May 1 - May 7, 2021
ACTION HOUSE starring Matthew Maher, an installation of the video works, Escape from Texas & First Blood Part II, completed during his candidacy at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, TX. This collection of multi-layered video essays are an ode to the cartoonish qualities of American masculinity. Performing scripts from popular films, interwoven with film analysis pulled from online forums and discussion boards, Maher is both subject and actor, toggling through layers of physical performance, costume, and characters dissolving our notions and memories of 80’s rugged film heroes.
Starring Matthew Maher, Narrated by Zak Loyd, Hair and Makeup by Tamara Johnson, Publication by Leah Flook, Direction and Essay by Trey Burns
Scene from Escape from Texas
Installation view of First Blood Part II
Installation View, SP2
Exhibition Text by Trey Burns
I grew up in a small town in Georgia that was, for a time, called Hog Mountain. As you can imagine it was a little redneck, with the charms and horrors of any small place. In high school there was a football player named Jake who at 16 had the first tattoo I’d ever seen — crudely rendered barb wire wrapped around his bicep. He was terrifyingly muscular for his age, and loud, but funny and a little theatrical. One day, he grabbed me in the hall and asked me if I knew how to work a video camera. How did he know? I said yes and he invited me to come over to his house in a tone that almost seemed like he wasn’t asking.
After school I met up with Jake and followed his lifted Ford pickup truck with my mom’s Volvo to a scruffy neighborhood called Ashton Woods. The “ A” had fallen off the sign years ago and was never replaced, so all the local kids pronounced it phonetically as “Shit on Woods.” In a large corner lot, behind a split level house with an unkept, high hedge was a wrestling ring. Tires, old mattresses, tarps, mats, 4 x 4’s, and moldy hoses stretched between turnbuckles. I remember a 20/20 episode — peak Connie Chung — about the dangers of “Backyard Blood Baths,” and suddenly here I was. A group of guys in basketball shorts and tank tops were hanging around under a pine tree drinking beer. Jake, who was smoking a Swisher Sweet, opened a can and offered it to me which I accepted mostly out of fear. As I politely sipped the top of the first beer I’d ever had the rest of the guys ignored me and Jake started calling out pairings. They lumbered together, lurching upward into the soggy ring and began practicing their stage punching. This move consists of stomping your foot as you check swing your punch across your partner's face.
Around this same time I first met Matthew. He was a theatre kid with LA Looks spiked hair, who wore Banana Republic, rectangle glasses, and a leather jacket that would have been described at the time as metrosexual. By Hog Mountain high school standards, Matthew was a vetran actor, performing in school productions such as The Crucible, Of Mice and Men, West Side Story, and Bye Bye Birdie. A heavy hitter. I was intimidated when we were cast together in The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), a speedy and comedic take on Shakespeare’s 38 plays. Matthew’s character, Adam, begrudgingly played all the female roles in the plays. This got Matthew all the accolades with the theatre crowd during one-act competitions. We formed a friendship and a collaborative partnership that has followed us into our late thirties.
Publication Detail, designed by Leah Flook
Since high school, Matthew’s interests have circuitously flowed from theatre, to improv, to punk bands, to voice acting, to a brief stint as a snake wrangler for television, and eventually to art school. I had moved to Dallas with my wife and encouraged him to apply to Southern Methodist University. As he went for his MFA and wrestled the polarities of his various interests into alignment, we rekindled our collaborative work. It was also here, after twenty years of friendship, that Matthew first told me about his almost nightly ritual of watching Rambo II. To him it functioned less as a Disney Adult’s brand of escape, but more like a strange lullaby. I had never seen it, so we sat down and gave it a go. During this first viewing, Matthew gave me an in depth analysis of Stallone’s eye acting techniques. To watch a film with Matthew is to float in a log ride of trivia, cast member filmographies, impersonations, and miscellany.
Back at the wrestling ring, after warmups, the battles commenced with Jake as referee. I struggled to find a place for myself with the camera, shooting from the ground at the foreshortened pugilists. In the first match, a rogue punch broke one guy’s nose, shooting blood radially across the ring and into my beer. Jake ripped off his shirt to mop up the carnage, and I tucked my can under the mat. As the bleeder sat in the pine straw waiting for the stop, the show kept on. Contrary to my expectation that this would instill a sense of caution, the stunts escalated.
It was all sort of weird, kids from my high school hitting each other with metal chairs, bashing light bulbs on their heads, and jumping on each other from the top of a six foot ladder, but filming it was exhilarating. Instead of inventing their own characters they performed as popular professional wrestlers, a cover band for The Attitude Era of the World Wrestling Federation; Mick Foley, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, and the Undertaker. Each repeating catchphrases and clumsily executing signature moves and takedowns. I remember finally realizing that there were no girls around and decided that this was not the place I needed to be. After filming for an hour I went home with a headache and left Jake with a tape I have always wished I kept.
After Rambo, Matthew and I sifted through his collection of DVDs digging deeper into the action genre. When we arrived at the gates of John Carpenter, Escape from New York became a perfect analogue for our Covid isolation. Additionally, beginning his second year of his MFA, Matthew also felt the institutional press of a particularly dysfunctional program. Our videos began as a few improvised sessions and grew outward, grabbing up cosplay gear, affected film analysis, and pyrotechnics. Matthew is both subject and actor, toggling through layers of performance, costume, and characters. In many ways these works come from reappraisal, seeing these films through the lens of now while trying to understand the grip they once held. It is an ode to the cartoonish qualities of American masculinity, reflected in the action heroes we emulated, dressed up as, and brought with us into adulthood.
Rambingo Screening Performance
Rambingo Detail, click to generate a custom card
Escape from Texas Production Still