Review: Molly Matalon — When A Man Loves A Woman (Palm* Studios) by Caiti Borruso


Last week I picked up a copy of When a Man Loves a Woman from Molly Matalon herself; I parked illegally and crossed the block to wait in the sun, eagerly and a bit apprehensively. The distancing had already begun, and I had been waiting to see the physical form of this book, after so many images splashed online – of both the book and its contents. It has heft, a sort of weight that feels concrete in one’s arms. I stood and clutched it to my chest as we spoke in her doorway. I could start anywhere, really, in writing about Molly Matalon, as I have thought often of her work when stuck, or when excited (the M key, when tapped into the Chrome address bar, yields her website on my desktop). A few years older than me, her work has slowly grown into something impossible to ignore, quietly amassing strength and clarity.

When a Man Loves a Woman, Matalon’s first solo monograph, draws together her work and presents it in an incredibly straightforward and classic way, photobook-wise: with a tipped-in image on the cover, pristine spot-varnished pages with plate numbers, and a plate listing that seems to hinge the whole book together. Nearly indecipherable on the back cover, the title is foil-stamped in massive scrawly handwriting that I assumed was Matalon’s (it’s not, but it doesn’t matter: the effect is that of a yearning girl writing in her fifth-grade notebook; I might associate all diaries with the one I was given at age ten). The work isn’t diaristic, though, and I hesitate to give it that association, of something so internal as to be unkempt or miscalculated. What is evident is how deliberately these pictures were made and placed together, and with such care. Structurally they are beautiful: soft and warm. Patient. All of Matalon’s subjects reside within close distance of the lens and of Matalon herself; physically they are all, if not within arm’s distance, a glance away. It would be easy, and incorrect, to dismiss these pictures as merely beautiful, as mere aesthetic constructions; their glossiness, and visual pleasantness, could lend itself to such a read.

It feels strange to try and write about a book that so clearly yearns for physical closeness, at a time when most of us have retreated to the insides of our homes, unable to touch anyone outside of them. Matalon’s portraits – warm in both tone and spirit, carefully considered – are all made in close distances not currently allowed; a desire for touch and understanding bleeds through the pages. A heteronormative, domestic desire – the title appears to wryly set the tone, but really the book is about Matalon herself, and that way that she specifically allocates her desire for men; that is, not unrequited but equal desire, the gentle tug of seeing and wanting to be seen. An uncritical but not infatuated sort of feeling, which is to say, the camera does not cast its net of shame here. And although there are no blatant self portraits – save My Two Toes In Hara’s Mouth, And One Of My Stray Hairs, In My Bed In Oakland, whose errant hair tilts the glossiness into a new space – despite the lack of a visible self, Matalon’s titles, long and aptly specific, posit her as not only author but participant and orchestrator. I don’t think the female gaze matters – I think this is a way of dismissing the multitudes of ways in which women see things, making a monolith out of one populace’s eyes. If this is a book about mapping desire – both yours, onto the sweetly bared torsos and necks and armpits of these men, and theirs, self-assured, determined, gently, as they meet the camera or your eye behind it – then it is so specifically about drawing the lines of Matalon’s desire, her own personal desire paths carved into the earth. There’s an acquiescence in the words she offers us through the titles, a shyness and an admittance: that it was your blanket on which Tim draped his bare body, on which you later slept. Together there’s a quality of both confidence and anxiety: the trust it must require, for someone to hang themselves upside down from the thick branch of a tree for you, one hand clinging, the other lazily close to the dirt, and the tightness of the frames, of the way this hollowed-out watermelon is so close to touching the edge of the frame, so close to contact.

Olive Juice – which Matalon made in collaboration with Damien Maloney, published by Vuu Studio in 2016 – reads like a prologue to this book. The title, a homophone of “I love you,” encompasses Matalon and Maloney’s relationship as it bloomed from coast to coast, as they met for the first time and came to live together. In its simplest form the book twists the heavily male-skewed trope of the cross-country road trip into something more tender, less external and colonial (the exploration of unconquered lands), more inquisitive and personal. The gentle dent a body leaves in the grass, both pale bodies separately pressed into a worn beige couch; throughout the pages it is hard to know whose desire is whose, who wants to be yearned for, who yearns. Need extends outward, and pulses, looks for more.

In When A Man Loves a Woman, Matalon’s desire isn’t constricted to one man or one torso or one pair. Unlike in Olive Juice, so narrowly focused on Maloney and the perimeters of their relationship, the spaces that breathed to fill those perimeters, this new book moves outward, and more inward; less a projection of what desire could be and more of an embodiment, fully, of it. A plush bough of grapes drapes over the precipice of one glass and into another, two errant grapes submerged, an intimation of touch, of swimming across the bed to a lover. And a man swims across the bed toward you, legs askew, like he is coming to pull you down next to him, or hold your legs, and once again everything hovers breathlessly close to contact, of what comes next: a gnawed plum, the somersault of a second body into the sheets, the smallest goosebumps and the smallest pooch of a belly in the sun.

Molly Matalon’s When A Man Loves a Woman is available now through Palm* Studios.

Caiti Borruso

b. 1993, Cliffwood Beach, NJ
lives and works in Brooklyn, NY

MFA candidate at Image Text Ithaca (2021)
book woman at Elementary Press
digging holes, humming loudly

See more from Caiti Borruso — Website / Instagram.