Bill Matthews – When Brush Touches Sky: Up Close and Personal with Artist Bill Mathews
I am in New York City on my way to visit the studio of the artist, Bill Mathews. I step off the elevator and head toward a tall dark door, an entrance to another world.
His paintings greet me in the whitewashed corridor. So does the smell of mineral spirits. Long before I reach Bill’s studio or see any signs of him in the flesh, I hear things being shuffled around inside, the clattering and clinking of jars, a chair being dragged across an old wooden floor, a painting being flipped over to reveal the forgotten treasure on the other side. A loud toilet hastily flushed in anticipation of an early guest.
But here I am, arriving ahead of time and in the hall where lined up against once majestic walls are dozens of paintings as though waiting in line to attend a secret event. A multitude of sensuous female figures in various poses, conversations and groupings lean against the silently yearning space. It is a scene where voices seem to lift from the very canvases they cling to and fill the air with sound even though I know they are incapable of speaking a single, audible word.
A particular painting draws me in, a large work in which three women chat and laugh. One woman is so “into the moment” that her head is thrown back in utter abandon with eyes closed, lips parted in a wry semi-smile, while the other figure emits a full-bellied laugh to yet a third smirking, I just swallowed the canary-looking, friend.
Ah, I think to myself. I’ve arrived at the ball too late to catch the juicy news that was obviously spilled just moments ago. What grabs me instantly is the simple fact that all the energy of a single moment has somehow been deftly captured on a static 5x5 panel. Energy frozen in time and space.
What is the mathematical equation for this phenomenon, I wonder. How do we express the fleeting energy captured in one of life’s moments when that life does not exist in traditional form?
I shift my gaze from the gossiping trio and take notice of a serenely beautiful, ghost-like figure on a bike. Although her details remain somewhat obscured to the viewer as she pedals madly around a bend in the road veiled in what appears to be a thick New England fog, I am haunted by her face because I can almost hear the whirl of her wheels, the pounding sea, smell the salty-sweet air, feel the endless barnacle colonies slice into my soft bare feet that instantly emit a small sliver of crimson when I wade through knee-deep waters undulating in and out of the craggy shoreline.
The water is so mesmerizing that I desperately want to step into the painting, lie on the sand and get lost in the delicate fray of the tall sea grasses so common to the Rhode Island coast. The feelings conjured up from this single work are so tangible and extraordinary it’s almost as if I am living in a time warp. It occurs to me that this is what Bill’s clients pay for, to be transported into another realm, a different dimension a forgotten corner of the soul, which is awakened suddenly by the intense strokes of a modern day master’s brush.
I intentionally pull my gaze away.
Next in line, I see a marvelous abstract in the shape of a pod. Four stand side by side, the extraordinary choice of colors, the blending of hues and shades and oval shapes that are somehow soothing, grounding, otherworldly. Bill’s pods have become somewhat famous around New York City. In addition to finding their way into various corporate and private collections around the world, they have graced two program brochures at Lincoln Center for more than a year.
They instantly draw me in and I see why others would feel the same way. And then, Bill opens the door in his usual cheerful manner; squints and smoothes back his hair before extending his opposite hand in greeting…
Mathews, if you haven’t guessed, is one of those rare artists who can capture the essence of the subject with a few deft strokes of the brush and without too much fuss or advance planning. I have been representing his work now for close to eight years, but have been collecting it for much longer. Over the years I watched my own modest collection of art swell to hold over 23 paintings. I hang his works in any space I can find. Some paintings are so large, they must be anchored to the wall. Never mind, I was simply compelled to buy them because of the feeling they give me every time I glance their way for they allow me to breathe in a world in which I’m forever short on oxygen. And although his abstracts are equally interesting, it is his powerful depiction of the female form that I return to time and again. Recently, I asked Bill why he paints women.
Why Women and Not Men?
by Bill Mathews
One of the rarely discussed aspects of painting and drawing is the physical pleasure derived from moving a brush or pencil over a surface in a circular fashion. Consciously or not, the human hand and arms tend toward looping motions, arcs.
As anyone who has ever observed children’s drawings knows, those drawings are invariably curvilinear until children reach about the age of 5, when he or she is handed a straight edge or told to “copy” a straight line. It takes concentration to draw a straight line, and most people, even trained artists, never really learn to do it without a straight edge. Matisse couldn’t draw a straight line to save his life, and often resorted to a plumb bob or chalk line to get the job done. His eyes, brain, and hand wanted to go elsewhere.
The subject comes up in context of my figurative paintings.
Why, I’ve been asked, do I prefer female figuration to the male figure? (I rarely, if ever, draw men.) The short answer is that I prefer looking at women to looking at men. I prefer women’s faces to male faces, and I, like most artists, prefer representing things I like to look at.
The more complicated answer is that drawing the male figure requres certain mechanical adjustments to my natural brushstroke and that takes some of the pleasure out of painting. Of course there is a kick in bringing a person to “life” with a few deft strokes. The final result DOES MATTER. But just as important to me is the effort required to do this. Too much effort spoils the fun. Since the female figure (or at least my idea of the female figure) is easily reducible to a series of arcs, and since my natural stroke (like most others on the planet) is a series of arcs, it’s only natural that I take the path of least resistance, and draw women.
Why Curves and Not Straight Lines?
I’ve never seen a convincing drawing of a man’s face or figure reduced to loops and squiggles, unless the subject of the work had a particularly feminine aspect.
Basically…it’s too much work drawing a male figure and I’m not interested in it. Although I was an excellent calculus and geometry student in High School, (Calculus was one of only six courses I aced at Yale.) I never gave a passing thought to the “discovery” of straight lines, or “invention” of straight lines, until a few years ago. Ok, there was Euclidean Geometry, and Pythagoras, and theorems, and definitions of lines.
No teacher or College professor ever brought up the subject of who conceived the idea of “straightness”…Straight lines just EXISTED because we had all kinds of straight edges, and strings to draw them.
But, it occurred to me one day a few years back… ”Wait a minute, there aren’t any straight lines in nature. No visible “rulers”, plants, mountain ranges, land masses, that might have provided a “template” for straight lines or given our prehistoric ancestors the idea: “Hey, I should try that.” The only (visible) straight line I could think of (and it’s not really a straight line) is the horizon line between water and sky, of a large lake or ocean.
By contrast, curves and parabolas, circles and spheres occur abundantly in nature, to the naked eye, as eggs, raindrops on puddles, and most importantly as the sun and moon. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the earliest art objects, houses and household items such as water receptacles were produced as variations on circles, using wheels and compasses. E
Our brains didn’t evolve to process straight lines, conceive of straight lines, much less figure out how to draw them, until the invention of string, or some observant Egyptian who, maybe noticed that pools of water, bounded by wooden slabs, left mineral deposits that were unlike other kids of lines: unusually straight.
What has all this says to me is that even though we, who live in cities and suburbs are surrounded by straight lines and flat surfaces, our brains are still deeply bound up (invested in) the circles and ellipses that occur in nature. The majority of humans still prefer a series of intricate squiggles and loops, to a matrix of ruled lines.
Pollack, as you know, is way more popular than Mondrian. Why? He’s sexier. 🙂 SANG FROID
I know exactly, as I’m working, when a painting is coming to life by a combination of brush work and serendipity, and I know exactly when I’m killing it. I have a long rap sheet (a photographic record) of paintings which I’ve killed off, not intentionally, but by placing one stroke too many. One mistake leads to another and the thing veers out of control like a train flying off its rails while going a hundred miles an hour.
The sang froid of painting isn’t so much putting up with lean times, or rejections, so much as fiddling with a really good work you have in your pocket, a saleable work, a perfectly gorgeous work, and taking the final risk of trying to improve it because there’s something about it that’s bothersome.
Sometimes it works out beautifully, but a lot of it is botched. That’s where sang froid enters into the equation. And you have to have that sang froid to be a painter. Otherwise you’ll wind up just repeating yourself.
For more information on Bill’s work please contact haut>art: 609-275-9146 between the hours of 10:00 a.m.- 6:00 p.m. EST.
To view more of Bill’s works please go to: http://potatoships.com
*If you would like to purchase a Mathews painting, please note that a portion of the proceeds will be donated toward Wild River Review, a 501 (c)3 not-for-profit.
Katherine is the host of the Mystic Pen Series. She holds an undergraduate degree from Berklee College of Music and a graduate degree from Harvard University. Her research interests are focused on both the significance and the impact of the aural and visual in cultures and societies around the world (as told through art and music) along with the nature of artistic creation itself. Her area of specialty is the transmission of Near Eastern motifs in Italian art.
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