by Meaghan Thurston
What’s most striking at first glance about neo-expressionist painter Manuel Mathieu’s exhibition of paintings, “PRÉMICES/OPEN ENDED”, is not the work itself, but the curatorial decision to paint one of the gallery walls a brilliant yellow. Perhaps it’s unfair to suppose that everyone will be impressed by this. I noticed it because it is the same yellow as my bedroom wall, with which I have a fairly unhappy relationship.
“Yellow is a colour, for all its dramatic unalterability, with a thousand meanings”, writes Alexander Theroux in The Primary Colours. “It is the colour of cowardice, third prize, the caution flag on the auto speedways…Easter is yellow. So is spring.” In my case, it is a colour that yells at the fitful sleeper.
As a framing mechanism the precise illumination of one gallery wall grabs attention. Its disruption of the white cube is a reminder of the influential power of colour—a muscle Mathieu wields to success in his canvasses—and of the relationship that can be forged between artwork and gallery space.
In this show narratives are not told by recognizable images. The canvases on display present “quasi-figuarative specters,” fragmented heads that recall those of Jean-Michel Basquiat— “le James Dean de l’art contemporain” (Emmanuel Gallad, curator). Basquiat most definitely influences Mathieu’s work, but it would be unfair to linger long on the connection. “C’est normal par contre pour un jeune artiste d’être fasciné par le parcours fulgurant, le mythe ,” says show curator Emmanuel Galland.
Mathieu is Haitian born, having immigrated to Canada to earn a BA in Visual & Media Arts from UQAM. Gallad describes him as an ambitious person, involved in his student community and thirsty to learn. It is explained on Mathieu’s website that his art making began at “an early age [when] mirroring “Bad Art” painting, Manuel began transforming his childhood bedroom into a “Sistine Chapel” of graffiti” (to see images of Mathieu’s childhood bedroom in Haiti click: ROOM).
He claims his colour application is spontaneous and motivated by “the proximity of the tubes of paint.” If this is true then he has a habit of leaving the tubes of blue and aqua-green nearby. It would appear to me that Mathieu is not disinterested in colour choice, but is captured by the states of mind that colours engender. Aqua green is the hue of longing, especially for those dreaming of warm waters. Blue is a void, an infinite space or an open-question.
One particularly striking piece from the show is “Modern Landscape,” a painting that presents a post-apocalyptic vision of the future. T.S Eliot’s Wasteland springs to mind: What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of stony rubbish?[…]A heap of broken images, where the sun beats.”
Mathieu’s canvasses ask questions (some OPEN-ENDED, as per the English title of the show). What do these fragmented figures have to say? Are they screaming, or smiling? And as the French title of the show, PRÉMICES, suggests, this work marks one beginning, hopefully among many, in the trajectory of an artistic career propelled by existentialist inquiry.
PRÉMICES/OPEN-ENDED at MAI (Montreal, arts interculturels) until May 5th. www.m-a-i.qc.ca. www.manuelmathieu.com.