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Matthew Russo: Practiced Play

By Marcus Civin

Do we need to practice playing? Are we still too often stressed with work? Even in our free time, it seems we chase outcomes, simulate, or code for play instead of just playing.

A brief instructional wall text at Hamiltonian Artists in Washington, DC, welcomes viewers to Practiced Play, the first interactive exhibition created by Matthew Russo, who graduated with an MFA from American University in 2020. The exhibition opened May 6 and runs through June 10. It is essentially a large sculpture comprised of many smaller sculptures that visitors can activate. Russo told me he has, for a long time, been a collector of found objects. He remembers his grandmother letting him scavenge for objects by the bagful at the beach when he was a kid.

Years later, the wall text for his exhibition extends this lifelong propensity for engaging with found objects, by offering an “invitation to toy and tinker” with a medley of objects he devised, adding further: “Pick things up as you see fit. Consider form, color, and feel—light or heavy, stiff or squishy? What do these textures remind you of? How might these shapes interlock and work together? With each object that populates this playscape, there are possibilities to be explored.”

Installation view of Matthew Russo: Practiced Play, Hamiltonian Artists, May 6–June 10, 2023. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

The active “playscape” the artist refers to involves a long wooden table in five step-stair sections. The first section stands ten inches tall; the last, the highest, reaches thirty-six inches. The table sections all have inset green plush fabric tops. On wall-mounted plywood shelves around the gallery are pastel-colored plastic, foam, resin, and cement sculptures generated from about twenty-five different forms—fragments that resemble bars of artisan soap; tree branches; broken-off lids or knobs; snakes; slingshots; baby doll arms; puffer fish; three-toed bird feet; mounds; and cones. Most are about the size of hand tools. No two are the same, and none are perfect. One form, slightly larger than most, is a thick, tripod-like object you could try to use as a plant stand. It shows up alternately in seafoam green, peach, gray, and salmon. Its iterations preserve a record of the imperfections in the molding and three-dimensional printing processes. In addition, they will carry information about how people encountered them and handled them in the gallery. “The objects I create accumulate damage or wear-and-tear,” Russo says. “It’s part of the work.”

Installation view of Matthew Russo: Practiced Play, Hamiltonian Artists, May 6–June 10, 2023. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

This work keeps more with the spirit of a study space for abstract painters, than a showroom floor. Until you pick up the items, you can’t tell how heavy they are or how much they can flex, balance, withstand, or support. The heaviest ones are cement, and the lightest are like those squeezable foam balls that seem to multiply in offices, those ones for clutching and crushing, supposedly to help relieve stress. Russo shared sketchbook pages and digital drawings with me, where he rendered recognizable forms and then made successive versions showing the initial form morphed in shape or function. He drew a hook, then another. Yet another became the nose for a figure-eight blob. Bottles, gloves, and socks underwent similar transformations. A classic hand stamp looks mostly like itself in some sketches. In others, it resembles a perfume bottle. It also seems to have inspired a drawing of a tiny barn with a gumdrop-shaped chimney.

Overall, more than two hundred objects populate the gallery. Russo didn’t keep count. I spoke with him while he was setting up. He shared that, in making this installation, he thought of sensory tables for children, and pedestals he built for exhibitions in the American University Museum. But unlike in most museums and galleries, at Hamiltonian visitors can pick up anything off a shelf or a table and test it. Before the show, Russo explained, “I’m working out seating so people can have time and space to work out ideas. This process is similar to, and an extension of, my studio practice and processes. You can grab one object that’s soft and see how it might interact with another object made out of cement… I think about finding an object out in the world, and it’s like, ‘Wow, why is this here?’ And so, you can investigate that. I imagine some people will start to build things together. I’m sure that when you see somebody use an object a certain way, it will be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to add this.’ Somebody might grab a similar object and start to do a similar thing, or there might be conflict.”

Installation view of Matthew Russo: Practiced Play, Hamiltonian Artists, May 6–June 10, 2023. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

Practiced Play leans towards relational aesthetics generally, where artists are often facilitators rather than exclusively makers. The term, coined by the curator Nicolas Bourriaud in the late nineties, refers to art that becomes a social experience for audiences. For Russo and Bourriaud, art is not an autonomous experience practiced primarily by a single individual largely in seclusion. Russo’s work also recalls instruction-based artworks, like Painting to Hammer a Nail (1961) by Yoko Ono, consisting of a wood panel with a hammer hanging from a chain and nails ready nearby, or Erwin Wurm’s Estimating the Mass of Wood (1999), which instructs performers to lie down and balance for one minute along the top of a wooden beam to achieve precarious, approximate, comparative visual and sensory measurements.

At Hamiltonian, you might pile up, lean together, or lay out sculptures by color or type; look for something resembling a small head or body to go with the arms and feet you find; wrap a gummy snake around a light green branch; see how long a balance will hold; or stick a point as far as it will go into a circular opening or purple arch. You will find that these items don’t click right into place like puzzle pieces, and there are few flat surfaces, so you can’t easily make high stacks. If this is a game, it might not be a contest. The cumulative visual effect of touching and tinkering here might amount instead to something like Picasso’s cubist painting Nude Standing by the Sea (1929) that distorts and rearranges a beach body. In Picasso’s painting, one hand might be restraining its opposite arm at the wrist. What might be turrets or carnival tent-tops poke up from a tormented torso on blocky legs that seem to inch forward gingerly.

Similarly, Russo’s pieces become characters traveling through the landscape, the shapes that make them up like the kind that fill drawing class still life closets. “I was going after a landscape feel,” Russo admits. “And, the way I was taught anatomy in undergrad, I thought of people as boxes. If you can find the lines between their hips or shoulder blades, you can sort of construct a person.”

Installation view of Matthew Russo: Practiced Play, Hamiltonian Artists, May 6–June 10, 2023. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

Russo and I talked object-oriented ontology, the relationships between objects and human perception. He referred to his sculptures as “opportunities to explore how a thing could become a thing.”

“There are all these decisions that are my decisions,” he said. “There are also [situations] like if the 3D printer doesn’t work, or if it skips a layer, or if it’s too hot in the room one day and that changes the print. Whenever I’m not in the room, there could be some kind of material change that alters this object’s history in a way that I haven’t planned for, and I almost feel as though that might be the firmament or the environment putting on its….”

Russo trailed off and held up a new sculpture. “With this print originally, it skipped a bunch of layers,” he explained, “so I had to account for that problem… Part of me knows that’s an oversight I made, but sometimes I think it’s those moments where these objects have forced their will in a weird way.”

I told Russo I was thinking about how we tend to identify too strongly with things. My car. My sofa. My table. My shirt. My watch. My dresser. My crystal. For the sake of discussion, I asked that we take an example of something basic, like a paper bag. No matter how simple it is, we still impose ourselves on it.

“I’m interested in the clues of that history or that trajectory,” Russo remarked. “The fact that it’s crumpled or it’s coated, these are things that point to its use and all the steps that it took to get to you.”

I ask what would happen to the bag if all humans left the Earth. Would it blow away? Would it burn up?

Russo responded, “Humans are affected by wind. It’s not a far leap to say, ‘If I can be affected by those kinds of things, then those things can also affect a paper bag without humans.’ Maybe humans just corral objects. That’s all we’re trying to do: corral them into a certain way of being. But if we were gone, they could kind of explore their own life.”

“Or they would just sit there,” I said.

Russo: “That’s a life too.”

Me: “Well, no one would make them into a hand puppet.”

Russo: “Yeah. Let’s say, with this paper bag, you tried to make it into a hand puppet. It might not comply with that instruction. What if you go to put your hand in it and it tears? That could be it choosing not to be that.”

Installation view of Matthew Russo: Practiced Play, Hamiltonian Artists, May 6–June 10, 2023. Photo: Vivian Marie Doering

In the influential 2018 book Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything, Graham Harman picks up a 1914 essay by José Ortega y Gasset where the Spanish philosopher contends that art seems to give us makers and viewers the ability to open and access the inward identity of things, as Russo suggests. Building from Ortega y Gasset, Harman hazards that a mask was the first artwork (before cave paintings) and underscores how, from the beginning, the individuals behind masks have always suffused them or invested them substantially with their identities. Further, Harman writes about his experience of art as one where he is “fully invested” and “inwardly invested.”

As Harman invests, we might all invest fully and inwardly in Russo’s sculptures. The end game, if there is one in this case, doesn’t seem to be an affirmation of the ego of the mask-maker or wearer—a descent into pure subjectivity—but a spreading out of artistic activity beyond the artist and the studio to create a collective act of taking great interest. At Hamiltonian, following Russo’s instructions, we consider objects more carefully than we usually might. We observe how they seem to wear and weather. We notice how they are similar and different as their color and material changes. When we play—or remember how to play—we work these objects like masks or puppets. They bear and bear out our comedies, faults, and confusions. Almost just as we do, objects adjust, change, and gain unique characteristics whether we like it or not. We do need to practice play. We are too often disconnected. Not from things—we have a lot we insist on customizing and making ours, but perhaps without fully accessing them. We tend to miss the complex, cavernous, and intersubjective “thingness” of things.

Marcus Civin is a writer and Assistant Dean in the School of Art at Pratt Institute. He has written for Artforum, Art in America, Art Papers, Afterimage, BmoreArt, Boston Art Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Camera Austria, Damn Magazine, Full Bleed, Maake Magazine, Prospect Art, and other publications.

Past Exhibition

Practiced Play

May 6–June 10, 2023

Practiced Play serves as an extension of Russo’s collaboration-informed, inquiry-driven studio practice. The construction of the space calls for the viewer to become a hands-on…