Artist “Plants” Weeds In UB Art Gallery

By Mara McGinnis

Release Date: September 23, 1999

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Sculpted dandelions and other familiar weeds have crept into the Lightwell Gallery in the Center for the Arts as part of Tony Matelli's "ABANDON" exhibit.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Artist Tony Matelli has taken a unique stance in the exploration of nature versus culture by recreating familiar weeds -- the rebellious sort that "sprout like elegant anger on the concrete sweep of urban America" -- in a sculpture exhibit that captures how these often unwanted plants imply a social quest for beauty and control.

Matelli's "ABANDON," now on display through March 10, is "planted" in the Lightwell Gallery adjacent to the main University at Buffalo Art Gallery in the Center for the Arts on the North (Amherst) Campus. It is his first site-specific installation. The exhibit is free and open to the public. Gallery hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.

According to curator Lisa Fischman, "Matelli uses weeds -- which are vital, rugged, persistently at odds with human endeavor, insistent yet burdened by the taint of failure, marking abandonment, dissolution and rejection -- as perfect object-metaphors."

She adds that the artist cares little for horticulture or nature, but rather is interested in how weeds signify cultural meaning.

To define a plant as a weed is an act of cultural bias, Fischman explains. It categorizes one life form as "useless and irritating, by comparison to others deemed beautiful, desirable and worthwhile."

A stream of forced air allows the hyper-realistic dandelions and other weeds to wave lightly in the gallery space as they sprout through the cracks of the hardwood gallery floor, creating what Matelli calls "an art exhibit that does not at all resemble art." The well-crafted plants are made to seem even more realistic with leaves that appear partially eaten by bugs or other creatures.

About "ABANDON," Matelli says: "We all try to keep up appearances. We all operate within certain conventions, but we can't control everything…Gas gets passed and pimples unexpectedly come. We can accept all of these things, so long as they are maintained.

"Weeds are the horticultural equivalent of a zit. They represent a breakdown, either a failure or refusal to fight the perfunctory battle against entropy. One weed is a forgivable blemish.

Overgrowth is hopeless abandon. Overgrowth inside is the cultivation of abandonment, a rewriting of rules. The celebration of failure."

Fischman, who calls Matelli's art "audacious, smart and mischievously witty," reveals his reputation in the art world for sculpture that pushes boundaries of subject, taste, meaning and material.

Matelli recently expanded the physical limits of sculpture to create audio installations such as "Distant Party," a sound piece supported by the Public Art Fund that runs through October at various sites in New York City.

Other works -- such as "Ideal Woman" (1998-99), a startling piece that materializes a four-foot-high, flat-headed, toothless woman with oversized ears, and "Stray Dog" (1998), a permanent sculpture of a seeing-eye dog lost on a Brooklyn street without its owner -- embody the more traditional sculpture form.

Regardless of medium, Matelli's work depicts consistent interests, such as making ideas real, exploring unexpected limitations and expressing conceptual preoccupations that take shape as a fascination with strange subjects rendered through hyper-real artificiality.

Matelli's work has been exhibited at galleries internationally and has been the subject of critical attention in such publications such as The New York Times, Village Voice, Art in America, Art Papers and New Art Examiner.