Sheridan Prize for Art

The 2021 Sheridan Prize for Art Archive


The amusement park is a playground for eternal childhood. Fun houses, Ferris wheels and roller-coasters. The price of admission grants one license to loosen up, throw caution to the wind and be on top of the world for a nanosecond before the g-force descent begins. Wholesome fun for the whole family. Yet like the circus or carnival, those perennial stomping grounds for creepy archetypal clowns, the amusement park also has an uncanny knack for peeling away layers of cultural decorum to expose the dark underbelly of a society. Who can forget the dizzying carousel scene Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, whose mechanical horses bob up-and-down indifferently as a hoof threatens to crush a child (Here, the merry go round represents unbridled passions, unhinged psyches and social norms spinning out of control)? Ideally shot in black-and-white, noirish scenes like this often take place at night when the id pops out in full fury like some demented Jack-in-the Box. Of course, danger doesn’t just lurk in the shadows. Daylight too can be an equally potent incubator for mayhem and murder. In his German Expressionist masterpiece M, Fritz Lang signals a missing little girl by her balloon stuck in the telephone wires. Inside Disneyland’s ostensibly friendlier playland, it’s perfectly normal for a family to get the bejesus scared out of it inside The Haunted Mansion and then go have a hot dog upon exiting.

 If not as overtly dark or sinister as Hitchcock or Lang, Phillip Matarrese’s photographs also have a cinematic air full of pregnant pauses and fuzzy cultural memories. It comes as no real surprise then that the San Francisco photographer is also an award-winning filmmaker. Flying Colors On Venice Beach has a strange poignancy in the way it suggests presence through absence. Shot with a plastic Holga ‘toy’ camera, Matarrese’s deliberately low-tech approach reaps rich aesthetic rewards as light shifts and color bleeds potently contribute to the dreamy atmosphere of a ghost town on water’s edge (The expansive sky dominating much of the slightly off kilter composition ranges from sky blue to sea green).

 The top of a pastel striped parasol intruding into the scene near the bottom hovers beneath folky store front advertisements for kites, Kettle Corn and Henna tattoos (We find no fewer than three signs advertising Henna Tattoos. At $5 a pop in some instances, these ink drawings aren’t meant to last. Impermanent body art that starts fading away after a few weeks.)

 One’s eye is drawn to a colorful panoply of flags and kites flapping in the ocean breeze tethered to poles and pipes. Instantly recognizable is the Raiders’ silver and black pirate logo, a reminder that the football team, like Kilory, was once the home team before moving back up north to become the Oakland Raiders again (and more recently bolting for greener— dollar-sign green—pastures in Las Vegas). An equally recognizable brand ingrained in our cultural consciousness is the rainbow flag. Here, it not only evokes LGBTQ+ Pride (and serves as a colorful complement to the Venice Beach Pride Flag Rainbow Lifeguard Tower not visible in the shot) but is also a fluttering memorial to those who succumbed to AIDS early on in the epidemic (like the balloon and missing little girl in M).

 Often, though not always, Matarrese’s photographs immortalize the markers of human activity in public spaces, but not the people themselves (in Flying Colors, the parasol top, but not the head it shields.) The hustle and bustle of commuter life is on full display inside Grand Central Terminal, NYC.. Shot from a bird’s eye perspective, the sea of humanity below is an impressionist blur. Modeled on a Roman imperial bath plopped into the Big Apple, the structure resembles a kind of sacred-secular Beaux Arts cathedral with its trinity of giant arched windows and large American flag hanging down from on high. What better locale for a visitation than a transit hub?

In Santa Monica Coaster, a companion piece to Flying Colors and the winning entry in the Photography category, we find ourselves back at the amusement park. Yet Matarrese’s compelling image owes more to Piet Mondrian’s late geometric abstractions constructed of primary color blocks than to Hitchcock’s dark vision of the psyche unhinged. It’s one of a dozen pictures taken during an afternoon ‘photo walk’ from Santa Monica to Venice Beach (c.2009) that gave the artist an opportunity to try out his new Holga. Once again, muted hues and half-light produce a dreamy yesteryear aura. The yellow-red cart whizzing by (or perched dead on the tracks) at a precariously steep angle atop the curving yellow roller-coaster rail slicing through the foreground is but one fuzzy focal point. Behind it, an enormous silver Ferris wheel (billed as the world’s only solar powered Ferris wheel) that soars to 135 feet above Santa Monica Pier, whose small round/hexagonal alternating yellow and red cars add syncopated splashes of color, dominates much of the scene.

 If Santa Monica Coaster appears to be another public space strangely devoid of people (no visible arms flung up in joyous terror on the roller-coaster or tiny heads poking out from the Ferris wheel pods) and tinged with nostalgia, the amusement park itself is formalist geometry on parade— a veritable blueprint for a highly abstract art: something resembling a large chain in the foreground is an isosceles triangle, the Ferris wheel’s massive base a pyramid, the Ferris wheel itself a skyscraping circle. Even its location on Santa Monica Pier distantly evokes Mondrian’s transitional Pier and Ocean series (whose minimalist black marks were already placed at right angles but set within quasi cosmic circles or ovals). And while Mondrian the purist would have appreciated that there were no clouds in the Southern California sky that afternoon, he would have recoiled at the atmosphere’s wispy blue to green chromatic shifts as well as by the profusion of curves. (Although curves were still present in some of the early cubist-inspired apple trees, they were pretty much purged by the time he began his geometric abstractions constructed from primary color blocks strategically positioned within predominantly black-and-white-rectilinear grids) There are precious few squares or rectangles anywhere in sight except for a black hole from the red undercarriage of the aforementioned cart in the foreground and the yellow w/thin red stripe sides of the tilted carriage.

 Yet Santa Monica Coaster still manages to share a strong affinity with Broadway Boogie Woogie, Mondrian’s World War II ode to boogie-woogie and New York City. Awash in reds, yellows, and blues, both artworks pulsate with primary color blips and jazzy syncopations. In Mondrian’s quest to create a Platonic art pruned down to pure geometry, the beauty lies more in the journey—the striving towards perfection but never quite getting there. (Interestingly, Mondrian’s late signature style has fooled many a would-be art forger. You can find fake Picassos and Matisses by the truckload on ebay, but there are few, if any, faux Mondrians floating around. Few artists were ever more poorly served by reproductions. In the flesh, his late signature style is an art full of subtlety and nuance. Far from being cold or mechanical, in reality it’s warm and sensuous). But whereas Mondrian shied away from lucky accidents, it’s these very imperfections that Matarrese seeks out and embraces. His artistic mantra, in fact, is “Perfection is overrated”. As such, he approaches his art with a childlike wonder armed with his ‘toy’ Holga. A suitable soundtrack for Santa Monica Coaster lies somewhere between The Beach Boys’ sunny Amusement Parks U.S.A. and the blood-curdling screams unleashed in Strangers On A Train.

~Harry Roche