Museum of Unnatural History offers unusual view of the world

by Lizzie Norgard

With titles like “Conundrum Giving an Enigma to a Perplexed Ambiguity” and “I Can’t Make up my Mind; Undecided; Rare Ambivalence; Heteroclite,” Gerry Matthews’ art works prod the viewer’s own imagination.

Matthews’ meticulously-crafted three-dimensional “assemblage” art, on display at the Black Door Gallery (a.k.a. Museum of Unnatural History) on Main Street, assails the viewer with surreal, grotesque and sometimes macabre images. His pieces bluntly comment on social institutions and themes such as religion, government, the military, prostitution, and the human body. Matthews said, “[my art] represents my skewed sense of humor about life in general—political and religious and social attitudes. I like making fun of it.” He said that his pieces can be academically termed “Outsider Art.”

Many of Matthews’ pieces are quite playful, especially those which use toys as their main medium. One of his pieces, entitled “The Last of the Great Superpowers,” is constructed from a motorized Erector set and portrays the American “empire” as a carnivalesque machine. The piece also features dozens of toy monkeys with cymbals and fezzes. As in several other pieces, the monkeys in “The Last of the Great Superpowers” symbolize George W. Bush and his staff, but aside from their symbolic meaning Matthews also enjoys the monkey image for its own sake. “Having a lot of toy monkeys is very funny to me,” he said.

Despite the overall funniness of his pieces, Matthews has a few serious ones. One piece entitled “Bluebird of Happiness” expresses Matthews’ response to a lynching that occurred in Waco, Texas, the city in which he was born. Some of Matthews’ work also portrays prostitutes, who he perceives and depicts as “sad.”

Matthews incorporates countless media into his pieces, including paper cut-outs for collages, papier maché, clay, wax, wood, plaster, dolls, skulls and masks. Matthews accumulates materials from junk shops and antique stores, the country store near the airport, the Internet and through gifts from friends. He said he never throws anything away.

Matthews has been inspired by such artistic movements as Surrealism, Dadaism and Absurdism. Books on Joseph Cornell, Hans Bellmer, Manray and Marcel Duchamp sit next to him in the gallery. Matthews has also lived with and around artists all his life, including Minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly and pop artist Robert Indiana. Before he moved to Walla Walla with his wife in 1989, Matthews was an actor in New York City and a television writer in Los Angeles. In New York he appeared in night clubs, on Broadway, on live television and in TV commercials from 1953 to 1984. Matthews says in his bio that the artistic constructions he has been doing for the past 6 years provide “an outlet and satisfaction [he] often felt as an actor.”

When asked how he came up with the name “Museum of Unnatural History” for his gallery, Matthews said that when he lived across the street from the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, one of his eccentric acquaintances suggested a need for a Museum of Unnatural History that would feature people like himself. “I liked the campy idea,” he said.

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