BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 12 MAY 05
Featured in
Issue 91

Mathew Weir

BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 12 MAY 05

Paint, as a substance, aspires to flatness. In the can it resolves itself into a level surface, while in the tube or on the brush or palette the forms it takes are perfunctorily three-dimensional and always dream of their own undoing. It is the painter that makes paint a thing of texture, pushing it this way and that on the support until, scabbed and beginning to dehydrate, it becomes something of meaning. The flatness that this process denies paint is not the flatness of the photograph or of the film screen (both of which welcome their status as windows), but rather that of a cloudless blue sky – appearing infinite while concealing the further infinity of space.
In Mathew Weir’s work paint attains the planar, but at a terrible cost. His canvases are populated by early 19th-century ceramic figurines of black men, all of whom sport the thick red lips, bulging white eyes and polished, pitch-dark skin of racist caricature. Inhabiting a rural idyll that’s part Thomas Gainsborough, part spectroscopic Pre-Raphaelite landscape painting, they seem, with their clownish, slightly shabby wardrobe, like members of a strolling mummers’ band that have been abandoned by their fellows for some unforgivable transgression. In a number of these paintings these men are accompanied by small white-skinned girls, who might be their lovers, or their protectors, or both. At any rate, there’s a Beauty and the Beast relationship at play here, a connection forged from curiosity and counter-intuitive attraction to otherness. While the girls’ faces are all owl-like wisdom and cat-like knowingness, the men wear an expression that’s somewhere between bovine fatalism and bottomless melancholy. Looking at, say, Entertainers (2004) or Coulrophobia (2004–5), it’s tempting to imagine that the girl isn’t a ceramic figurine at all, but a child who has happened upon a weird monument to the exotic while wandering in the countryside and has persuaded her portraitist father to paint her perched on its knee in the manner of a big game hunter standing over a dead tiger. We might also imagine (and Weir’s slippery way with the real encourages this) that the reverse is true, and that the man in this painting is a representation of a flesh-and-blood sitter who chose, out of some unforgivable perversity, to pose cuddling up to a porcelain effigy of a little girl. Only by reminding oneself that the pair are made from the same material (or, importantly, the painterly pretence of that material) is it possible to circumvent Coulrophobia’s more politically and sexually unsavoury aspects and attempt to see it as a piece of we’re-all-the-same-under-the-skin piety. Even then, though, the painting still feels haunted by the phantom of some future tragedy in which the figures’ relationship is misunderstood and vituperatively punished.
A different (although perhaps related) type of fetishism is displayed in Weir’s painting Lovecharm (2003). Here a Venus of Willendorf (c.23,000 BC) style sculpture of a female figure is pierced with matchsticks in what looks like an exercise in sympathetic magic. Lumpy and seemingly made from Blu-tac, she’s the kind of object a desperate and slightly tipsy single person might fashion after reading one too many New Age-tinged self-help books. While she appears ill equipped to speed a perfect lover to her creator’s side, each of the matches in her body is surrounded by a penumbra of heavenly light, evidence that somebody, at least, is feeling their voodoo effects in very physical terms. In a sense this low-grade goddess is a sister of the ceramic figures from Coulrophobia, an object that is out of step with they way we like to perceive ourselves, but one from which we may nevertheless recover unpalatable truths about what we fear or have feared (loneliness, the Other) and one that, via Weir’s painterly witchcraft, provides us with the consolation of a peculiar beauty.
If paint aspires to flatness, Weir seems, politically at least, to aspire to something similar. Even when, in Shithouse (2004–5), he depicts a 19th-century ceramic model of a black boy holding open a privy door and taking one last proud peek at a job well done before he departs, the painter resists an explicit critique of its obvious and horrible racism. This is probably all to the good. To hector the art of the past does not serve the present, or the future. By instead subjecting the objects he paints to aesthetic rehabilitation (with perhaps the hope, in the end, of entry into an imageless Nirvana of pure paint), Weir plays a dangerous game, but one in which what emerges, in the end, is the weakness of the ideas they once embodied.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.