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Wrestling with chaos – Rob Matthews’ new work at Gallery Joe


Rob Matthews has always explored dualities in his subject matter — good and evil, faith and doubt, death and life, transgression and forgiveness.  Right now there’s a duality in his studio practice as well. Two bodies of work at Gallery Joe (one in ink and chalk and the other in graphite) are both in the service of the subject — chaos and its aftermath. Somewhere in the future, the artist says he hopes to weave the two methods together, perhaps using animation — or in large mural-sized works that he wants to do, stitching the whole together out of some parts ink and some parts graphite.

Rob Matthews, The Hunt, graphite on paper

This new graphite drawings feature some stunning portraits of trees. The works are not about the trees or about nature at all, although the landscapes reflect mostly real places like Fairmount Park and Zion National Park. The trees — monumental, and placed squarely in the middle of the paper — are witnesses to acts that happen around them and sometimes involve them. Beer cans litter the foot of one tree, evidence of a party; a cat stalks a mouse at the base of another; a snake climbs up the trunk of yet another; and mysteriously, a group of 25 bats is nailed to one poor tree. A figure — the artist — stands in his underwear before one tree, a grimace on his face, a beer bottle in one hand. He is off-balance and looks like he’s seen those bats nailed to the tree; he might just lose his lunch, or breakfast or dinner. There’s been some trouble; and there’s more on the way.

Rob Matthews, The Composer 2009 graphite on paper 10 x 8 inches

We’re in the realm of Christian story-telling, fairy tales, and the movies, and nothing is totally apparent, with everything symbolic and portrayed as if a misty and metaphysical fog has descended onto the land.

I spoke with the artist at the gallery last week. Here’s some of our chat:

Roberta-Why are you working in ink now after working in graphite for so long?
Rob – Ink was a way to work faster and be productive….Also, things have to evolve. It was a kick in the pants in the studio. I was able to cycle through things (more quickly). I don’t have a level of expectations with this (the ink)…as I do with graphite.

Well, also, you must have some carpel tunnel from all the graphite drawings …
No, and no vision problems. As long as you stop drawing when you get a headache… That is what happens when you spend 70 hours a week with your eye two inches away from the paper…About ink, the question is how use the material to best express something.   You have a line that can be a wash…and you can re-arrange (the composition).

You’ve worked with ink before
I have worked with ink before. The Spontaneous Combustion drawings.

Do you consider the inks finished drawings or working sketches?
Some are sketches but some are fully realized (and they wouldn’t be in the show if they weren’t all complete drawings).

Rob Matthews, seals from Mason jars, drawn in ink and chalk

Tell me about the drawings in the seals — they’re different than the others, more painty, and folk-art like
The seals are from the backs of the Mason jar. I did rubbings of the (embossed seals) on the back of the jars. Mason jars are from Philadelphia. Also, it’s what you put moonshine in in East Tennessee [Matthews grew up in Tennessee]. Also it gave me a chance to paint a little more.

Your work seems very much about America, rooted in place (Philadelphia) and using the feel of Hudson River landscapes and sources like folk songs (Knoxville Girl).
Yes, it didn’t start intentionally but but became so…for example, The Dumbest Man series [landscapes focused on different cities in the US].  I got into early German art –those people were committed to their region. The Germans are rooted in their forest. I’m indebted to European art, influenced by it but formulated in an American way. For me to do other than what I do is disingenuous. Do you have an influence because it is…or because it validates what you think?

Rob Matthews, The Snake 2010 graphite on paper 10 x 8 inches

Your influences include the movies — Hitchcock, for one.
The Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers once wanted to make a movie in Japan. I thought how can you do that…what you do is so American.

How about the role of photography in your work?
People ask why I work from photos. I do it to keep the emotions in check. It’s easy to be gestural and romantic…I don’t feel like manipulating (emotions).

Talk about collage. There are collage elements in the ink drawings. That seems radically new for you.
In Milan I saw the Raphael cartoon for the School of Athens–it’s a collage of little papers (drawings)! Collage is a way to work on large compositions…

Rob Matthews, Tree with Bats, 2009, graphite on paper. 25×21″, detail – 25 bats nailed to a tree

If you’re going to get big and radical, how about color in your future?
I don’t think color’s going to get in it. I don’t have to do color with drawings. But paintings…you need to work with color. Somebody said that with color, it’s all about color and everything else is subsidiary.  I do want to keep doing landscapes. They go with thoughts of the future. I got a tablet (computer drawing tool) for animation. I want to make a ten-second animation.

Talk about this idea of the night of chaos and the aftermath.
After Knoxville Girl I had this bigger idea — bat hunting, but it’s more than about the hunt.   Everything happening…chaos, then everything coming together in the end. There are films that deal with that –American Grafitti, Dazed & Confused. Also the Passion Story…

How about the grey mist that sits over everything
I don’t want to content to be directly related in the way it’s made.

There’s only one figure in the show, The Composer (picture near top of post).
He’s about half way through his night [of chaos] and he’s had a rough night, wrestling with issues of existence and faith. The future will be fleshing out this guy. I know where this guy is going.

Rob Matthews – It fills us.  we arrange it, to June 26, Gallery Joe