Matthew Small: Material Humanism through Benjamin

Matthew Small isn’t so much a flâneur as a magpie: ‘that oven door, that shelving unit, that piece of trash to someone…’ He crafts persons’ portraits from these ‘found’ scrap-pieces. Often, they’re overlaid with riotous layers of colourful paint. How to respond? ‘We’re always more than the sum of our parts,’ might say the humanists. ‘For there is always something special about the person, who, qua person/individual, transcends their environment and therefore the junk on which their portrait is painted.’ Alternatively, the strict determinists might say that ‘we’re but products of the (urban) environment,’ and the junk-canvas conveys something of late-twentieth century life in the modern metropolis: the strange cycles of treasuring and discarding both persons and things. Small modestly suggests that it’s ‘about me looking at an individual and trying to communicate the idea that that individual is worth something.’ He says that his ‘work is about normal people, it’s about that person on the street and about people who don’t always get observed.’ Walter Benjamin offers an interesting foil for these different interpretations. 

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Benjamin’s Passengen-werk or Arcades Project (posthumously pub., 1999) drew upon Karl Marx’s analysis of the ‘commodity’ and its ‘fetishism’ to propose ‘phantasmagoria’.  Benjamin then proceeded to explore this ‘phantasmagoria’ through a remarkable assemblage of paper-traces from Paris. Benjamin’s early exposé’s title is simply: ‘Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.’ His concept of ‘phantasmagoria’ is the newfangled strangeness of living (breathing, thinking, buying) in a world where social relations aren’t direct but always dreamily mediated through reified objects-cum-images. For Benjamin, the passages couverts of the city were the phantasmagoric experience par excellence: always transitory spaces, which suggested the circulation of people as well as commodities; burgeoning consumerism and the enchanting allures of fashion; modernity’s new architecture in iron and glass; and finally, the contradictorily over- and underwhelming experience of utter distraction. Benjamin wrote and re-wrote without ever finishing the Passengen-werk, which isn’t so much a work of philosophy in prose rather than a scrapbook or ‘montage’ of adverts and clippings that comprise something of those arcades' phantasmagoria. J.M. Coetzee says that Benjamin thus ‘suggests a new way of writing about civilization, using its rubbish as materials rather than its artworks: history from below rather than above.’ 

And yet, Small makes Benjamin appear positively high-brow--even, decidedly un-Marxist. It’s Small and not Benjamin who appears as the ultra-orthodox materialist working and re-working the material scraps of the city and not just the mere paper-traces of a long-forgotten phantasmagoria. Small picks over and paints ‘London, the Capital of the Late-Twentieth Century’ just as Benjamin put together ‘Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century.’ But interestingly, the effect is more Humanist than late-Marxist: more Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 than Capital (1867-94). Small suggests that ‘[t]he theme of my work is young, dispossessed people: individuals who feel undervalued, who don’t have a voice, who get looked over.’ Coetzee’s praise for Benjamin might equally, then, be applied to Small. 

Finally, portraits are usually projections of power and wealth--who else can afford them? Small therefore vows to undertake ‘no commissions from Posh, Becks, Brittany or the Queen for that matter.’ He portrays those who are normally refused by high-culture. He paints them on the refuse of that high-culture. City Hall pushes London as a Global City offering: Finance, Culture, Fashion, Tourism. Small’s canvases--scrap metal and other broken pieces--bring to light the underside of the glamorous, glittering image. He similarly exposes its phantasmagoric quality. He looks for those who actually sustain it, those who are, perhaps, similarly used up by it. For these reasons: they’re quietly and intelligently remarkable; but also convincingly executed, riotous and aesthetically pleasing.

Daniel Graham