Coming Soon (1995)

Well, who among us hasn't imagined modernism as a form of melodrama, a parade of monsters, a B-movie showing of minds, egos, talents grown out of control? After all, we were taught it was such, in countless Life magazine spreads, memoirs and biographies, cast with the heroic brutes of art - Picasso! Pollock! Rothko! - omnivorously laying waste, with fixed stares, to everything in their path.
If the imagination of science in the 50's tended towards tacky visions of sudden annihilation, the imagination of art in the 90's is similarly eschatological: We are nearing the end of aesthetic days. As for myself - to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg on revolution - I say: I refuse to attend any apocalypse to which I cannot bring a date.

Show me a hero and I will write you a horror movie, one in which he plays, not the good scientist defending the planet and his girl, but the Thing itself. A monster, after all, is merely a model of comportment and conduct who has become metastasized, his qualities exaggerated until they take on a freakish cast. To prove as much, one need look no further than these works by Matt Marello. Was it not the case that their terrible fiends were once themselves cast as the possible saviours of a corrupt and dying world. German Expressionists indeed.

Funny what a difference a few decades makes. I mean, it's funny. Here are some modern attitudes towards history: That it's the story we tell ourselves to explain and justify our current position; that it's ideology, that it's bunk; that it's a nightmare from which we're trying to awake. Here's another, rather newer take it or leave it: History is a joke.

© Jim Lewis (New York, 1996)

Matt Marello, The Amazing Colossal Minimalist, video, 30 seconds.

Matt Marello, I Was a Teenage Abstract Expressionist, video, 30 seconds.

Matt Marello, Attack of the 50 Ft. Cubists, video, 30 seconds.

Matt Marello, Dadaist From the Year 5000, video, 30 seconds.

Matt Marello, Earth vs. the German Expressionists, video, 30 seconds.

Matt Marello, I Married a Gallerist From Outer Space, video, 30 seconds.

Matt Marello, Neo-Realist From Another Planet, video, 30 seconds.

Matt Marello, Night of the Living Modernists, video, 30 seconds.

Matt Marello, When Critics Collide, video, 30 seconds.

Matt Marello, When Modernists Ruled the Earth, video, 30 seconds.

Sitcoms (1996)

Matt Marello, Sitcoms (installation view, "Shout Outs," Rice University Art Gallery, 1999), mixed media, video, dimensions variable.

The French are fond of describing Americans as les grands enfants (the big children). It pains Europeans to see us run around their capitals in sneakers and T-shirts, licking ice cream cones and talking too loud. What may be even more painful for them is that America is heir to their intellectual legacy - we're the beneficiaries of the thinking of Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel and Sartre. Imagine their chagrin as they watched us put our legacy to use by creating TV sitcoms peopled by the likes of Herman Munster and Gilligan. But, dopey though they may be, American 60's TV sitcoms captured the texture and spirit of America and are part of our legacy to civilization. They're testaments to American imagination, ingenuity and egalitarianism - they're also examples of how consumerism corrupts noble ideas and they're the distillate of the strongest mass opiate ever invented - TV. Such is the humor, horror and absurdity of Matt Marello's Sitcoms. Sitcoms is also about the rupture between literacy and post-literacy, education and entertainment, and the failure of dialectics. And they are about artistic vision and ambition.

A funny thing happens while watching Sitcoms; you pay attention to the sitcom character - not what comes out of their mouths, but how tragically iconic they are. Jed Clampett is a post-literate Gatsby. The Munsters could be cast in a Beckett play. Inversely, the towering philosopher becomes the buffoon. This is no disrespect toward Philosophy or elevation of Hollywood because there is no understanding or communication between the cultures. There is only the tragedy of no common ground, no dialectic, and no reason.

Sitcoms use the same basic technology and a similar spirit that gave us Zelig and Forest Gump - but rather than pursuing the technical seamlessness of those films, Marello's homemade special effects create their own content by rupturing TV's reality. Behind the mock seriousness and the horseplay, behind the all-knowing laugh track, is the artist. Sitcoms reveal a process and a desire of an artist who wants to insert himself into the TV. Marello wants the fantasy and the escape of these black and white worlds. He wants the respect given a philosopher and he wants the power of access to the culture held by sitcoms and their stars. He may even want his art to be the dialectical synthesis of the old and the new worlds...but wait, I think I hear a laugh track.

These tapes are funny and sad, smart and stupid - they're complex in their simplicity. I could go on but you probably feel like the Beverly Hillbilly, Granny, when she says to Sartre, "I've heard more than I can swallow now - I've got pig's knuckles on the stove." It's good to be a grand enfant.

© Dike Blair (New York, 1997)

Matt Marello, The Beverly Hillbillies With Guest Star Jean Paul Sartre,
video, 02:27.

Matt Marello, Bewitched With Guest Star Georg Hegel,
video, 03:02.

Matt Marello, The Munsters With Guest Star Immanuel Kant,
video, 02:49.

Matt Marello, Hogan's Heroes With Guest Star Fredrich Nietzche,
video, 02:49.

Matt Marello, Gilligan's Island With Guest Star René Descarte,
video, 02:49.

Disasters (1997)

In disaster films, the audience can anticipate with delicious dread the inevitable violence, pathos, and eventual pay-off of a morally uplifting message, but, alas, this anticipation and participation is pointedly undone in Matt Marello's re-interpretation of Hollywood's disaster genre.

In his versions, we are left with the nagging, even annoying, lack of fit between the image of the artist and the unfolding tragedies of the great San Francisco Earthquake, the death of Pompeii, the sinking of the Titanic, etc., the specificity of each of which are elided by Marello's presence and its delivery of some sense of the banality of tragedy.

The initial thought is about how nicely this work coincides with the postmodern obsession with constructedness; such a masculinist act of postmodern intervention and insertion, this forceful and ungraceful penetration by the artist into the narrative. But beyond pointing out the constructedness of the filmic image, Marello's discordant insertion highlights that essential and unfortunate alienation of contemporary humanity from some sort of seamless narrative. These days, participation in teleological history, a plot with set-up, crisis and denouement, is necessarily uncomfortable and forced. But Marello bypasses any sense of nostalgic mourning for modernist certitude, heading straight for postmodern sardonicism in his parodic dramatization of the present theoretical and artistic juncture.

Finally, in a return to the visual material, these works are darkly hilarious takes on a moribund genre, the artist wrapping disaster films around himself as a funny, awkward, and biting contradiction.

© Jenny Liu (New York, 1998)

Matt Marello, Hiroshima, video, 3:09.

Matt Marello, The Last Days of Pompeii, video, 3:13.

Matt Marello, San Francisco, video, 3:15.

Matt Marello, Titanic, video, 3:26.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1998)

Matt Marello, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (installation view), Il Ponte Contemporanea, Rome, Italy, 1999.

At the end of the sixties, "body" artists were trying to extend their psycho-physical limits to the point where the act became a primary gesture, a creative gesture. Matt Marello pushes the concept further by taking digital possession of his body and the gestures of others. He inserts himself in the actor's role not to eliminate the double fiction - understood as a double denial - but to increase the distance between reality and interpretation, between true and false, between imitation and representation.

By exploring from inside the drama inherent in cinema and its actors, Marello exposes the truth contained in his game - grasping what we are by diving inside what we believe ourselves to be - an exercise of mental and physical flexibility, explored in our generation through the technological sliding of boundaries between reality and simulation. This simulated reality is the focus of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a large installation in which the spectator is shown an "altered" video projection of one of the most noted films of the German Expressionist period. The effect of the piece is one of total immersion. The spectator becomes part of the spectacle.

In the Caligari installation there is a reconstruction of one of the film's sets which serves to distance and distort the traditional aspect and the two dimensional quality of the original work. The container and the contents fuse together in the experience, and Marello becomes the only actor playing a role, becoming at the same time both the object and the subject of the performance.

Can all of this cause confusion of roles? Can we find in this something incorrect or damaging? These questions are purely rhetorical and by themselves useless, but they are fundamental to introduce the argument from another point of view. We will always, if we so desire, be able to produce a scene, and environment, a social context, suitable for us to play our roles. This act of imagination and the artificial preparation of the place in which we move represents more precisely our character, our sense of humor, our potential if not in fact our true being. Models, symbols, and projections of our thoughts are built on all that the mass media, the street, and the home offer us already pre-packaged. The sin of wanting to imagine and change ourselves builds instead a fantastic means, perhaps only partially practical, to understand what we are, what we are not, and what we are becoming.

© Francesca Pietracci (Time Out Rome, 1999)

Matt Marello, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (excerpt), 3:46.

The Artist Trilogy (1999)

Matt Marello, The Artist Trilogy (installation view), The Contemporary Art Center, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2001.

Roger Corman's Bucket of Blood (USA, 1959), Dr. Terror's House of Horrors with Christopher Lee (UK, 1965) and Paint Me Dead, a BBC TV Hammer's House of Horrors episode (circa 1970) are all grounds for Matt Marello's spectral doppelganger re-creations. In The Artist Trilogy, Marello is tremulously re-incarnated as contemporary artist observing himself (and us). We follow him following the script which has been laid down for him to follow. Better yet: we observe the life-script of Artist (any artist) being superimposed upon him: artist as outsider, visionary, demiurgic avenger, madman and mystic.

Matt Marello is a quick-change "illusionist," I suppose. But isn't he, actually, a quick-change "elisionist" slipping as he does withing the gaps of ready-made horror narratives? These films are tantalizingly refashioned as he digitally inserts himself, nearly seamlessly, within the existent flow of the dark and forbidding imagery. Marello becomes subject/object of these re-forgotten (or once-forgettable) cinematic flows. As does Jorge Luis Borges in his
A Universal History of Infamy, the slippage between the dream and the real that Marello offers in cinematic format parallels what the magic realist offers in his own literary effort "...narrative [s][which]...overtly exploit certain tricks: random enumeration, sudden shifts in continuity, and the paring down of a man's whole life to two or three scenes." After seeing The Artist Trilogy a number of times it becomes evident Marello's fantasies strike at the center of complexes and desires that affect all artist (at least all of the artists I have ever known). What artist, pray tell, hasn't dreamed of the Eternal Return of Truth, clothed in righteousness. Doesn't that Truth always strangle the sneering critic's voice in order to straighten the historical record in one future vindicating moment of revisionist triumph?

Marello giddily feeds us back our fantasies of art and artist, and it packs a hilarious wallop. Artist as psychopathetic-mystic-genius-martyr-madman while art unveils the world through a monstrously deranged verisimilitude as its creator delves into madness, ecstasy and death for our reawakened consciousness. Sure, Marello makes us chortle at the dark and forbidden contrivances that horror feeds on. But he also makes us choke at our contemporary collective insistence of treating the imagination in a pathological light. The fascination that we all have with horror and the horror-genre flick is the vehicle with which Matt Marello makes us ponder on the often-miasmic duality between the so-called "real" world of moral practice and the "unreal" world of art.

© Dominique Nahas (New York, 2002)

Matt Marello, Bucket of Blood, video, 5:02.

Matt Marello, The Hand, video, 4:44.

Matt Marello, Paint Me Dead, video, 3:05.

The Eternal Return (2000)

The Eternal Return (performance view), The Sori New Music Ensemble, (Changwon Park, conductor), Seoul, Korea, 2003.

Friedrich Nietzsche elaborated his theory of eternal return, or eternal recurrence, in several texts. The Will to Power argued that a limited and calculable number of combinations exist in infinite time. Those combinations repeat an infinite number of times, and between iterations of individual events all other combinations must take place. 'The world,' Nietzsche concluded, '[is] a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its dice game ad infinitum.'

Human existence also falls subject to this principle of eternal return, as reasoned in
Thus Spake Zarathustra. The itinerant philosopher Zarathustra receives a mountaintop vision of the eternal return. 'I shall return, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this serpent-not to a new life or a better life or a similar life: I shall return eternally to this identical and self-same life, in the greatest things and in the smallest.' Mankind remains trapped in this circular existence. Thus condemned to repeat perpetually his errors, man never achieves the elevated status of Übermensch, or superman.

This pessimistic, dissonant, and hopeless understanding of the human condition has provided the subject the multimedia collage
The Eternal Return, while Nietzsche's theory of reiteration has inspired its cyclical structure. This integrally conceived project joins five film clips selected and manipulated by filmmaker Matt Marello with five musical compositions by C.P. First. Film extracts are looped and projected onto four separate screens while the instrumental ensembles perform live. Marello has digitally replaced the original actors in each film with his own image. As sole protagonist, the filmmaker himself provides the unifying onscreen element in this ten-minute collage.

Two visual planes interact contrapuntally in
The Eternal Return. A short segment from the silent sci-fi classic Metropolis (1926) repeats, like a pictorial ostinato, as a representation of infinite time. The four remaining film loops entrap the protagonist in an eternal fugue of menacing, inescapable predicaments. Our protagonist waits endlessly for someone to arrive in the first excerpt from Alfred Hitchcock's romantic comedy-thriller, North by Northwest (1959). The inaugural episode of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone ("Where Is Everybody?" 1959) contributes material for the frightening isolation and futility portrayed in the second clip. Hitchcock-style foreboding enters in the third film loop from Psycho (1960), as the protagonist drives through an eternal night, unable to reach his destination. The wretched character endures accusing glances in a scene from Orson Welles's little-known film The Trial (1963), an adaptation of Franz Kafka's Der Prozess.

C.P. First has provided an original score for four independent instrumental ensembles and prerecorded tape. In a manner comparable to the video, the score combines sound clips derived from the original movie soundtracks with autobiographical sound images, i.e. quotations from his own compositions. Two violins accompany the invariable "spinning room" video. A piano trio, borrowing periodically from First's composition
Intimate Voices, provides a counterpoint to North by Northwest. An ensemble of oboe, amplified nylon string guitar, and electronic drums contributes a backdrop to the Twilight Zone excerpt. The most extensive quotation occurs during the Psycho clip. Bernard Herrmann's music for North by Northwest and Psycho and First's Time's Dedication, and its relentless cantillation of the French word "horlage" (clock), offered raw material for the prerecorded tape. Music for brass trio (trumpet, horn, and euphonium) and percussion underscores The Trial. The Eternal Return depicts the absurdity and anxiety of contemporary existence via a unified visual, aural, and philosophical construction. Of all the characters in the five source movies, it is, ironically, the deranged Norman Bates in Psycho who seems to grasp the futility of human existence that Nietzsche articulated less than a century before. "You know what I think?" asks Norman. "I think that we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge and inch."

© Todd E. Sullivan (
Terre Haute, 2003)

Matt Marello, The Eternal Return (Twilight Zone), video, endless loop, 0:42 (excerpt).

Death Wish or, Who Wants to Die for Art? (2001)

Matt Marello, Death Wish or, Who Wants to Die for Art? (V2: Joe Amrhein), video still, 2001.

In the history of western art (and the medieval period in particular), the commissioner of works of art have often played a crucial role in the working out of the iconographical programme of the works of art - mostly inspired by religion. Indeed, countless altarpieces or paintings intended for private devotion are dedicated to the glory of those who paid for their creation as well as to the glory of the sacred character who is pictured. The artist honours his client, who places himself of his own volition under the divine protection; sometimes the artist takes the liberty to introduce a self-portrait into the scene, although this practice is especially the characteristic of seasoned painters. But for the prince or the rich bourgeois, paying for the work of art and being portrayed in it – it is the least one can do – is more than enough to be entitled to claim one’s place in Paradise: it is out of the question for him to suffer martyrdom as the saint who honours him with his clemency…

With “Death Wish or, Who Wants to Die for Art?”, Matt Marello casts a new light on the relationships between the artist and the commissioner. The scenes which make up the series are extracted from three films which are very different from each other: “Duel” by Steven Spielberg (1971), “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Robert Enrico (1962), and “Operation Crossbow” by Michael Anderson (1965). But they all have something in common: a scene in which a character dies in a spectacular way. In “Duel,” the unfortunate hero is being pursued by a huge truck on the barren desert roads of California, until the final scene of the accident; in “Operation Crossbow,” a pilot crashes while piloting a jet plane prototype; in “ Owl Creek,” a man is hanged from a bridge at the end of a macabre ritual conducted by a group of soldiers during the Civil War.

In each of these sequences, Marello digitally inserts himself or the commissioner in place of the original victim; he modifies the rules of order and of self-portrait: hanged from a bridge, crashed in a car accident, or smashed to pieces while a flying bomb is falling, the commissioner – or the artist – demonstrates that he is effectively ready to die for art. The sequence out of “Owl Creek” goes even beyond that: in the short story by Ambrose Pierce on which this short film is based, the main character, unfairly condemned to be hanged for treason, imagines himself escaping death at the last moment; the story merges then with his desperate dream of escaping. Marello does not let his character have this fragile hope: he wanted to die for art, so let him die!

© Pierre-Yves Desaive (Brussels, 2002)

Matt Marello, Death Wish or, Who Wants to Die for Art? (V2: Matt Marello), video, 2:00.

Matt Marello, Death Wish or, Who Wants to Die for Art? (V2: Joe Amrhein), video, 2:00.

Matt Marello, Death Wish or, Who Wants to Die for Art? (Owl Creek: Matt Marello), video, 2:00.

Matt Marello, Death Wish or, Who Wants to Die for Art? (Owl Creek: Omer Fast), video, 2:00.

Matt Marello, Death Wish or, Who Wants to Die for Art? (Duel: Matt Marello), video, 2:00.

Matt Marello, Death Wish or, Who Wants to Die for Art? (Duel: David Scher), video, 2:00.

The Pollock Project (2002)

Matt Marello, The Pollock Project (installation view), mixed media with video, Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn, NY (2002).

Matt Marello is known for eccentric videos in which he uses digital techniques to insinuate himself into found television or movie scenes. He has, for instance, guest-starred as several famous philosophers in episodes of 1960s television shows like "The Munsters" and "The Beverly Hillbillies," and he has also appeared as the beleaguered protagonist in a string of disaster scenes. This mixing of mass-media fact and homemade fiction continued with Marello's recent video installation The Pollock Project, in which he takes on the role of three cultural icons--all avatars of male artistic virility--who happened to die early and accidentally: Jackson Pollock, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and martial-arts movie star Bruce Lee.

Isolating short sequences from films that depict Pollock flinging paint, Bonham drumming and Lee whirling the nunchaku, Marello, in each case, substituted himself for the main figure. There's something devious and hilarious about how Marello, always deadpan, takes over the bodies and mystique of his doomed virtuosos, while replicating their exertions in the herky-jerky fashion typical of rotoscopy, the editing technique he uses. His reworked scenes seem vaguely plausible, but at the same time outlandish and unreal.

The Pollock Project was presented on three home-movie screens set up in a rickety-looking circle. Acting as Pollock on one screen, Marello bends over while pretending to fling paint from a can. Here's the trailblazing master at work in his studio, sort of, but something is seriously amiss. Marello has no paint in his can or on his brush, his clothes are clean, and no drip painting is visible. All of this could be sharply ironic--action painting that's all action and no painting--but the repetitive, even manic, physical activity has a surprising vitality. The same holds true for the incessant drumming and nunchaku-whirling on the other screens. Marello's doctored film snippets draw you into their rhythm and motion. Together, they wind up suggesting a ritual dance or some sort of ecstatic celebration.

All the elements here fit together. The accompanying sound, including a whirring projector, a flurry of drumbeats and the whoosh of nunchaku, was both irritating and captivating, much like the images themselves. Another video projection at the base of one wall showed a car's headlights moving along the darkened road in Long Island where Pollock died in an automobile accident. This mundane event is a reminder of the catastrophe to come.

The paintbrush, drumsticks and nunchaku that appear in the videos were fashioned by Marello from wood found near the site of Pollock's accident. Presented at Pierogi in a vitrine, they took on the aura of quasi-sacred relics. Marello's meditation on, and reenactment of, eclipsed heroes is conceptually intricate and visually lively. It's also a total riot.

© Gregory Volk (
Art in America, March 2003)

Matt Marello, The Pollock Project, three channel video, endless loop (excerpt 01:09).

The Three Stooges (2003)

Matt Marello, The Three Stooges (installation view), mixed media and video, Il Ponte Contemporanea, Rome, Italy (2004).

It has been said that all men speak the same language when they trip over a chair in the dark. This language of slapstick is captured in the work of the New York-based artist Matt Marello. His is a mixture of sharp comedy and even sharper pain.The Three Stooges was an installation composed of six screens surrounding a central sculpture of a bathtub sitting on a worn rug. The bathtub was turned into a surreal fountain, encased in a maze of plumbing pipes, as though trapped in a cage. A leaky faucet dripped into the bathwater below. The effect was threadbare and cheap, a setup based on an episode in which Moe, Larry, and Curly get mixed up in a tale of bad plumbing in the metropolis.

Playing on the screens were six of Marello's short black-and-white films. Each showed a reenactment of typical
Three Stooges slapstick, but all parts are played by Marello, whom we see in a series of knockabout scenes, hitting himself with the handle of a spade, falling over, and punching himself. It's as though the artist were punishing himself for his own idiocy, his personality neatly split into three parts.

Marello's grainy images resemble pictures broadcast on an old television. The action is stilted, hinting that this is not a seamless comedy of errors. His movements are awkward, and his punches don't necessarily hit home. The artist may be having fun as a ham actor, but the humor is tempered by pathos and something far darker, murkier. Violence is depicted as painless, ridiculous, shown in closed circuit. Seen together, Marello's acts become even more vindictive, and we are bludgeoned by his sense of desperation.

© Jonathan Turner (
Art News, Volume 104, Number 7, 2005)

Matt Marello, The Three Stooges, six channel video, endless loop (excerpt 04:29)

Decline (2003)

Matt Marello is also inventive in his use of technology. His carefully edited lip-synching in Decline (2003) created an unsettling protrait of artistic ambition. In the pixillated, stop-motion video Marello mouths upbeat statements of anonymous, struggling artists or perhaps actors who seem to have no recourse for failure. Marello's video is humorous at first, though through repetition it increasingly becomes less of a mantra than a warning. The downbeat assessments people offer about the possibility of failure offset the sunny optimism they initially display. Marello's short video gains currency with each loop because it starts to hint at the masses waiting for the "big break," It's successful because it is able to accomplish this without bitter cynicism.

William Powhide
, The Brooklyn Rail, November, 2003.

Matt Marello, Decline, video, 01:11.