SIMON MATHERS im Interview

Simon Mathers, They both laugh (2017), photo: Simon Veres, courtesy GIANNI MANHATTAN and the artist

Am Beginn diesen Jahres eröffnete Laura Windhager die Galerie "Gianni Manhattan" — ein echtes Must-See im 3. Bezirk. Nun hat sie den britischen Maler Simon Mathers nach Wien geholt und präsentiert damit seine erste Einzelausstellung in Österreich. PARNASS hat ihn zum Interview getroffen.


What is at the beginning of a new work?

This is a massive topic. Painting can take many approaches. They come from ideas. Either preconceived and laid out with an intended path or more naturally via working with and developing these ideas. One well conceived intention could spawn a disaster, whereas some seemingly trivial exercise can produce a years of work.

Moments of voyeurism appear again and again in your works — the voyeuristic gaze has a long history, also outside the history of art. Why did you decide to focus on this?

There are moments of voyeurism but I think the majority of what this seems to be is in fact looking. Granted the show prior to this one was about “dogging” and the activity of dogging. But what it is really about is painting and what is going on between the painting and the painter and therefore the painting and the audience.

The painting is the sexual act (pornographic) and the viewer or the dogger is the painter/audience. Barthes tackles the idea of language in painting by probing the relationship between the painter and the painting and therefore the painting and the audience. It is via this line of thought that I wanted to work with dogging as a concept. My exhibition in Brussels, "Beyond the trees" began to deal with dogging and painting on a visual scale but it is here in Vienna where I wanted to try and develop the concept and think about painting on a more meta level. I have never set out to think I am going to make paintings about dogging and people having sex in public. It has always been about how to paint, what to paint, and what one is doing when painting and therefore what one does to the audience when one shows painting.

So to go back to the voyeurism – it is something that we all partake in and are wound up in more and more voluntarily or not. One shouldn’t have to mention social media and computers and our digital self, or the powers of snooping and central intelligence agencies to see that we are all involved in voyeurism on some level.

Some of your works deal with "dogging," i.e., unofficial, publicly accessible places, where individuals observe couples having sex and are absolutely welcome to join in. Richard J. Butler has attempted to invalidate this theme as an artistic motif, arguing, in his oddity, with art historical motifs of nymphs, nudity, etc. In consideration of works like this: Why is nakedness, the sexual, the voyeuristic moment still relevant? 

Well this obviously relates closely to what I have just said about dogging and its parallel to painting and the presence of voyeurism in our lives today. But to consider nakedness and the sexual.

I’m not sure if I am in a position to say whether nakedness and the sexual are still relevant but I use them as tools because they are inherent to all of us. In varying degrees of form to be sure but still universal. I find it useful when approaching the expectations of what people believe and see. I try to use nakedness or sexuality in painting on a level where people will least expect them to be. Most of my works are not so explicit but try to deal with explicitness.

I have just shown a painting in Hamburg of a naked guy sat on his car bonnet. On close inspection he is smiling. There is something seemingly innocent to him that might be associated with summer days and nude picnics by a lake. But I think of his sweaty thighs stuck like glue to the car bonnet and the peeling slowly from the paint. I find him useful for bringing up a conversation about what people expect in painting and about what is in fact going on in this brief snippet of narrative.

The progression from the dogging show in Brussels to my show at Gianni Manhattan is straightforward. I have wanted to move the work from being explicitly perverted or sexual to about being of perversion. Some people say the works are perverted and I tend to have a level of agreement with them but in this new selection at Gianni Manhattan I have tried to show work that is painted with perversion and that which doesn’t necessarily depict perversion. Again I’m thinking about what painting is as well as what it is of.

I’ll ask again differently: What differentiates your discussion with these themes from those already anchored in the art history?

Well dogging or its equivalent was probably happening in some degree or other back in the Greco Roman times — if we are to take the art historical motif in this context as being about nymphs. So it’s not really about how it differentiates the position but more about how it deepens it.

It is characteristic of your work that the viewer is not provided a complete motif, but only (small) cutouts and is asked to complete the respective motif depending on his or her own experiences and his or her perceptive experience. How much will you leave for the viewer to fill in, and how do you decide what to leave out?

It is very important to leave space for the viewer. As I have mentioned it is about looking and seeing and being a part of the work. There has to be space for the mind to wander in the painting. There has to be space for the viewer to invent role-plays, colours, meaning and experience. Some people find the intonation or accent in a work chilling where others will find the same thing charming. There is not so much a decision on what to leave out, it is more a decision on when to stop.

What levels of meaning are anchored in your works?

Well this is a huge question that can parade itself through history. Meaning is obviously attributed to so much by so many and once the painting has been released then you are at the mercy of the audience and meaning is to a certain extent out of your hands. I try to make work that will conjure up experience or will speak of thought processing and inherent expectation. I would like people to see a bit of themselves in the painting.

In "You are Underground" there are two banks of paintings. There are the observational and concept toying works that present positions on painting and ideas about painting. They are involved in making worlds as well as presenting worlds. Then there are the three large head paintings. These are the parallel opposite and speak more about oneself and the extension of what painting is to oneself. More existential if you like.

People can see and read what they like into these things. They are essentially self portraits.

Are there certain criteria that a work must fulfill?

Yes, but this criteria is not preset. It can change and develop. I always try and "go somewhere" when working but I also try and be aware of this position and make work in opposition to it. There are certain elements of composition, colour tone, speed, line that make up the work and its about all these rubbing against each other that make a painting work. The results therefore change. The language of painting is kind of like a small vortex of fluff. It spins but it is soft and malleable and at times bits fall of it and get left behind. But also bits will join it and make the ball spin faster or heavier. All of this is part of the generator. If we go back to Barthes he says painting "it is not the repository of a system but the generator of systems". So things are always developing.

What role does "representation" play in your works?

It’s a shifting scale. I want the thing to be it, not of it. I have a love for drawing and the simplicity by which an idea can be presented. I try and get this lucidity of thought into my painting. Someone once said of a painting of mine that it looked like it had just landed. I like that. I want the work to be a niggle in the mind that slowly irritates. How it is made and the workings of the paint are important, but it is the sum of these parts together that are what make it operate.

What is the meaning behind the title of your exhibition "You are underground", currently on view at Gianni Manhattan?

"You are Underground" operates on many levels and is tied into many aspects of the show. The three large paintings are of the sky. These operate within different scenarios and different presentations of space. The meat ball heads are bound by gravity in two of the works, but ignorant of it in the third. Both my studio and Gianni Manhattan have light wells where the only view of the outside world is by looking up. People make shapes in the clouds and dream during the day. I wanted to make a very simple connection between that and painting. Painting is about the visual world but is also an extension of one self. I want people to look up and to imagine, and then to look down and to see.

Being underground is also that of being out of sight but being in the know. As I have said previously, the show and the work is about painting, seeing, making and about how one goes about this or experiences this.

The press release mentions "internal and external pictures". How would you define this external image?

In this case the external image is the audience.

In the exhibition room, there are various mirrors on the ceiling, reminiscent of rear-mirrors in cars, which enable the constant manipulation of perspective. What is your intention in using these mirrors?

Well kind of as you say, to constantly manipulate perspective.

This connects back to the previous answer. I wanted people to look up to see down. And they see down via a reflection either of themselves or of the paintings. These mirrors are rear view mirrors. They are designed to see behind you. They are employed to a great extent in the underground world of dogging. Seeing the sex but making sure that you are not seen yourself. They are essential to the secrecy and the safety to the participants. So here in this show they act as all the above. They make you see the paintings via another plane but they also make you see yourself and other people across the room. Mirrors are also essential when painting. They allow the painter to see the painting back to front and therefore to see the composition and the structure without seeing the image.

Simon Mathers
You are underground

bis 8. Juli 2017