A Picture is a Picture is a Stupid Little Picture
Damian Smith 2012
That Matthew Bax has been painting now for more than a decade is something that might normally go unremarked, yet his practice, enacted largely in the confines of the artist’s studios, has occurred in settings that are as divergent, one to the other, as they have been influential in the evolution of this rich artistic vision. For Bax much of the new millennium’s first decade has been spent in locations ranging from Melbourne and Singapore to Munich and Istanbul. These are the cities which have inspired his imagination, but equally have afforded the artist with the opportunity to contemplate the traditions that for the most part are specific to each region, and through which traces of his own practice can also be perceived.
The title of his most recent body of work, ‘Pretty, Little, Stupid Pictures’ tells us little about the personal history of the artist or his motivations; moreover it might easily and incorrectly lead one to imagine that a ‘charm-school’ offensive is now being advanced by the painter. Yet before any such conclusions can be drawn it is helpful to be reminded that this precise body of work has emerged in no arbitrary fashion, but rather after a sustained engagement with diverse painterly approaches that reveal a complex and wide-ranging grasp of the medium and its possibilities. The exact nature of these processes have at times been annexed from each other in different bodies of work, while at other times brought together as overlapping elements that merge in the artist’s processes and inner ruminations. According to Bax his artistic influences run to painters like Francis Bacon, Antonio Tapies, Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Anslem Kiefer and Marc Rothko. While each of the artists named have a profound painterly capacity, they are by no means unified in their interests or intentions. Cy Twombly for example is consumed by the gesture and the mark, whereas Kiefer is concerned as much with content and meaning as he is with formal or pictorial resolution. These differences in fact are for Bax the tensions that animate his work, presenting themselves as puzzles to be solved or resolved in the search for a cogent synthesis, offered up at times to the viewer as a riddle to be subjectively resolved or dismissed.
Bax is a sensuous kind of painter, one who explores the visceral materiality of things and considers how best to deploy them in his works. Beyond the paint, be it oil, acrylic or more lately a runny kind of enamel, a host of permeable and found materials are incorporated into his compositions. Some of these resolve themselves into sparsely reductive forms, as can be seen in the 2010 series ‘The irrelevance of Painting’. In comparison in the series titled ‘Is Text Cheating?’, which was also painted in 2010 the artist sets out on quite a different trajectory. Here especially we can detect a questioning of the capacity for post-formalist painting to deliver beyond the confines of the medium alone. In short can anything be gained by the inclusion of text within a painterly work of art or rather must the demands of compositional resolution always dominate?
Similar considerations to those expressed above are echoed in the new series ‘Pretty, Little, Stupid Pictures’. Seemingly ironic in tone, the heading draws attention to the objections and even unspoken introjections that painters routinely encounter when they are faced with the unthinkable task of creating for no other reason than beauty. For Bax however this apparent contemporary taboo has presented itself as a productive kind of challenge. The flowers that feature in these works coincide with the flowering of a new personal relationship and with it entry into a gentler domestic sphere. Reflecting upon these works Bax has pointed to this change in the personal realm as a point of inspiration, commenting that “If relationships somehow absorb, soften our great egos (well lets hope that they would), then domestication has a powerful effect/influence in the art arena. Perhaps this series has just as much to do with my art practise and the life of an artist. There is probably nothing more self centred than being an artist and there is a terrible history of the private lives of famous artists, none more so than Picasso.”
For the moment at least any such tensions are only peripherally apparent. The paintings are dominated by the motifs of flowers and carefully balanced shoes. They begin as clearly recognizable forms, but eventually, as the paint takes over, run to abstracted shapes and marks that threaten to overshoot the picture plane. In works like [Img15480cc], 2012 the repeat pattern ubiquitous to domestic fabrics appears as a starting point. Yet as the series progresses a looser approach emerges, as we see in [Img15488cc], 2012. In his representation of shoes a similar progression can be seen. In [Img15476cc], 2012 the form is clearly articulated; these are shoes or possibly bedroom slippers, pink on a bed of duck-egg blue. In [Img15483cc], 2012 the scene is rather more dissolute and by the time [Img15479cc], 2012 emerges a darkness both gritty and abstract is attendant. Surprisingly one must add, such observations are by no means prominent when first purveying the series, as indeed a beguiling gentility seems to inhabit the works. The effect I suspect is intended, as the artist has also remarked that “the work requires the viewer to complete the story. That said, if the audience just see pretty pictures then it’s also successful. I think a good work of art should guide but never spell out the message, arts ambiguity (when properly measured) is one of its greatest strengths and excitements.”
In addition to the works painted directly onto canvas and board Bax has also painted over photographic images. These generally are of industrial kinds of spaces, a warehouse door or stairway stacked with blocks of wood. They are not the things of a softened domestic space but speak perhaps of an underlying tension or perhaps enabling support; for most at least it is the world of work that sustains the family domain. For Bax it is the call of the artist’s practice that acutely holds his attention; it always manages to impose. “The medium,” he explains, “is at the soul of my work, I'm always thinking about the academic elements of painting, especially these days since it’s terribly old fashioned and conservative to be a painter. The subject matter of this current series is also a commentary on the conservatism and prejudice in contemporary art towards certain mediums and subject matter. Can one remain relevant if one paints, and if they paint floral motifs?” No such ambivalence was expressed by the well-known poet and art collector Gertrude Stein who, in a manner that seems especially pertinent here, famously declared in 1913 that ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’. This bald assertion of the facts of course unleashed all manner of postulations and digressions, a result I suspect that Matthew Bax would very much applaud. He is after all a painter who is acutely observant and sensitive and yet capable of conveying so many ambiguities in the formal and philosophical spheres; no mean feat we surmise for a painter of nothing more substantial than a handful of stupid and pretty little pictures.
DAMIAN SMITH, 2012