Toronto Painter Bobby Mathieson
TORO spoke with Mathieson about the pros and cons of art as an institution, how he developed his frenetic style, and his fascination with elves.
What’s your opinion of art school?
I don’t care much for its scholastic side — the dogma of art school can get into people’s minds and ruin the mystery or excitement. And many art schools are decreasing the organic and increasing the digital. As a painter and drawer, that is shocking to me.
A few months ago, we spoke with artist Adrian Williams. He told us, “If you can’t draw, you can’t think in certain ways.” Do you agree?
Definitely. I still have a classical animation degree. I studied anatomy and some mathematical skill was involved, and it was all hand drawn. You need that technical background to explore. You can’t abstract from nothing. Picasso’s work goes back to a primal, child-like place, but his early work was photorealistic.
So art for you is about going back?
All children draw. All children are artists. But for whatever reason, they go in other directions and lose that.
How important is humour in your work?
It’s important to not take things too seriously, but having a joke in a painting is not necessary. My art isn’t overtly humourous but I’ll sneak in references through heavy wordplay in the title. If you get the gag, you get the gag. It’s very nerdy in that regard.
Why did you choose paint over other mediums?
I had a paint sponsorship in Amsterdam a few years ago, so my thick paint application style comes from actually having a lot of paint! But aesthetically, I really enjoy paintings that look like paintings. Using paint is also a quick way to get to what I want.
Your work blends Pop art vibrancy with a messy, almost violent form.
The application can be violent at times. I think “visceral” is the word. All of my paintings — even the large ones — are painted in one sitting. I don’t ever go back to them to fuss and muss. That’s how that energy is transcribed.
How do you know when to stop painting?
That’s a very tricky question. Jackson Pollock would respond, “How do you know when you’re finished making love?” Being a drummer, I know when not to “add too much.” The painting’s done when I’m comfortable and I don’t feel the need to be with it anymore. It’s like the end of a conversation, or when you finish your lunch.
With Heroes, the portraits are abstracted (perverted, even) but what anchors them are the subjects’ striking eyes. Can you talk about that?
That came about from watching a lot of Scooby Doo — the paintings with moving eyes. I started throwing the eyes in last year and people responded to them. They connect the viewer to the portrait. The eyes are very important, as are the teeth!
Yes, the monster teeth.
Or elf teeth. Some of the figures have elf ears. That’s just me having fun. They give the portraits a sinister, “what the fuck” look. I’ve been playing a lot of LEGO Lord of the Rings for Xbox. That’s what the work’s about — whatever I’m obsessing over in pop culture.
What are the limits of portraiture?
If you go too far, if you hide the origins, then it becomes abstract art and loses its impact. In some of my paintings likeCamelot (pictured right), a diptych of Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, you can barely recognize the faces. That’s about as far as I can go. When Goya was a housepainter, his work didn’t progress because he was stuck in that format. It’s hard to put a narrative into portraiture.
So what’s next?
I’m going to take a break for a while. Heroes is my first solo show and basically my arrival. The next step is seeing what the response is.