The Optimistic Art of Mary Mattingly

The idea of socially engaged art that doubles as a public works project flourished in the 1970s, a period of nihilism and malaise caused by inflation, environmental depredation and a loss of confidence in political leadership. Mattingly’s artistic forebears include Agnes Denes, who addressed food access, environmental destruction and the dubious priorities of the free market in 1982 with “Wheatfield — a Confrontation,” a two-acre plot of grain she sowed and reaped near Wall Street, on the landfill formed by the construction of the World Trade Center. Mattingly’s practice of engaging entire communities in social projects has precedent in “Project Row Houses” by Rick Lowe and his collaborators, who in 1993 bought 22 derelict homes in Houston’s historically Black Third Ward and transformed them into an art, housing and community development hub. But her closest counterpart might be Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who has also made art out of and within seemingly faceless, opaque municipal systems. In 1977, Ukeles became the first artist in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation; in 1979, she embarked upon a yearlong performance piece called “Touch Sanitation,” in which she shook the hand of every one of the department’s 8,500 employees.

Mattingly, 44, brings a wry sense of humor to this lineage, which is part of what makes her work relatable. “People feel this every day in bureaucratic social systems,” she said. “There are just layers upon layers upon layers of absurdity that it takes to go through a day in a litigious place — that’s part of what inspires me to make new work. Feeling caught in that absurdity loop and then trying to respond to it.”

One might imagine the artist behind projects that require such extensive wrangling to be a firebrand, but Mattingly is demure. We spoke in May on the rickety front porch of an empty old house on Governors Island, a former military installation in New York Harbor that now supports a public park, artist residencies and various nonprofits, and where Mattingly and her team maintain a workshop and exhibition space called Swale Lab. Her reserve has been an asset, not just in pitching outlandish projects to civil administrators who have every reason to say no but in reaching audiences who might not otherwise be receptive to environmentally minded contemporary art. “She’s not shaming people about their habits,” said Sara Reisman, the chief curator of the National Academy of Design in New York. “With Mary’s work, there’s a generosity there that gives the viewer a sense of possibility.” By navigating risk and piloting her work around unexpected snarls and snags, she captures the experience of living in a perilous era. Ultimately, her art is about resilience — about finding a way to survive.

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EVEN AS A child, Mattingly dreamed of rising water. Raised in a flood zone, the artist grew up bailing out the basement of her family’s home in Somers, Conn., a rural town three hours north of New York. Surrounded by farmland, her family was forced to buy bottled water after they discovered their tap water was contaminated with a pesticide that had been used on local tobacco fields. Mattingly also absorbed lessons there about the connection between urban areas — beneficiaries of the harvest from regions like her own — and their surroundings. “We saw the waste from cities go back out to towns nearby, and it always stuck with me, the fact that if cities could be a little more self-sufficient, then it would be less environmentally destructive elsewhere,” she said.