Manuel Mathieu, Nobody is Watching
03.23.2018 — 04.28.2018
Kavi Gupta is proud to present Nobody is Watching, the first American solo exhibition of the work of Manuel Mathieu.
Qi Baishi (1864 – 1957) declared that “paintings must be something between likeness and unlikeness.” This sentiment perfectly describes the haunting mix of figuration and abstraction Mathieu employs in his paintings, which take as their subject the details of his life, while at the same time searching for the unknown.
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1986, Mathieu was raised in an environment infused with both danger and beauty. During the 21 years he stayed in his home country, he became witness to constant political upheaval, widespread disease, and ongoing natural disasters. He also experienced the rich history of art and independence that is integral to the Haitian culture. Within that atmosphere, he learned to embrace the ephemeral connection between what is tangible about life, and what is fleeting.
The unique visual language Mathieu has developed is a fluid mixture of his Haitian heritage and his formal arts education, which culminated in a Masters of Fine Art Degree from Goldsmiths, University of London. He draws inspiration from Haitian folk art, such as the rock sculptures of Jean-Brunel Rocklor, on which Mathieu’s Rivière Froide paintings are based. He is also inspired by the ability of the Irish painter Francis Bacon to convey agony, and to turn the grotesque into the sublime; and by the masterful naiveté of the German artist Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze (WOLS).
The highly individualized aesthetic that has evolved from those diverse influences is based on adding, and then taking away. Layers of paint are rubbed and scraped off, and then rebuilt—a technique called frottage. The effect evokes worn surfaces, and the passing of time. Depth is then added through layering of impasto markings and layers of tape and chalk. The process is analogous to a life cycle, and designed to explore emotive depth, with underlying tones of humor and calmness.
For subject matter, Mathieu turns to his own life, the one subject he is uniquely qualified to express. While studying at Goldsmiths, he was hit by a motorbike, and nearly died. His recovery demanded several months off from painting, creating a time of contemplation. At this same time, Mathieu’s grandmother grew ill. Her bravery and humor inspired him, and focused his own thoughts on what truly matters in life. The experience informed the paintings he went on to create for his first major solo exhibition, Truth to Power, which debuted at at Tiwani Contemporary in London in 2017. The work explored trauma, violence, and recovery through the lens of the Haitian dictators, Papa Doc and Baby Doc, the legacy of which Mathieu experienced as a child.
That show sold out—evidence of Mathieu’s innate ability to convey visceral emotion. Soon after, Mathieu moved to Montreal, where he was again struck by a vehicle, this time while walking on the sidewalk. The accident nearly destroyed his ability to walk. But he has continued to work. While recovering, his thoughts have simplified, centering on what he considers the most important topics in life: notions of time, sexuality and death. These ideas are at the heart of his new work, which he will introduce in Nobody is Watching, his upcoming American debut at Kavi Gupta.
This new body of work is both fierce and exalted. Abstractly, it is full of lyricism and energy. Poetically, it speaks about memory, history, and the act of facing something bigger than oneself, and opening up to the possibility of clarity and revelation. As Mathieu says, people have had to tell him the details of his accidents—he has no memory of them. His story is being told to him by others—a common burden for so many today. These paintings reclaim his personal history, while serving also as totems for the contemplation of others.