Palladino employs are fertile material, ripe for further development.