Matt Rebholz: The Golem

A parade of spooky black-and-white fever dreams in which we're less alive than the soulless being from folklore

Arts Review

'Matt Rebholz: The Golem'

Slugfest Gallery, through Dec. 16

It's fables about the dead that sometimes tell us the most about life. When faced with ghosts, vampires, zombies, or otherwise reanimated corpses – all creatures that exist without whatever essential spark of humanity animates us – we feel more keenly what it is to be truly alive. And we often see reflected in them our lives, forcing us to confront whether our own existence more closely resembles that of the living or the dead.

The golem, that soulless being from Jewish folklore shaped from mud to serve man's ends, has been known to act as such a mirror, and he does so once more in this series of images by Matt Rebholz. The graduate student in printmaking at UT-Austin took his inspiration from Gustav Meyrink's 1914 novel, The Golem, in which the man-made creature, in Rebholz's words, "wanders the streets of a corrupt and ruined city, blissfully unaware that he is a malfunctioning meat robot and not a man." He's given each of the 20 prints the number of a chapter, though he admits that as he was making the series, it diverged substantially from the events of the novel to become its own meditation on "consumption, ingestion, and expulsion."

Indeed, what one picks from the images at Slugfest is not so much a narrative as a depiction of humanity in which the dead may be living and the living dead. A woman sits naked on the floor of a living room, her back against the sofa, her legs splayed, a TV remote in one hand and a vacant expression on her face. Bathed in the glow from the TV, which casts unnervingly large black shadows across the wall, she might be a corpse, for all the life she displays. In the mob scene of Chapter X, a couple dozen figures march with upraised arms, as if agitated by something we cannot see. Some have angry faces with the bared teeth of vicious beasts, and most have glazed eyes, around which are dark circles and lids, just a step removed from the inky eye sockets of a skeleton. And skeletons appear again and again – one alongside a group of living people, one dressed as a doctor with a living man's arm around his shoulder, a skull hanging above a marionette perched on a horse. Death is a presence that seems at home among us, as if we've already left life behind. The golem, meanwhile, appears to be a pleasant-faced giant, more human than anyone else; in one print, he walks naked down a suburban street, one hand gingerly placed against the roof of a house that he towers over, and in another, he sits cowering under a freeway, seemingly terrified by the toy-sized trucks and sport utility vehicle that speed around and above him. He's an innocent trapped among a race of ravenous monsters, whose appetites, as depicted by Rebholz in a style somewhere between the art of ancient folk tales and contemporary cartoons, are grotesque. Chapter VIII shows us a man forcefully groping a nude woman, and the way his twisted fingers knead her exposed flesh is horrific.

There's horror in these images, and for the most part, they don't come from the creature without the soul. Rebholz has crafted a spooky parade of nightmare visions, impressively detailed black-and-white fever dreams in which we devour the world mindlessly. Where is that essential spark of humanity? Have we allowed it to die out? That's a thought more frightening than a thousand scary movies.

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