A Conversation with Bobby Mathieson

‘Blue Sceptre’

A sense of recognition and confusion pervade Bobby Mathieson’s portraits, a feeling not unlike seeing a familiar object through a grassy haze or a chemically induced kaleidoscope. Or like catching Coltrane’s My Favorite Things right in the middle of his flight, in between the safe themes. At least that’s the initial reaction — Mathieson’s portraits reveal their depth through their textures and a variety of brushstrokes. His subjects, often figures from pop culture or historic images, are transposed out of their cultural or social contexts into the one provided by the artist. A spirit of transgression, truancy, and enfant terrible wash over the viewer through the haze. One can’t help but be giddy in the presence of such playfulness.

The fact that such feelings are akin to those induced by imposing on oneself a strict musical diet of MF Doom and Eric Dolphy is no coincidence. Mathieson is not only a life long musician but also a Doom aficionado with a penchant for blurring lines between the beautiful and the grotesque, the coherent and the distracted. The formally proportional works that reveal Mathieson’s time spent at Emily Carr Institute belie the fact that they are done in one sitting; like the best stuff of freestyle and bebop, done within the mood and rhythm ordained by the moment.

I met Mathieson at Project Gallery, the prominent Leslieville institute, where his latest solo exhibit was held. In person, Mathieson is calm and exudes confidence. He has a neck tattoo of Ms. Pacman and on the right sleeve of his beige coat is an oversized safety pin that holds the wrist strap. Alex Buchanan, one the directors of the gallery, who joined us, was kind enough to bring up a number of portraits for viewing during the conversation. It was a quiet Tuesday afternoon and the gallery was closed and we chatted about art, Doom, and the 60’s.

‘KMD’ oil on canvas, 16″ x 20″

Hoon: How did you guys meet?

Mathieson: I contacted the gallery via Instagram. I liked the momentum the gallery had and their recent shows. You know, sometimes you plan a show for a year or six months but things don’t work out, life gets in the way. But this time around, I had a body of work ready and suggested doing a show and it happened to come about relatively quickly.

Project Gallery — Leslieville, Toronto

H: How did the exhibition go?

M: We had fun. It was our first time working together but we both came through on our ends. It was a collection of works from 2011 onwards; a bit of a greatest hits kind of thing. So Alex, Dev (another director of the gallery), and I chose pieces we both thought were the strongest and are both happy with what we showed here.

A: Bobby is usually represented by Neubacher Shor gallery but we had this great opportunity to show his works here at Project Gallery during the interim period between shows. It’s a great platform wherein the artist has an opportunity to show his/her work more frequently. And for us, it was a chance to work with a more established artist.

M: It’s like a reintroduction — a reintroduction to a different clientele and the art scene in this part of the town. It’s a chance to grow and work with new people who are eager and like-minded.

H: Would you say your work is personal in nature or more conceptually and thematically motivated?

M: I’ve had my fair share of shortcomings and tragedies that I work through in my paintings, which come through in the final product. So they are personal in the sense that they help me work through my problems. It’s much cheaper than therapy [laughs]. But the contents haven’t been necessarily personal.

‘The Black Lodge’ oil on canvas, 48″ x 48″

H: Tell me a bit about your move from Scotland to Chicago.

M: Immigrating to America turned me onto pop culture. At the time, there wasn’t much to look at on TV in Scotland. BBC was black and white. The culture felt a bit gray. For instance, I remember seeing an orange for the first time when my uncle brought them back from Florida and the orange was actually orange [laughs]. Then when I moved to America, it was like going from gray, black and white to full color — blonde girls in blue jeans, video games, big cars, and heavy metal.

H: Is there a reason for focusing largely on portraiture?

M: Portraiture is the main bulk of my work but there isn’t really a specific reason why I focus on the form. They are like odes to the things that made me and keep me excited as an artist. The process involves screen shots from movies from a theme or a time period I get into. There’s a sense of playfulness and trickery in these portraits. I don’t find them as gruesome as some people have made them out to be.

A: When I think of Black Lodge for example, I see that it is grotesque but it’s also saccharine with a bright pink background that it’s almost like pop art.

M: Black Lodge is of Killer Bob, the evil entity from Twin Peaks. It’s funny that you mention pop art. Andy Warhol, who’s been a huge influence for me, during the 70’s, did portraits for anybody who had the money or of things he found interesting — the Electric Chair and the death series followed by the flower series. I’m much like that in that when I get into a band or a writer, or even a pair of sneakers I love — I know I shouldn’t be wearing them everyday, but I do anyways. It can’t really be helped.

‘Blanket Love’ oil on panel, 24″ x 30″

A: One thing that I thought was interesting was the idea of moving through history and being involved in the historical trajectory of the portrait as a form. You are working within a heavily weighted context. Historically, the likes of Velasquez or Goya painted portraits of people in the court. But what does that mean for us today and for contemporary art? Now the portrait is less engaged with politics and a fair amount of them are of people in the public consciousness, those who often belong to popular culture.

H: I’ve always found looking at portraits to be an intimate experience. But your subjects are also intimate in that they matter to you personally.

M: It’s really not necessarily my go-to phrase but, once again, they are ‘love-letters’ to things that mean something to me. They can be as small as a newspaper clipping or a random picture in a magazine. I’ll use the face from such clippings but also dress it up. Or I’ll cut out dresses and jackets and amalgamate them with a found image. For instance, one of my pieces is called Thespian and is of James Dean dressed as a 15th century pauper. People recognize the image but are simultaneously thrown off by the flamboyant and exaggerated outfit.

A: A lot of visitors comment on Love Blanket because the source image is so recognizable but the rendition is completely new. It’s made to look like a scene in a zombie movie [laughs].

M: Right, the photo was taken on the last day of Woodstock. It’s a piece in a series called Altamont, the emblem of the demise of the 60’s and what it wanted to be and represented. Sometimes, I’ll really get into specific time periods in music, art, or literature and mime those as well. I’ll be turned onto something by a friend or a sibling and eventually, through my work, make it my own.

‘Pet Sounds’ oil on canvas, 12″ x 12″

H: Do you think those more well versed in pop culture have a more accurate or better understanding of your work than those who aren’t? 

M: I think my works give different experiences to different audiences. Access to information isn’t necessarily a key entry point to my works; and it isn’t necessary in order for someone to enjoy them. Those privy to pop culture references will have a better understanding of the titles — Pet Sounds and KMD, for instance. But I don’t think anybody walks away from them apathetically — I think my work is engaging for anybody willing to take a look longer than the time it takes for a piece to have its initial impact.

H: Your works often feature heavily layered oil painting. How did that style come about?

M: Transitioning from animation and having primarily been a drawer, most of my work had been flat for a while. Then I gained sponsorship with a paint mill in Amsterdam for three or four years; I would do some social media for them and in return would get boxes of paint. It was a good deal [laughs]. So I had access. At first I continued with delicate flat works then one day, I took some paint and threw them on the canvas. Jackson Pollock and Francis Bacon use the same technique as do many contemporary artists but the thing is, oil paint is very expensive. It takes a lot of guts and bravado. For me, it was a matter of having that much paint available. It came out of something practical, nothing romantic about it.

H: But you certainly created your own style out of that abundance.

M: Certainly. The texture makes the paintings visceral and the portraits become fleshy. They’re decorative and not technically masterful per se, but they engaging. 

‘Deadly Flowers pt2’ oil on canvas, 18″ x 24″

H: What prompted you to paint flowers after so many portraits?

M: Landscape and nature are classic subjects for an artist and I wanted to explore them. I grew up out West but I never connected with nature — never went camping much or out on a kayak. But last year, during my residency at UBC, I reconnected with my time spent in North Vancouver. It was also during Spring, a beautiful time of the year in B.C. It was an opportunity to explore the classic subjects. But I also knew that I could paint flowers but still keep it aesthetically interesting and grimy. Dead Flowers and Summer Bummer are floral but the muted grays and blacks keep them from being simply beautiful things.

Bobby Mathieson’s works been featured in solo and group exhibitions in New York, Miami, Montreal, Toronto, and Southhampton; they have been photographed by Philip Chung, and reviewed extensively by various publications. His next solo exhibit is to be held at Neubacher Shor in Spring 2017.

Project Gallery, headed by Alex Buchanan and Devan Patel and located on 1109 Queen St E. in Leslieville, Toronto, is a commercial art gallery dedicated to promoting emerging and mid-career artists through various distinct exhibitions and projects. It was voted the Best Independent Gallery in NOW Magazine’s 2015 BEST OF TORONTO Readers Choice Awards. Its current exhibition,  Luminous, featuring artists Anser and SoTeeOh, runs until November 20th.