Matthew Hoffman wants you to stay on the path

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A young Nora Ephron (read: prior to perpetrating such cultural abominations as You've Got Mail) once wrote a New York Times op-ed piece, "A Strange Kind of Simplicity," about Ayn Rand's seminal novel The Fountainhead and all the ways its readers tend to overlook a central point. In telling the story of the heroic, redheaded architect Howard Roark, Rand is lauding the individual over the collective, lambasting the concept of altruism, and celebrating the pursuit of self-interest as the highest form of good. But an 18-year old Ephron, reading the novel for the first time, missed all that. Instead, she writes, "I spent the next year hoping I would find a gaunt, orange-haired architect who would rape me." When I read that line, Ephron finally managed to make me do what all of her movies could not: laugh.

I too read The Fountainhead at a young age, and it took me several misguided years to realize that, at best, the story is a parable and, at worst, the sick fantasy of an author who finds free-market capitalism and sadomasochism appealing in equal measure. Either way, it is not, as my younger self believed, to be referenced as one of life's guiding sources. Beyond conflating the notions of love and violence, as she did for Ephron, the greatest disservice Ayn Rand did the reading public was to position the concept of individualism so far counter to the idea of the collective. She made me believe, for a time, that to be a part of anything , to need anything beyond myself, was weak—a flaw in character, a failure of spirit.

If only Matthew Hoffman had been around back then.

Created specifically for Comfort Station in Logan Square, Hoffman's current show, "Independence," reconciles the individual with the collective in a way that's both practical and inspiring. Drawing from such seemingly disparate sources as the Boy Scout Handbook and Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance," Hoffman manages to communicate the message that from a philosophical standpoint we may each be fundamentally alone, but with the right attitude we can all be alone together.

Among other media, Hoffman uses routed wood signs, the kind of evocative of childhood summers on camping trips or in state parks, to deliver exhortations like "Make a Stand," "Up to You," and "No One's Going to Do it For You." These are messages that speak directly to the individual, but in a medium that is meant to guide the masses—the signposts that keep us all from becoming lost. My favorite piece is a cut-paper poster layering the words "Never Alone" and "On My Own," which can, at first glance, be interpreted in at least three different ways. Hoffman seems to be addressing the very un-Randian idea that you can become self-reliant without rejecting an understanding of your place in the larger whole. We're all out there in the woods alone. Together.

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  • Matthew Hoffman

Most who are familiar with Hoffman's work likely know him through the "You are Beautiful" campaign. In fact, my first exposure to Hoffman was finding one of those small silver stickers (that he eventually managed to proliferate worldwide) affixed to a bike rack. I remember looking at it and thinking, "That's sweet"—sweet as in saccharine, sweet as in silly and baselessly hopeful. But then I saw one again on a bad day, a day I really needed to be told, out of the blue and by a total stranger, that I was beautiful. Then Hoffman's campaign didn't seemed silly or saccharine. It seemed like a fundamental expression of basic human kindness. I went from thinking "Why in the hell would someone ever do this" to "Why in the hell wouldn't someone do this" in the blink of an eye. And that's the genius of Matthew Hoffman. At first glance, his work seems easy, uncomplicated, and easy to dismiss. But look twice, and you grasp its profundity and power. It possesses, as Nora Ephron might have said, a strange kind of simplicity.

"Independence" runs through July 28 at Comfort Station, 2579 N. Milwaukee.

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