Bathed in sumptuous yet disorientating shades of midnight blue, periwinkle, and canary yellow light, Los Angeles-based figurative painter Matt Lifson’s latest mural-sized works currently displayed in the CB1 Gallery exhibition How is your fever? reveal how color, mystery, nostalgia, and tone can influence the way an audience views a piece. As this Long Island-native’s first solo showing at the downtown Los Angeles gallery, the seemingly commonplace images seen here feature an ominous energy, forcing the viewer to play detective and piece together Lifson’s cryptic narratives.
Consisting of numerous oil on linen and canvas paintings, Fever depicts these enigmatic scenes through the lens of semi-opaque colors and swirling gestures. This mysteriousness allows viewers to let their imaginations run wild, subconsciously look for patterns, yearn for answers, and dream up countless conspiracy theories. At the very heart of these narrative paintings, the viewer will find Lifson’s innocent-looking yet spine-tingling subject matter, including images of wandering crowds underneath a sunny sky as well as people asleep in their beds.
Moonlight Radio, one of the more chilling works in this collection, depicts children playing in a flooded backyard. The viewer sees the image through what looks like a dirty, speckled window pane. This connotation of age and decay amplifies the spookiness of the scene. We see a typical American two-story house in the background as two ghostlike children splash in the puddle. Meanwhile, the viewer can also makeout two shadowy figures loitering at the periphery. A closer look reveals these figures to be winged and horned demons straight out of a renaissance painting. Faced with this knowledge, the viewer must immediately begin to think about the existence of the supernatural, the safety of these children, and the story behind this eerie occurrence.
In a manner reminiscent of iconic Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte, Lifson expertly constructs realistic compositions that do not immediately arouse suspicion, but do reveal the depths of the subconscious mind. Lifson’s cinematic colors not only shroud the canvas in mystery, but heighten the viewer’s awareness and offer the first clue that something might be seriously wrong here. These hues also trap and kill all movement in the paintings as the viewer experiences a highly subjective moment frozen in time. The emotionality and fear found in these instances feels infinite and palpable. These color washes could also be a representation of the way human beings color their own reality. These characters may or may not be perceiving with world with objectivity.
This space between dreams and reality is explicitly explored in two prominent paintings in this show, One of these days, I’ll do it (2017) and Carmen Asleep (2017). In the former, we see a disembodied hand reach out to smother a sleeping man. Here, it likely refers to the act of killing and the audience does not know if this is just a dream, a depiction of a repressed desire, or if this murder is actually happening. The relaxing periwinkle fog on top of this image aids in this confusion and continues into Carmen. In this frightening painting, the viewer sees the titular character fast asleep. She is wearing an eye mask and has the covers pulled up to her nose. There is no obvious murder attempt here, but the subject is vulnerable as she is unconscious. Also, her sleeping mask further restricts her ability to see a possible attacker, leaving her quite helpless. In addition, this portrait itself is quite intrusive as Carmen is likely somnolent and we do not know the relationship between the subject and the artist. However, this painting could just be a peaceful representation of the subject’s trust in her surroundings. The ambient periwinkle light seen in these paintings does also play into this sense of tranquility.
Continuing with this intriguing element of peace found throughout Fever, in another painting, and when you walk to it, you become a part of it forever, we see a group of about twenty realistically rendered people wandering around an idyllic green hillside under a canary yellow sky. This image radiates Arcadian serenity and pleasure. An art historical reading on this painting reveals striking similarities to the dreamscapes of French surrealist painter Yves Tanguy. Painted as physical landscapes, his large, open fields were often filled with strange, imaginary shapes, all under a pale yellow sky. Instead of these abstract forms, Lifson has inserted his dreamscape with ghostly black and white representations of unknown people similar to the ones found in the flooded backyard painting. Some of the subjects can be seen admiring the view while others are taking pictures and walking around the space. This choice to depict a group of people wandering through an open field is also reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights (circa 1515) and the peasant-filled landscape scenes of Netherlandish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Bosch’s depiction of Paradise, Earth, and Hell even features a green hillside and Tanguy-esque forms. Both Bosch and Bruegel the Elder dealt with themes of salvation and the soul in their work. Lifson could be venturing into these realms as well, leading the viewer to question if this image is a representation of Paradise, Purgatory, or a just a dream.
In this highly mysterious and conceptual collection, Lifson has masterfully crafted a series of indelible fever dreams, where our beloved memories and daily routines have been subverted into something out of a horror film. Our demons walk among us. Heaven and hell live inside all of humankind and manifest in the hypnopompic, the space between wakefulness and sleep.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.