Paul Maziar

"William Matheson’s Nocturnes: What You See You Also Don’t See" by Paul Maziar (commissioned essay)

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The night is long and poor in council. — Samuel Beckett (Malone Dies)

An absorbing solitude runs through William Matheson’s Antigen exhibition, evoking the remoteness, the chill, silence, and revelry of deep night. There’s also a hint of subversion in the way each painting registers as mind-image: that noiseless moving picture ever playing behind the eyelids. And it’s the social content behind Matheson’s new body of work that causes this. Here, the personal and the public merge in ways that allow Matheson to readily connect through his medium. He does so with the innovative hand of an adept painter, the mind of an occultist, upping the ante of what painting can communicate. 

Matheson’s content—addiction and Big Pharma; memory, loss, and the desire to preserve life in the face of societal and environmental collapse—is self-evident (as the doomy palette of the nocturne is wont to be) and yet discreet, never treacly. He successfully employs his medium to show instead of tell. In one painting, Phone (Fentanyl) (2019), a foil dispenser for the opioid Fentanyl mimics the petal-and-sepal formation of a flower. This is a reminder that direct observation can blend seamlessly with intellectual and emotional positions. The fact of death looms, making Antigen both attractive and repellent, not to mention Matheson’s turns of radar-green and what they invoke. Each person faces death in life while fearing it, unable to grasp it completely, while art is there to provide innocuous inklings. Just a little drop of poison casts light on the universal: curtains, darkness, the end.

Phone (Fentanyl) , 2019, oil on panel, 12 x 9 inches

Phone (Fentanyl), 2019, oil on panel, 12 x 9 inches

Paintings are so attractive, in part, because they’re often readily accessible, easy to take in as it’s all there on the flat canvas, pleasing to the eye and to the mind. “What you see is what you see” as the Frank Stella adage goes (or rather, went). Paintings are also in service to question surrounding social realities as related to one’s own. Matheson’s nocturnes draw the mind into recessed, shadowy spaces, encouraging (if not requiring) long-looking. Because of his painterly ingenuity, what you see you also don’t see. As I walked through Nationale to look at Matheson’s latest works, each painting literally changed before me. This is a trait that I look for in any art form, the dynamic ability to surprise as time passes; when a representational painting has this quality, it disorients in a good way. 

In Night Computer (Preserved Shark) (2019), a green glow bears the image of, you guessed it, a shark, preserved in a jar as a scientific specimen. Despite the fact of the apparent formal frankness of the composition—a computer turned on in the dark—a hidden image sits waiting for the viewer’s changed perspective. Standing beside the painting to gaze across its surface edgewise, the grid formation of a keyboard magically appears, black-on-black, baffling the eye and the mind. The surface and depth of the painting vibrate in apparent flatness that made me question what paintings are. 

Night Computer (Preserved Shark) , 2019, oil on canvas, 26 x 40 inches

Night Computer (Preserved Shark), 2019, oil on canvas, 26 x 40 inches

Having seen and walked away from the exhibition, I began to wonder what other hidden optical nuances were being transferred, subliminally dispatching things to which the eye might latently attend. In another painting (spoiler alert), Night Window with Ghosts (2019)—this one a still life of a reed in a bottle in front of a photograph taped to a wall—figure and ground (and thus perception) are destabilized by a “sudden” apparition, putting in a vapory appearance somehow behind the dark background of a wall. The dim pallor of a face below dark brushstrokes that communicate “hair” is enough to make the whole exhibition worthy of return visits, deeper consideration, maybe a nightmare or two. I thought to myself, if such optical tricks can be played in paint, why don’t artists play them more often? The answer is that to do so at all means to risk relating to the hoary tradition of parlor games. 

Night Window with Ghosts , 2019, oil on canvas, 26 x 40 inches

Night Window with Ghosts, 2019, oil on canvas, 26 x 40 inches

With Antigen, however, Matheson successfully activates the visual field (i.e. it’s specifically not static) making the case for the medium of painting at a time when it seems anything is possible when it comes to image rendering and communication (I’m thinking VR, holograph, video, and everything else). Surface and depth fluctuate, hover and sink, and emphasize the fact of the unseen relative to the image. The exchanges, juxtapositions between the glow and pitch from within these paintings, make for an engaging, memorable experience. In the art historical tradition of the nocturne, Matheson is working within and commenting on the objective rendering that is in service of evoking subjective states, memories, fears, longings, emotions—in short, the unseen. To put this style into practice now, by way of subjects that refer to the often banal trappings of contemporary life (iPhones, laptops and the endless “content and information” they project), Matheson’s work satisfies; his occupation takes note of our period. It encourages change in how to see the world, calling for an engrossed consideration of the image, what we use to see and process it: the screen, the eye, the mind. 

This commissioned essay is supported in part by a Project Grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council. 

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Paul Maziar is a writer and editor. His art writings can be read at ArtPractical, ArtCritical, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Oregon ArtsWatch, WhiteHot Magazine, and Rrealism.

William Matheson lives and works in Portland, OR. He has exhibited nationally at galleries in Richmond, VA, Washington, DC, and New York. Internationally, his work has been shown in Switzerland, South Korea, Japan, and the Czech Republic. Matheson is the recipient of a Milton and Sally Avery Fellowship Award from the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT, an Artist Grant from The Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation in Montreal, and a recent Project Grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council in Portland, OR. He has been an artist-in-residence at the Örö Residency Programme in Finland, Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA, AIRY in Kofu, Japan, and the Vermont Studio Center. Matheson received his MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, in 2016 and his BFA from Portland’s Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2013. He is represented by Nationale in Portland, OR.

PAUL MAZIAR INTERVIEWS JAKE MANNING

Jake Manning takes us into his creative world, for insight into his first solo show at Nationale, Guests of Space.

Jake Manning's  Guests of Space  is on view through April 17, 2018

Jake Manning's Guests of Space is on view through April 17, 2018

Paul Maziar: In The Myth, the guy with boots seems to disappear/into the weight and powder of the birthday cake. Given the spacey background (nothingness) it's both hilarious and bleak, right? How might tragicomedy figure in your work?

Jake Manning: I’ve always had a dry sense of humor, even a little twisted. I think I’m dealing with serious subject-matter, but it’s kind of hard for me to fully express that sort of thing. Humor, using cartoon imagery, myths, fairytales — those things are a vehicle for me. For instance, it used to be that when a country had been invaded, they would save vital cultural information by storing it away in fairytales. Fairytales are also full of promise, the ugly can become beautiful, the frog can become a prince.

JAKE MANNING,  The Myth , 2018, acrylic and collage on canvas, 24 x 20 in

JAKE MANNING, The Myth, 2018, acrylic and collage on canvas, 24 x 20 in

PM: I wonder about time-travel in your practice: going back to the earlier periods of your youth while you’re painting. 

JM: For these paintings, I’ve been going into a certain mode. I’m prone to periods of preoccupation — when I was young it was sports, playing basketball, spending hours on end at the gym. I’m slow to process whole periods of my life, like ten years behind or something. So I’ll begin to process that period of time, and search for meaning in my life. Like, “I do all that for nothing?” 

In my early-twenties I started watching films, kind of obsessively — multiple films a day, etc. When I started painting, I’d been absorbed in film this way for over ten years. I started asking myself “what am I really doing here?” Feeling like I needed to figure something out, I started painting. Almost immediately, I realized that I was processing all these films from that specific period of my life. I would go through all of my favorite movies, scene by scene and take photos of my favorite scenes. I didn’t think about why they stuck out to me, I just took them. I started doing all these paintings of particular scenes, and it was eery to me because these scenes were so telling the story of where I was in my life during those exact moments. For example, at that time I was feeling pretty isolated, and like I needed to be something that I wasn’t. Through that process, I was able to access things that I’m not able to in ordinary day-to-day life. Intuitively, I’d been selecting imagery that aligned with deeper things I’d been experiencing. Trusting intuition had become super important to me. 

PM: This makes me want to ask about the Butterfly Man — a leitmotif in your paintings, and also the gnome-like figure that recurs. You had said something in the studio about a figure that grants admission to the past, a kind of spirit of the past. Is painting those forms a way to summon these deep subjects and memories?

Jake Manning,  The Shining , 2018, acrylic and oil on canvas, 16 x 12 in

Jake Manning, The Shining, 2018, acrylic and oil on canvas, 16 x 12 in

JM: Kind of. I tell little stories in my paintings. I’ll start intuitively, and imagery will spring up that I don’t really care all that much about, so I’ll paint or scrape over it, repaint, etc. Here’s the interesting thing. Say I start a painting and I’ll want it to be a certain thing — the Butterfly Man is a good example. I’ll begin, and come to a point where it’s just not working for whatever reason. So I’ll get rid of it, painting and repainting… but eventually, I’ll come back to that initial imagery, but in a totally different form that’s more in line with what I’m trying to do aesthetically, in the language of painting. It’s interesting to me that that happens. I’ll also sometimes feel guilty about staying in the past so much. 

Very close-up detail of  The Birthday Party , 2018

Very close-up detail of The Birthday Party, 2018

PM: Why guilt?

JM: I think it’s because of all those sayings, you know: “don’t look back,” or “get over it,” etc. But I think there are things to be worked through from the past. Sometimes, I’m just trying to figure out why I’m so pissed off. 

PM: So is that one reason you might invoke happy things from childhood, like the boots that you loved wearing as a kid?

JM: Yeah, I’m always trying to keep a balance. If I start to go too dark, I’ll lean on what’s funny. Or cutesy. 

PM: What about your huge pink painting with the pony, Trojan Horse?

Jake Manning,  Trojan Horse , 2018, acrylic and marble dust on canvas, 60 x 50 in

Jake Manning, Trojan Horse, 2018, acrylic and marble dust on canvas, 60 x 50 in

JM: The paint in that one is applied very gently, with dry brush, and I used marble dust, which is this powdery substance. It’s like I was applying makeup. It created a haze, a kind of softness to it. It’s the same sort of haze as going back in time, and also learning to trust intuition. It’s a hazy process, especially at the beginning. I sort of equate that with digging around in the past, to try and figure things out. It really is when the body comes into the process: learning to trust if something resonates with you, by creating a dialogue with your body. 

PM: Sometimes people will call for representational art, something that’s more obviously from life. But sometimes, I can see life in certain pieces of abstract art, just as readily as a human form or a face. The super abstract element of that painting — there’s so much life in that. In such a way that it’s almost an experience unto itself. 

JM: That’s what I want to. During my BFA, I was painting pretty abstract. It was the first time I was able to work out of a studio, with a lot of space. I knew that I was just going to use a LOT of paint, and I was going to use my body. I wanted to depict space, without the illusion of veils of paint.
It’s embarrassing to say, for some reason, but going to see the Rothko paintings at the museum was one of the most moving experiences. I wanted to hate Rothko — there was that huge exhibit in town and everyone was like “oh, yeah, I went and cried…” But my friend and I went to see the show, and ended up staring at one of his all-black paintings. I locked into the surface of the painting, and all of a sudden it started to move. I was seeing purple and white emerging out of the back of it — it was so trippy. I realized later that it was probably just because it’s a huge black painting and my eyes were adjusting to the darkness. But I felt tricked by that a little bit. At the time, I wanted it to be something else…

One of Mark Rothko's  Black Form Paintings (  No. 8 ), 1964. 

One of Mark Rothko's Black Form Paintings (No. 8), 1964. 

PM: Did you cry? [laughter]

JM: I didn’t cry, but we stood there for half an hour just staring at that one painting. During my BFA, I wanted to make these space paintings. I was telling myself that I didn’t want to create an illusion — I wanted the paint to be thick and loose and messy. 

PM: It’s funny then, that this show is called Guests of Space. Because it’s that space you were working with before — or at least similar — but now with all these figures and forms, landscapes: your “guests.”

JM: Yep. But I think there’s still a part of me that wants to do these large paintings that are more like an experience. Washes of pink light and stuff like that. But I’m also not quite there yet, and I feel like there’s too much imagery floating around in my head. I was a TV kid. My sister says that I would just often be found just sitting, staring at the TV. My mom says that she walked in once to find me kissing the TV. I was really into it. I feel like I have to work through all that imagery.

PM: I think it’s a great idea to obey your mind in that way. Your body, too. It seems like you’re really in touch with yourself and psychic needs.

JM: Painting helps with that. 

PM: I gotta get painting then. To get back, why do you like to go rooting around in the past?

JM: With painting, I think I always feel like I’m trying to get to a place where I connect with people. I’m always running that through. Dealing with emotion through painting has been really interesting to me — it has really anchored my life in a way. It definitely helped me process difficult things. When I went under hypnosis, it was such an interesting experience because I was lucid. The most profound experiences prior to that were more psychedelic. Those experiences were profound but also kind of scary, dealing with lots of primal imagery like serpents and stuff like that. To this day, snakes are a primal fear for me. I grew up close to a lake in Texas with snakes all around. So, I’d gone to get hypnotized to try and quit smoking, and it ended up being, basically, a trip through the past where I revisited certain unnerving events. In hypnosis I was able to enter these kinds of moments and calm my child self down. That’s where the butterfly comes in. It’s like a symbol, it represents a journey to a particular time in my life, like the ghost from christmas past.

Jake Manning,  Waterfall , 2018, acrylic and gouache on canvas, 24 x 20 in

Jake Manning, Waterfall, 2018, acrylic and gouache on canvas, 24 x 20 in

PM: Why do you think that the snake has always been such a prominent symbol? 

JM: I think it’s a really primal thing that appears to be negative, but that needs to be confronted. It’s a transformative kind of thing. I think that’s what's supposed to happen, but doing that is a different story. 

PM: So you believe that fears should be faced, dealt with.

JM:  Yes, for me it is important to try and face my fears, but I always have to remind myself to be patient and gentle and use the tools that I have worked on with my therapist — otherwise it is easy for me to feel overwhelmed.

PM: I’ve been feeling like the times we’re living in really require us to be doing that. I mean, I’ve been feeling that pull in my creative practice. Do you feel that engagement in purely aesthetic exercises is sometimes being replaced by a concern… or work that engages with what’s happening to people, and making connections to that? 

JM: It’s a real cut-the-bullshit kind of time. During recent times of social upheavals, I’ve reflected in my studio, asking myself “what the hell am I doing?” I’ve been stern with myself about my work, kind of saying “in order to make art during this intense time, I’d better be honest and serious about what I’m doing.” There’s no posturing during this time. Brutal honesty, raw. That’s why I’ve been working this way, representationally. Get it all out. In a way, it’s what we have to do.

Painter Jake Manning and co-curator Paul Maziar during the reception for  Guests of Space

Painter Jake Manning and co-curator Paul Maziar during the reception for Guests of Space