In Roman mythology, the labyrinth is the stage on which a man of destiny proves his worth, and in so doing changes his life. Matt Marello’s art—an expression of his own labyrinthine journey—acknowledges the personal evolution, but questions the destiny part. Are we really going somewhere specific?

I first met Marello in 2012, having seen his solo exhibition at Pierogi 2000 when the gallery was still in Williamsburg. The show was an oddity even for a gallery known for its oddball artists. (See images here.)

Marello’s were mid-sized paintings that featured Mad magazine-style gargoyles, cold-war space rockets, severed hands, mushroom clouds, and all-seeing eyeballs arranged across a starry night sky. There was a noisy video loop of the same symbols; a hand-drawn book under glass; and a free pamphlet of Marello’s explanation of his multivalent research in symbology.

Detail of Marello's newest painting (unfinished).

Detail of Marello’s newest painting (unfinished).

He was here in New York when the 9/11 attacks happened, and as an artist was struck by the aesthetic similarities he saw in images of Ground Zero, scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the original Planet of the Apes film. The exhibition booklet made no definite interpretation of these correlations and nowadays Marello says the “connective tissue has yet to coalesce.” Still the research continues.

More than anything, the main focus of his exhibition in 2012 was this set of blue rings, interlocked, which Marello says are actually two wheels rolling parallel and seem interlocked only from a certain vantage. The artist claims these rings visited him in a vision he had while standing in his parent’s basement in Reading, PA, at the age of nineteen. The vision lasted not more than a micro-second, he claims; yet he’s been searching for its meaning ever since.

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At his studio in Greenpoint, where I spent several hours with Marello last night, he showed me his latest painting—a canvas roughly 9′ x 5’—which works through the same symbols, though in a way that is more tranquil (and a bit more strange).

The blue circles—which Marello says are sometimes called “Ophanim” in Judeo-Christian literature and art (especially of the Middle Ages)—remain at the center. (He decries even calling it a symbol, preferring a “physical object.”)

Whatever the case, they are held in the new work by an opaque roundel, with eyeball tentacles squiggling outward like foliage or arteries. Above is a moon and another all-seeing-eye; below two severed hands pointing up to the circles. Beneath them is a tranquil landscape, unpeopled, yet echoing the earthy patches of renaissance triptychs.

In the 2012 show, no such landscape existed. The symbols all floated over a backdrop as painterly as it was pre-determined—especially when viewed alongside pencil sketches made around the same time, which suggest Marello was still figuring out how to map all this stuff out. The new painting betrays no such marks of the pursuit. A full mastery of the style has allowed him to design the works as realized expressions of his research.

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Marello has never been secretive about his teenage vision, though when I met him four years ago he was squeamish about assigning it definite value; or whether it actually happened to him physically or was just in his mind.

He told me then he was afraid the paintings would be seen as silly. A writer from the Brooklyn Rail, Marello recalls, thought they were in bad taste, mainly due to his pairing of war artillery with wonton religious symbology—a kind of hokey apocalypse that seemed politically incorrect at the time. The artist says he was hurt the critic saw only darkness and irony, and not their hope.

Undaunted, Marello has gone bigger this time, and is now focused on completing an exhibition that will treat the Ophanim with a sense of outright reverence. (There are also three reliquary boxes, made in the Byzantine style, another large painting, and a proposed stained glass window.)

Where the 2012 show caught Marello (and perhaps the world) at a moment of spiritual crisis, these new works are more meditation than revelation. They still evoke this sense of religion without the dogma; yet they are less existential and thereby less violent in nature.

They may also be more prescient, though only time will tell. I thought the last series touched a nerve and would be received as a prophetic voice in a time of great turmoil. I was wrong; besides the Brooklyn Rail review, the show was mostly ignored.

All-Seeing Eye

In its aftermath, art influenced by magic, alchemy, and freemason symbology proliferated in Brooklyn: on street-art murals, in indie comics and zines, and on new psychedelic album covers and flea market tote bags. Manhattan exhibitions like the Language of Birds—a recent retrospective of twentieth century occultic art at the NYU Galleryand the American Folk Art Museum’s Mystery and Benevolence—a show of nineteenth century masonic relics—saw a host of Marello-like works getting the full institutional treatment. Yet Marello’s own art remains omitted. I wonder why?

My guess is that it speaks none of these languages definitively; adheres to no program fully. The symbols harken back to Byzantine icons, Flemish triptychs, 18th century mysticism, and secret societies; even the psychologically-obsessed illustrations of outsider artist Adolf Wölfli. Yet, again, Marello ascribes to no specific dogma in his works. They tease and temp; draw you into their pseudo-religious schema, then leave you hanging: to ruminate and draw your own conclusions.

What’s more, his symbols (or non-symbols) are rendered in the campy style of seventies underground comics and monster movie zines, not medieval illuminations, which suggests an association with artists like Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, and Raymond Pettibon: all of whom came out of subculture, but spoke the language of bourgeois taste and issues. Even there, however, Marello seems out of place.

For one thing, there’s no strong sense of politics in his work—identity politics or otherwise. (To be visionary is, in some ways, to transcend time.) If the 2012 series showed Marello’s motifs commingling in a cosmos of cold-war and post-cold war imagery, his conclusion took no hardline stance. In the newest work even those references—atom bombs, mushroom clouds—are gone. How will these connect then?

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In times of crisis and runaway technology, it’s probably true that people look more inward for answers. One can point to the racial polarity of the current election season; the sudden resurgence of nationalism and fundamentalism; or the seemingly endless wars for ways in which the center has eroded and the Institution (capital “I”) has failed. In the midst of all this degradation, who am I then? Who are you? After all, aren’t we just little people, struggling to survive? What difference can we possibly make on the world?

Marello, along with those two severed hands in his newest painting, points to an answer. “Everything on the canvas points to it,” he insists. “It’s the only thing that really matters.” Those two blue circles? “Yes, and the sense of structure they embody.”

If that’s the case, Ophanim ends up being a symbol after all. A symbol of hope. (Brian Chidester)

Studio