Matthieu Haberard Starts a School-Yard Fight

At Gianni Manhattan, Vienna, the artist evokes painful memories of childhood cruelty

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BY Kathrin Heinrich in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 08 DEC 22

If hell is other people, its ninth circle must be a classroom full of teenage children. Or so Matthieu Haberard seems to suggest in ‘Kids Fight’, his second solo exhibition at Gianni Manhattan in Vienna. Known for sculptural work that situates itself, according to the gallery website, in the ‘liminal zone between adulthood and childhood’, the Paris-based artist makes carefully crafted, oversized objects – such as swords, helmets and masks – out of colourful paper or textiles. In ‘Kids Fight’, Haberard combines two such works, alongside several other sculptures, photographs and drawings, all of which put emphasis on medieval imagery. Au fond ensemble (In the Back Together, all works 2022), for instance, comprises a huge sword suspended from the ceiling, which morphs into a snake, while the soft, sewn sculpture Fence is a fence looks like it might have been borrowed from a knight’s castle playset.

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Matthieu Haberard, ‘Kids Fight’, 2022, exhibition view, Gianni Manhattan, Vienna. Courtesy: the artist and Gianni Manhattan; photograph: kunst-dokumentation.com

While carrying echoes of Claes Oldenburg’s pop soft sculptures of everyday objects (e.g., French Fries and Ketchup, 1963), Haberard’s works are much darker and suggest the threat of school-yard violence. Two medieval torture chairs, for example, are made not from iron but from wood stained a deep forest green, a hue that references 1980s and ’90s school furniture (Little houses before buildings and Roses surrounded by bricks). Just as much as kids play, they fight – as the exhibition title suggests – and, by taking inspiration from a high-school classroom setting, Haberard evokes potentially painful memories of childhood cruelty.

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Matthieu Haberard, Roses surrounded by bricks, 2022, wood, fabric, cardboard, epoxy, varnish, acrylic paint, crayons, 130 × 50 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Gianni Manhattan; photograph: kunst-dokumentation.com

Large textile drawings titled for the days of the week blend the exhibition’s two motifs: images of medieval monsters, gothic gargoyles, knights, squires, horses and dragons are overdrawn with prepubescent-style doodles of skulls and cars, as well as hearts reading ‘Friends Forever’ and ‘Mom & Dad’ scribbled directly onto the slightly rough, raw canvas. The surfaces of the drawings look chalky, their faded pink and green tones the result of a process that includes multiple cycles of washing, drying and, at times, stitching back together the canvas by hand. Two larger drawings, Marcel helps us 1 and 2, protrude from the wall sculpturally, invisible clocks pushing against the canvas like parasites below the skin, their silent faces marked only by digits not hands.

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Matthieu Haberard, Marcel helps us 1, 2022, crayons, ballpoint pen, charcoal, canvas, wood, 1.9 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Gianni Manhattan, Vienna; photograph: kunst-dokumentation.com

Two small figurines reify this creepy atmosphere, their creation – the gallerist told me – prompted by Russia’s war against Ukraine: demons whose epoxy texture resembles the spit-out, shrivelled-up remnants of bubble-gum typically found on the underside of school desks. But it is another set of sculptures, the only ready-made objects on display, which materialize fear at its most primordial: denim jeans ‘peed’ on with epoxy resin, titled If u go I go and It’s gonna be ok, which, according to the exhibition materials, reference the artist’s upbringing in Toulouse, where youth on youth violence is a fact of life.

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Matthieu Haberard, ‘Kids Fight’, 2022, exhibition view, Gianni Manhattan, Vienna. Courtesy: the artist and Gianni Manhattan; photograph: kunst-dokumentation.com

‘Kids Fight’ hints at the darkest potential of a child’s developing mind, but its mash-up with medieval horrors could, perversely, seem to foreshadow a slightly more hopeful future. As Umberto Eco’s idiosyncratic description of the Middle Ages in a 2008 interview with The Paris Review proposes: ‘They were not the Dark Ages. They were a luminous time, the fertile soil out of which would spring the Renaissance. A period of chaotic and effervescent transition.’ Just as children outgrow pee-stained paints, both painful and happy memories of school will eventually fade. Haberard’s drawings show how they might blend into a palimpsest of personal history, with new layers and challenges ahead.

Matthieu Haberard’s ‘Kids Fight’ is on view at Gianni Manhattan, Vienna, until 17 December.

Main image: Matthieu Haberard, Marcel helps us 1 (detail), 2022, crayons, ballpoint pen, charcoal, canvas, wood, 1.9 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Gianni Manhattan, Vienna; photograph: kunst-dokumentation.com

Kathrin Heinrich is an art historian and critic. She lives in Vienna.

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