NIGHT OF THE WORLD
The eye cannot see itself seeing without a mirror. Likewise, lacking reflection, we fail to grasp the structure of experience, the human order we impose on the amorphous, sensual mass of our desires. What is more, our own habits of thought and action blind us to how we betray beliefs and values we claim to live by until others react to our hypocrisy. For almost two decades, Matthew Carver has exposed these three blind spots—the physical, the cognitive and the political—in his paintings, playfully combining them to bring viewers face-to-face with themselves. Always beautiful but never gratuitously so, Carver’s paintings leave one marvelling at his technical mastery of anamorphic form and colour. In his earlier works, his playing with our physical and cognitive blind spots yielded a simpler pleasure. As his focus shifted to the political in the past decade, the mirror he turns on human nature has darkened to emulate the state control and violence of global capitalism reflected behind us.
In Night of the World, for the first time, Carver expands the political arena to stage the art world itself. Here, he paints the libidinal economy of contemporary art as it appears in the tastefully modernist domains of elite, global collectors. The opulent minimalism of these art-adorned spaces betrays a lack of life: besides two Dobermans and a pond of koi—themselves status symbols more than pets—the only inhabitants of this elite world are decorations, figures in the paintings-within-paintings. With no lives to depict, Carver frees the spaces for us to inhabit as we shift our gaze from one piece to another, only to find the work on the walls inscribed on the walls in the work. With this visual recursion, Carver implicates himself, and us, too, in the space he paints and thereby in his critique. Last to appear, the darkness of these paintings, the trap of the trappings of capital, resolves only with a careful look, the violent explosions mostly relegated offstage.
Yet even the night of the world holds hope. Haunting several of these paintings are two historical figures: the cult esotericist and choreographer Georgi Gurdjieff and his one-time acolyte Olgivanna Hinzenberg (third wife of Frank Lloyd Wright). Imagining them living their flawed lives illuminates a space behind the stifling, empty modern perfection. By returning to the past with this hint of narrative, we regain a sense of history and a context for grasping the contradictions of our own time.
Kevin Temple, 2015.
Having lived and worked abroad and travelled extensively during the last decade, Matthew Carver began to notice the increased presence of local law enforcement at public gatherings. In particular, he noticed that police were not only increasingly monitoring public protests but that they had adopted military protective gear and crowd control tactics. Carver made similar observations during extended residencies in Germany, Malaysia, England, China and Canada—Toronto, specifically during the G20 protests in June 2010—and found that riot police all looked the same wherever he traveled. Inevitably, he started to incorporate these observations into his work.
Carver has been painting professionally since the mid-90s and even worked for a spell as a scenic painter. He began to incorporate anamorphic elements into his work early on, using the historical technique of perspective anamorphosis. This allowed Carver to manipulate linear perspective to create paintings that demand either a fixed point of reference or a reflective surface to complete the image. Carver’s anamorphic paintings tend towards what is referred to as catoptric or cylindrical anamorphosis, a specialized effect in which a distorted image can be optically decoded by looking in the reflective surface of a cylindrical object.1
Painters during the Renaissance explored the science of perspective so that they could render illusionistic figures, objects and architectural spaces in two-dimensions. Anamorphic painting pushes perspective beyond its limits allowing for the creation of mathematically precise perceptual distortions. One of the best-known examples is The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, which features an elongated skull hovering ominously in the foreground.2
Anamorphic painting reached its zenith before naturalism came to dominate painting in the 18th century, but the emergence of CGI in cinema and the common use of Photoshop beg us to consider Carver’s bending of perspective in a contemporary context. The techniques used in Polizei can be split into two categories: panoramics that evoke the scale of historical painting, and anamorphs, which require the use of a reflective device.
Eviction Day In Friedrichshain and Along University At Toronto G20 evoke the scale of historical paintings and murals, many of which traditionally lionized the benevolent authority of church and state. However, in these works Carver flips the narrative. Instead of capturing a triumphant march or victory the artist depicts scenes of riot police gathering at street corners and intersections. While their appearance implies an imminent confrontation, Carver’s paintings are never that overt. The use of a skewed perspective suggests a fragmented view through a particularly distorted wide-angle lens. This gives the paintings a charged cinematic quality. With no other figures in sight besides the police, we occupy an uncomfortable position at the front of a metaphoric barricade. Looking at these paintings is a far more embodied experience that looking at pictures in a newspaper or on CNN. As viewers, we are implicated in the events depicted.
August 8th on Mare Street Anamorph and Along Skalitzer Anamorph ironically turn the tables. Instead of being overwhelmed by the police presence, we now seem to be spying on them. To complete the work, the viewer needs to adjust their line of sight accordingly and align the distorted perspective of each painting in the reflective chrome of a cylindrical garbage bin. The use of such an ordinary object gives the work an immediacy that grounds us in the here-and-now. So why are we spying on the police? The implication might be that we are hiding from them and stealing a look from a position of safety or watching the scene unfold through the lens of a camera. In fact, our experience of riots tends to be filtered through the media, safely removed from the trauma of the event. The method that Carver employs implicates the viewer in a more participatory relationship with the subject matter.
Seeing riot police used to be rare, at least in North America, whereas in much of the modern world conscription is still a reality and the presence of the military has long been routine at airports and civic landmarks. The use of protective armour in policing the public has become common practice and specialized firms such as Worldwide Tactical LLC have profited offering a wide range of protective riot gear.3 The use of Kevlar armour and face shields may have been normalized as a protective measure but it also serves to dehumanize and distance police from the very people that they have sworn to serve and protect.
Polizei evokes the paradox at the heart of the global struggle for democracy: as citizens demand their rights and freedoms, those in positions of authority often respond with force to suppress open protest. By pointedly turning passive viewing into a participatory experience, Carver implicates us in the uneasy struggle for social justice.
1. Fred Leeman, Joost, Elffers and Mike Schuyt, Hidden Images–Games of Perception, Anamorphic Art, Illusion, Harry N. Abrams, Inc, New York, 1976, p. 9-14 and 105-111.
2. Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, oil on panel, 206 x 209.5 cm, The National Gallery, London. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/hans-holbein-the-younger-the-ambassadors
MATTHEW CARVER: POLIZEI
It is one of the tasks of the artist—surely a central one—to try to see things as they are. And one of the ways in which things may be seen as they are, paradox though it appears to be, is to distort them. And Mathew Carver is a virtuoso of the numerous modalities of visual distortion.
The peripatetic Carver, who, nine years ago, left this city to live and work in Berlin, London, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore, is now, having circumnavigated the globe (and, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, taking what he wanted of it with him), coming back again. This exhibition, Polizei, is his first solo exhibition in Toronto in almost a decade; it presents the conditions and the practice of his thinking about art since the beginnings of his concerted global trajectory—a crash course in the slow motion acquisition of the techniques and development of ways of seeing and ways of incarnating that seeing.
When Carver left Toronto, he was at play in the fields of Anamorphosis. That is to say, he was exploring the pictorial possibilities of the making of anamorphic pictures (and the formidable technical problems inherent in so doing). Anamorphosis (from the Greek ana, meaning “back” or “again,” and morphe, meaning “shape” or “form”) is about making images that, distorted almost to meaninglessness to the unaided eye, can then be visually reconstituted (brought back “again” from chaos) by means of (in the case of so-called “perspective” anamorphosis) a specific vantage point by which the work is to be viewed, orby means of (in the case of“cylindrical mirror” anamorphosis) a gaze onto the polished surface of a reflective cylinder—in which can now be “read” the corrected original painting, now spreading out so disconcertingly all around the “collecting” cylinder.
Carver has always favoured the “cylindrical mirror” species of anamorphism, and there are a couple of refined, well-tempered examples of it in the present exhibition: Guarding the Gas and two anamorphic constructions: Ginza in My Ice Cream Scoop and NYC Cop Car in My Ice Cream Scoop, optical and perceptual, para-architectural, viewing-labyrinths (theatres for one) of a genuine Piranesi-esque complexity.
The four major paintings making up Polizei trade in acts of visual distortion (to varying degrees), but are not in themselves anamorphic. Intimately related to and evolved from Carver’s earlier ambitious, technically mindboggling, optically fractured, splintered paintings of European and Asian cities—paintings such as Edge of Kabukicho (2008) and Shape Shifting At The Entrance To The Forbidden City (2010)—these recent, epically-scaled pictures work like anamorphic pictures in reverse.
Looking at these strangely bent, folded, skewed paintings—works such as Along University At Toronto G20, Along Skalitzer, Eviction Day in Friedrichshain (2500 police engaged in assuring the removal of a few squatters in a building a few minutes from Carver’s Berlin studio) and May 1 on Wiener Strasse (riot police assiduously guarding a gas station in Berlin during the May Day rallies), seems somewhat akin to taking a photograph with a preternaturally wide-angle lens. It is also, more importantly, like finding yourself positioned precisely where the anamorphic reflective cylinder itself would be if you had somehow entered physically into the world of cylindrical mirror anamorphism. You are now it. You are yourself the corrective surface upon which the painting’s alarming imminence (the visual equivalent of “surround sound”) can be reconstituted. Which, given the looming green-blue walls of Carver’s mechanically rigid polizei.
On the other hand, why would you want to? Why reconsitute the images, I mean? Why “correct” these exhilaratingly oppressive paintings? It would be handy if Henri Bergsson’s understanding of laughter (1901)—that we find examples of “mechanicalism” in human beings to be inescapably funny—still seemed relevant. But ever since Leni Riefenstahl’s canonical film, The Triumph of the Will (1935), it is impossible to think of bodily rigidity as anything but massively threatening.
For Matthew Carver, his distorted, rock-solid wedges of bored riot police are, as he put it in an email to me, “a metaphor for the times, one that echoes the global condition that could be anywhere and nowhere at the same time.” Indeed, Carver sees his geometricized lines of polizei as veritable emblems of, or fallout from, a world culture of “capitalism in hyperdrive.” Which is why we must not dally with “correcting” their images. Who wants to straighten out—to normalize and homogenize—all this oppressive rupture? What can be learned from any withdrawal from extremity or from the progress of crisis?
Gary Michael Dault
November 5, 2011
TAKSU catalogue essay:
Gina Fairley, for the exhibition, ‘Sirens and Lights’, Taksu KL, 2009
Speed has the ability to seduce and excite us; to bewitch us into choices and to erase the weight of the past. It has stolen the passion of men for centuries and thrusts us forward with the blur of the new. It has become a very layered concept in our contemporary world, one (re)defined by technology, the excess of mobility and that all-blanketing concept of Globalisation, what the French Philosopher Paul Virilo describes as the ‘speed of light.’ He continues, “…the speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world…In this way, history now inscribes itself in real time, in the 'live', in the realm of interactivity…We are no longer concerned with real space.” 1.
Matthew Carver’s paintings immerse the viewer in this ‘unreal’ spatial vortex Virilo describes, the metaphorical fracture of speed as paint hits canvas in luminous blips and trails. It is an illusory space rather than that of postcard propaganda or nostalgia and its reverberation consumes the gallery with the energy of a tornado. Speed - and its counterpart technology - affect not just what we see, but how we see. This is the foundation to Carver’s painting and this new suite of works made for Malaysia, “Sirens and Lights”.
While Carver’s paintings over the years have been informed by his movement between a palette of ‘exotic’ locations - Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, Shanghai, Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and Las Vegas – these new paintings step beyond location par sé. Source material is morphed and sutured with a DJs sampling and the result has the pulse of now rather than where. They describe a post-Globalised-neo-Oriental nowhere that has a synergy with the homogeneity of immersive advertising. It is a constructed scape not so dissimilar to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner with its crusty edges of crumbling capitalism and underbelly of anarchy, one that has a curious currency as we face today’s global economic crisis, a shattering if you like, of the world we know. Whilst an abstraction, Carver’s ocular judo is in sync with the fraying of this collective contemporary landscape.
Perhaps the more obvious first read of Carver’s work is a hopscotch appropriation of art history’s isms: Anamorphosis, The Futurists, Abstract Expressionism, late-20thc museum-scaled photography and contemporary Chinese portraiture. Rather it is their very fusion with digital proficiency, uploaded and Photoshopped that is the state of now. As Carver explains, the painting “Mongkok Siren” (2009) is “…a busy main street in Kowloon in Hong Kong, fused with a Tokyo taxi and a billboard figure constructed from a German fashion magazine for an Italian designer that probably used a Chinese model...” An acculturation of the local into the global begins through popular and consumer culture, morphed and layered to the point where definition becomes inconsequential.
We witness a shift through, and across, this exhibition. Carver is taking what he has perfected – a celebrated personal style of Anamorphosis - and pushes it in new directions. This painting “Mongkok Siren”, at a hefty 200 x 300 cm, offers the point at which two directions meld: landscape and portraiture, a kind of contemporary compounding that he alludes to in the exhibition’s title, “Siren and Lights”. Simply said, the word ‘Siren’ conjures images of seductive and alluring vixens as well as the scream of emergency vehicles ricocheting between a city’s high-rise corridors, both warning of danger. Similarly, to be immortalised ‘up in lights’ has an odd parallel with the incandescent glow of a city that never sleeps, all surface glitter and mythology. The physical city is inseparable with its popularized, marketed image-scape and Carver has an uncanny ability to read and filter its menagerie.
To explain further, in the top right of “Mongkok Siren” we see the same woman that is the subject of “Siren No. 1” (2008), bathed in the anonymity of the city. The figure blurs innocence and seduction using the vehicle of advertising – a far from naïve profession. This painting continues the romantic mythology of cinematic traditions, caught between Blade Runner’s chatting billboards and exotic Replicants with Wong Kar-Wai’s favored leading lady, Maggie Cheung - the Julia Roberts of Hong Kong cinema framed by neon backdrops. In “Flower Siren 1" (2009), however, it is a different gesture that Carver pulls, as he says, ‘...through my studio filters onto the canvas’, a fragment, if you like, snatched from a spinning Rolodex of references disjointed yet considered. Here Carver’s anonymous beauty is reminiscent of Vermeer’s famed “Girl with the Pearl Earring” (c. 1665) with her lips slightly parted, a provocateur paralleling advertising’s images of desire and consumption. With its neon flutter it plays with that same sliding between time and place as the landscapes, unable to gain traction with reality and, yet, is so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness visually stamped upon us like a billboard before we enter the cognitive process of content. Foremost, these ‘portraits’ are the residual fabric of a city and they sit outside the conventions of a sitter.
While Carver’s new figure paintings are less turgid, obliterating, than his landscapes they remain within a sensorial realm. It is interesting when you consider the spatial splitting of “Siren 2” (2008) with that of “Three Views of a Bridge Singapore” (2008), a phenomenal painting where the image is demarcated into multiple viewpoints and a motorcycle ricochets across the canvas evoking the sensation of speed. Spanning 3-meters the pictorial plane splits sideways, each neon dragging a painterly tail creating a wake either side of a v-shaped wedge central to the painting. What excites me about his painting is the clarity of its division despite its blur, slightly off centre and underscored by a dramatic horizontal palette shift between orange and blue. One wonders whether it captures the passing of time from night to day or is a device employed to give the illusion the canvas is bending around a corner, seemingly folded casting a deeper shadow. By pushing the flat plane of painting and extending illusory pictorial space, Carver thwarts perspective and celebrates the temporality of time and action. Similarly in the painting “After Dusk In Shinjuku” (2008) the angular dissection of red and blue beams have the efficiency of a Lightsaber, that mythic sci-fi weapon and, yet, carving space within this sea of incandescent gestures and repetition it has a musicality or neon staccato. Is this image so far removed from such connections and disconnections where the city is a site for navigating the future?
The world today has become a sort of ‘Babel of clichés’, staging them in ever grander and phonier ways to our waking-drawn eyes. Just as Carver’s earlier Las Vegas landscapes had the blur of eye-burn after a night with no sleep meeting the dawn, these new paintings have a similar glaze from global culture’s clichés. It is a raw and real psychological space that moves across genres of landscape, portraiture, photography and cinema. Just as Scott’s Replicants were constructed around a world built on permission, outdated technology and the fabrication of memory, the body in the contemporary landscape is a transient, ephemeral object and Carver captures its obsolescence with vibrancy and a hit of melancholy. It is a delicious place to loose oneself and as Virilo suggests, in it we become the world.
1. Paul Virilo http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=132