Francis Matthews: Urban Materials
Interview - February 2019
BOTB Encountering your paintings for the first time I was struck by the way in which the absence of people and the sometimes near-total removal of natural light, and with it the whole natural world in a way, leaves only the built and the constructed; the body of the city in (artificial) light. And, although recognisable to those that know the locations, the work mostly depicts the ‘background’ city, the quotidian world of streets and buildings, rather than ‘Architecture with-a-capital-A’. It’s the sedimentary fabric of the layered, the built on and adapted, hence the thought that your interests might overlap with ours.
Despite the absence of people, each scene buzzes with their activity - the improvised drain runs of a converted house, a stretch of road patched with tarmac, the security shutters that wrap a once more elegant shopfront, the temporary hoarding that covers a facade under repair. I’m struck by the presence of the all these humble acts of construction, moments of repair and maintenance that make up much of the urban fabric.
In interviews I’ve read you’ve spoken about your interest in ‘un-designed’ spaces and I wondered if you feel like you’re championing these quotidian spaces?
FM I am definitely very drawn to these quotidian spaces. For a lot of the reasons that you describe in your question. There's so much happening in what could be described as background or nondescript places when you start examining them. There is a lot that can be read into a space from all the marks it bears.
I like that these places are quite messy in their form and how they are modified by use, by natural processes and by intention. Another messy aspect I enjoy that I discover in a lot of the places occurs when I'm setting up the painting. I'll usually find the vanishing points to help with the perspective and in a lot of the laneways it ends up being a cluster of points rather than a single vanishing point, this is because the planes aren't all perpendicular or parallel, they're usually just slightly off. The reality of these places and their deviations from an ideal is something that I'm very interested in exploring and showing.
BOTB The empty urban scenes depicted in your paintings bring to mind cinematic precursors; Michelangelo Antonioni’s empty street corner at the end of L’eclisse (where neither protagonist turns up for a rendezvous but the camera nevertheless does) or perhaps those scenes in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks where the camera just sits at a road junction watching the traffic lights change colour in the wind. How strong an influence is cinema in your work?
FM I do think cinema has been quite a strong influence, in terms of mood, composition and subject. A lot of films depict the city and it's less glamorous side and I'm sure this feeds into my desire to explore these parts of the city.
I really love films that have the camera lingering longer than it 'needs' to. Or camera movements that aren't motivated by following a character. And films where the place is very influential in the unfolding of the narrative. These things can bring your attention to filmed aspects of a place that would otherwise go overlooked, either allowing the 'background' to be considered in relation to the narrative or to set it on an equal footing to the narrative. I like the ambiguity of these filmic gestures.
One exhibition I had a few years ago I thought of as similar to a filmic sequence. There were ten paintings along a route, with a pairs of 'shot/reverse shot' paintings occuring at places along the route where the space/function changed. The idea of a sequence and the pairs of paintings were directly taken from film language. I was trying to suggest how built form speaks/responds to adjacent built form with the 'shot/reverse shot' idea.
I sometimes do quite 'widescreen' paintings also, which are composed from multiple photographs. It would be quite hard to take in the full width of the painting in a single glance. I have thought of these compositions as similar to a panning shot in film. Where the camera is pivoting on the one spot. This is how the paintings can be taken in. I have recently been exploring ways of translating other aspects of cinematography/editing into painting, hopefully it will help me expand my approach.
BOTB Is this new work tied to a specific location?
FM I am working on a few paintings from a recent trip to Venice at the moment, I'll be back there again soon to get more to work from. The new series is related to how I'm applying the paint too. I'm trying a looser approach in some areas of the painting, seeing if I can break from my impulse for refinement. There is something I like in a restrained looseness that I want to explore.
Venice is very enticing as a subject, at night it feels very much like a film set. The narrow, enclosed streets can isolate you in a contained area and can seem like an interior space. There is a quality to how sound works in those enclosed streets, it feels almost artificial sometimes, but the very apparent presence of time in the worn surfaces fights the artificial feeling.
BOTB I can’t help thinking of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in connection with this.
FM I do really like how 'Don't Look Now' incorporates Venice throughout. Day and night are depicted quite differently in the film, the day time scenes usually have more of the open, expansive views and at night the more enclosed. The film had some scenes showing how quickly the place can turn from a busy populated street to suddenly being very empty and foreboding. It is a very rich location and I think a lot of the character and particular spatial aspects of the city are used to great effect.
The sparse lighting at night that make only fragments of buildings visible in the blackness are used to good effect when the couple are lost at night. It adds to the confusion and labyrinthine atmosphere of the place.
Interview Posted February 2019
Image on front page: Francis Matthews, Mercato di Rialto, 2019, oil on board 30x22 (cropped)