Notes on the Work of Mathew McWilliams
by Josh Thorpe
The work of Mathew McWilliams lives in the encounter of surface against surface – a mute and minute bumping around of material with material, material with vision, and vision with knowledge. Let me tell you about a few bodies of work.
Halves are photographs of small blocks of painted wood placed on polished steel. Triangles, semi-circles and other elementary forms are reflected to make a second, “whole” gestalt. These early works of McWilliams indicate in stark simplicity the artist’s core interest in the relationship of presentation, representation, looking and comprehension. Like Wittgenstein’s duckrabbit, McWilliams’ Halves constantly shift shape. These interests permeate the artist’s work of the last few years.
Each piece in Roman Heads presents a portrait of an ancient stone bust (torn from a 1940 Phaidon book of photographic plates) half-hidden behind a skin of perforated paper. These holes call to mind the pointillism of Georges Seurat, the Ben-Day dot of Roy Lichtenstein, even the punctured steel we often see in late 20th century architecture. In these pieces, the work takes place both in the tiny depth of a sheet of paper and on the surface of the retina, but because the image changes as you approach it, it also exists in space and time as your body moves. In this sense it’s a sculptural strategy for the picture plane. Of course these works are also a play of pleasure: the tingle of vibration on the eye, the narrative of Roman history, and the sheer perfection of the polka dot.
For the Paper Works (blue and pink), paper is folded and wrinkled into various minimal and arbitrary forms. These folded papers are then photographed and printed with their own image. It’s not the self-reference that’s interesting here, it’s the way representation as a technology is repurposed. The hierarchy of traditional photography assigns value to the image, not to the paper that holds it. McWilliams’ works shift the gaze from the pure image, to an elusive, impure interaction of image and support.
Negative Folds and Lines employs the same process as the Paper Works, but further investigates the particularities of the medium. Inkjet printing assumes a white ground and therefore uses no white pigment – any white you see in an inkjet or giclée print is simply the paper showing through. So the darkest lines on McWilliams’ black works represent the lightest parts of the image – parts where the folded paper reflected a gleam of light when originally photographed. The lighter “monochrome” areas consist of a skin of ink, a double that shrinks and pales against the original. Approaching the works with this in mind completely disorients one’s habits of looking at two-dimensional representation.
I remember a Robert Smithson essay called “Teratological Systems” in which he retells a fragment of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie: a team of cartographers make a map of Germany at the scale of 1:1 but the country’s farmers won’t let them open it for fear the map will block out the sun and ruin the crops. So they store the map folded and make do with the country itself, which they say, is almost as good. McWilliams’ Paper Works are both the map and the terrain, fused at the surface, a kind-of dream topography.
Similarly, each piece in Colour on Colour consists of a sheet of paper printed with a photo of itself (leaving a border unprinted). Each photo is taken at a different time of day. Within each image there is a slight gradation according to how light falls (as well as subtle Moiré patterns from the image of the tooth of the paper against the actual tooth of the paper), but the major difference occurs from one image to the next – a huge variance of hue. Directly referencing Josef Albers’ experiments on the relativity of colour perception, these experiments question the stability of colour in the world and the representation of time through light and the colour spectrum. The series also brings to mind On Kawara; but while Kawara names specific dates in his own history, McWilliams captures elusive moments of difference throughout the day.
In Areas, McWilliams has taken French educational posters from the early 20th century – images of splendid architectural moments – and simply removed a circular area from each, exposing a black void behind. Like the coloured dots covering people’s heads in John Baldessari’s collages, McWilliams’ circles shift the original image by redirecting attention to the picture plane and the rhetoric of its composition. In a sense they are anti-frames – they disturb rather than privilege the image; they de-centre rather than centre; they de-present rather than represent. And yet there is no sense of violence here, it’s more a sense of relief from the ravenous habit of looking; the Areas are exquisite blind spots or mystic wormholes in the fabric of visual culture.
Josh Thorpe is an artist and writer living in Toronto. He recently published his first book, Dan Graham Pavilions: A Guide (Art Metropole), and is working on a new monograph called Gordon Lebredt: Proposals.