Matt Marello’s last exhibition at Pierogi Gallery was in 2012. I wrote thenin an earlier iteration of this websitethat it “feels strangely like walking into a temple built to convert punk-rockers and disillusioned aesthetes from oblivion back to self-discovery.”

I tried pitching a review of the show to the Village Voice and Juxtapoz magazine, neither of which picked it up. Nevertheless, I must admit that, over the last three years, I have visited Marello’s studio at least once a month.

His work is slow and laborious; it also requires a ton of research. Marelloa former Kim’s Video employee in the East Village and lead singer of Philly post-punk act Executive Slacksproduces hallucinatory canvases that re-imagine Ancient Roman chimeras and Medieval alter-pieces as part of a generational zeitgeist. It’s no easy task. Religion is out, especially in the fine art world, where repression of anything or anyone is grounds for banishment. Marello has caused no such stir, though his newest work has largely been ignored by the mainstream art media.

The artist’s last show was, to be sure, a bit of a departure. He’d become known as a video artist, successfully inserting himself into ’50s B movie trailers and transforming them from paranoid popcorn fare of the Cold War era into expressions of existential dread and personal fear (much to the delight of heady gallery-goers during the ’90s). Yet Marello says he’s always been interested in something else.

The focus of his last show was a symbol of two interlocking circles, which Marello says are actually parallel wheels floating in spacea visual he claims to have first encountered in a hallucination back in 1979. (The experience was chronicled in a free booklet available at Pierogi.) Through years of painstaking study to understand his hallucination, Marello found that ancient texts refer to the symbol as “Ophanim.”

"Ophanim"

“Ophanim”

“I had already done some work based on the hallucination after I moved to New York back in the early ’90s,” says Marello. “For instance, I did a project where some friends and I handed out leaflets on the street with the two circles printed on the flyers and we refused to answer any questions, because quite frankly I didn’t have any answers. I was actually the one who was looking for answers. I thought that if I just put the image out there enough that eventually someone would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I know what that is,’ or ‘I had that experience too!’ But unfortunately it never happened.”

The show featured a small room of Ophanim researchsketches and photocopies that Marello had amassed in the three decades since his vision. He stapled them to the Pierogi wall like a conspiracy theorist who rarely leaves the house. In a separate room was the new Marello paintings based on this research.

Mad Magazine-like figures interact in fields of starry eyeballs, mathematic equations, mushroom clouds, severed hands, and alchemical symbolsMarello’s attempt at an impious albeit completely sincere kind of modern sacred art. It confirmed my deep suspicion that behind every punk lies an inner-hippie screaming to get out.

“I have always been attracted to pre-Renaissance work,” quips Marello, “especially the late Romanesque and Gothic period leading up to Giotto and Cimabue. I find the work to be much more charming and playful than the later high-Renaissance works where things started to get too serious and technical. The naiveté of these earlier works appeals to me personally because I have always appreciated anyone who lacks technical skill but through sheer love of what they do is able to create something that is pure and true.”

ophanim-number-three3

In the post-9/11, war-ridden, recession-crippled era of corruption we find ourselves in, disillusionment seems today as prescient as it were during the Reagan era, when Marello began his art career. Is the artist crazy to ask whether there is any spirituality left in the world? I don’t think so.

“I’m looking for the ecstasy of religion without the actual religion,” says Marello. The paintings open the door for the secular aesthete to be reunited with a higher consciousness that might have heretofore been politically incorrect.

I viewed the show several times in the summer of 2012. The second time, I eavesdropped on a young family of three, where the male, carrying an infant against his chest, turned to his wife and remarked: “Well, we don’t need to give her LSD; we can just show her these paintings and let her trip out.” It seemed like a dumb thing to say, but later I recognized his romanticism for mind-expansion and, moreover, that drug culture has, for better or worse, become the new magic of our time. To that end, Marello’s work seems less interested in being traditionally “smart” and more about being unabashedly transcendent.

“If someone is spiritual,” concludes Marello, “I suspect they are attempting to find or create some kind of meaning to counteract the profound existential silence that is the universe. If that is the definition of spiritual, then yes, my work is very spiritual, because that’s what I’ve been trying to do all these years… find meaning in something that makes no sense at all.” (Brian Chidester)

All photos by Stefania Zamparelli (copyright 2012).

Matt Marello

Matt Marello