Matt Bollinger’s American Tragedy

“Furlough I” (2021)

Bollinger’s paintings are animated by a combination of sharp edges and soft transitions, bright lights and dark shadows, and a contrast between silhouettes and delineated form that make the viewer’s eye focus and refocus. The best of them have the deft strokes and confidence of his animated films and they move, too—but without the waiting around.

The subjects are mostly, but not all, rural contemporary white American males. Their faces are so shadowed that I had to step closer and dilate my pupils to catch their expressions which unexpectedly reminded me of Kerry James Marshall’s paintings—but more about that in a moment.

In Furlough I, a group of guys are hanging by a truck, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and having no fun at all. I particularly like the way they are framed by the dancing oak leaves on the top and a line of pink flowers on the bottom. Peering into those dark faces one by one is shocking. Their eyes are quite dead. I kinda pity them but I’m also exasperated. If they cannot even go fishing in the lake beyond or hunt (and we all know they have or could easily procure the artillery), why don’t they go home and help their kids with zoom classes –or their sister’s kids? Or mow the lawn, plant a garden, fix things around the house, not even to mention cook or do the laundry.

Bollinger has chosen these views and not others which might show these men doing the things that they are not doing in these paintings. He has chosen them because there are a lot of unmoored folks of the masculine gender. These despairing white men can be dangerous—to their wives, their children, to their friends, to any race they perceive as the other, to democracy and to themselves—they have a high and rising suicide rate.

“Magic Hour” (2021)

Bollinger paints females too, like Janet. On her feet all day at the big box store, her eyes are dead too, from staring at a computer screen all day. I was a cashier once, pre-computer, pre-scanners. I knew people who were good at it, knew the price of everything in the store and were fast and accurate about ringing up and making change while chatting with the customers. Even that bit of pride is gone.

Well. I still see her going home, cooking, doing the laundry and taking care of the grandkids. She’s not gone like the guys—she’s simply exhausted.

Furlough III (2021)

With no sigh of relief this dude pisses on a tree. The urinous arc of light and the highlight on the tree are magical. (That is poison ivy climbing up the oak, by the way.)

I was drawing this painting for The Pencil Review and just when I was wondering if anybody would buy these well-painted but ultimately depressing canvasses, somebody came along and bought Furlough III and I learned they were selling like hotcakes—adding yet another conundrum to my very confused feelings about the show.

Individually some of the paintings are wonderful—as a group they are numbingly emotionally repetitive. As other reviewers have pointed out, Bollinger doesn’t quite show or demand sympathy for his subjects. I do think however, that their nostalgic despair is illustrated,  romanticized and considered inevitable. They are not shown with guns, porn or white supremacist paraphernalia, nor with any suggestion of the harm they are causing—which might explain the difficulty I’m having with extending my sympathy to them. Which I want to do,  because after all, they are human beings in deep trouble.
The Art Critical Review Panel (April 2021) pointed out several subjects wearing their high school team jackets—yeah, those were the days—when loyalty meant something.

Are they only victims of capitalism? Did they not get any enhanced unemployment benefits perhaps while refusing to wear masks and thus prolonging their terrible useless sadness?  Did they vote for their own children to get health care or ally themselves in any way with any other downtrodden group?

Referring to Marshall again, what will they think when they see themselves in The Museum?
Or are we assuming that they will never go there?