In her debut exhibition, Second Nature, Mary Mattingly looks at the distant future of the human race. After the fall of post-industrial civilization, nomads wear their homes on their backs like snails, using patched-together machines to gather resources from the ravaged environment. Forced to be self-sufficient, this new breed of human is detached from its fellow wanderers, isolated in austere but beautiful landscapes, preoccupied with the need for survival. Mattingly tempers her bleak outlook with a caustic sense of humor, making signposts for industrial conglomerates one of the few remaining traces of 20th-century culture. Her technique for creating the images combines traditional photography with subtle computer enhancement to create backdrops for her unfolding narrative. She sews the costumes, designs the devices, and poses the characters in each scene. Second Nature is utterly compelling; Mattingly suggests an unnervingly believable endpoint for humanity's reckless consumption of land and natural resources.
Mary Mattingly's work has been exhibited internationally. She is the recipient of a Yale School of Art Fellowship, a Scope Artist Grant, and an Opal Filteau Photography Scholarship. She has been published in Photo District News, The Photo Review, Photograph Quarterly, and Archis.
In a statement posted on the wall in her recent exhibition at Robert Mann Gallery, Mary Mattingly voiced a few concerns driving her new body of work. "I think about technology," she writes, "the constant mediator between you and me... As technology expands exponentially, we will reach a point where we exist as wanderers in our own worlds, participants in simulated communities." She goes on: "I think about mobility — how it will become necessary for us to be able to move freely with no ties to a permanent home, due to environmental changes and the necessity to participate in a global economy."
But while Mattingly ruminates on technology and mobility, her lush, carefully crafted c-prints offer visions of a world that's less about expansion than decline: postapocalyptic landscapes vaguely reminiscent of barren Yves Tanguy visions, in which civilization seems to have been overwhelmed by vast oceans and overgrown, some of them populated by aimless, ominous figures. Technology in these works is diminished, ad hoc, and scrappy. In constructing her images, the artist builds sculptures out of ragged bits of fabric, wire, wood, and metal, then situates them so as to suggest jerry-rigged communication devices in a world that has devolved into a post-tech Dark Age comparable to the one detailed in David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas (2004).
Loss-Accountability of Top-Down Ontologies, 2005, depicts, with some digital help, an illuminated CVS sign nestled into a copse of pines on a deserted northern island — a Romantic tableau reminiscent of an Asher B. Durand painting, reconfigured here in color photography as luminous as an image from an oil company's annual report. Hirshworld 2, 2004, another island-scape, improbably hosts a Filene's department store, while Go Forth and Multiply, 2005, depicts a watery world in which trees sculpted out of paper-mâché (one such object was exhibited in the middle of the gallery) bear multiple fruits, like an Eden turned bioengineering disaster.
The figures are another story. Clad in costumes that conjure Commes des Garçons or Philippe Starck via an array of egregious pointy appendages, they look like characters who've just wandered out of an avant-garde opera. In Brownday, 2004, three of them stand, posed, waist-deep in misty waters. Possibilities for Multilateral Communication, 2004, captures a man wearing a futuristic version of a Breton-style bonnet courched on a barren beach. The alienated figure, sitting in front of a contraption that looks like a homemade radar dish, becomes in this context both advanced and anachronistic, harking back to Caspar David Freidrich's Lone Monk by the Sea, 1809, as he stares into the abyss.
But while the humans (or humanoids?) populating these images must resort to making communications devices out of junkyard refuse, Mattingly's tools are state of the art. Her props, costumes, and backdrops (some based on photographs taken on trips through the US and Scandinavia) are digitally manipulated and/or based on downloaded images. Many of the finished works function like film stills, their subjects frozen midaction, and the precise applications of her sculptures-cum-devices are usually implied rather than overt. In both respects, her aesthetic resembles Matthew Barney's and one can't help feeling that a similar move into film and video might allow her to sidestep the provision of the contextual helping hands offered by titles and wall texts, and delve still deeper into her post-everything cosmology.