Get them while they’re young. After all, it’s worked for the likes of tobacco, sugar, and politics. Why not art?
My first impressionable experiences with what might be referred to as ‘serious art’ came as a mad scramble once every couple months or so, in a headlong race from gallery to gallery across Saint John’s uptown core. It was part of a strategy; it centered around the nearly certain knowledge that there was a finite, perhaps quite limited, supply of free wine and cheese in the city, and the fact that we were hungry students dangerously teetering on the edge of sobriety.
We rampaged across the south end, absorbing alcohol at a rate that far outstripped the rate at which we absorbed any culture, feigning sophistication and an ability to stay upright without hiccoughing in a manner that was nothing short of entirely unconvincing. Anything that remotely resembled a sense of refinement and a growing appreciation for the arts was purely coincidental. All except for one thing: the paintings of Paul Mathieson.
They stopped us in our tracks, and upbraided us. It was like looking into a mirror, and realizing that those lively, and somehow vulgar characters standing in any number of scenes and scenarios, they were us. They looked back at us too: gawking, and jeering, and caught mid-pose in what might be a pirouette, but might just as easily be an awkward tumble. There is an intense amount of movement to Mathieson’s work, and possibility, and even more uncertainty; as if every page of a comic book has been arranged into one panel and wound up like a series of Rube Goldberg Machines. While something is certain to happen, the outcome is not.
Now, sitting in Mathieson’s kitchen, listening to him speak on his earlier works, it strikes me just how many of them I’m able to recall from their descriptions alone. Scenes unfolded, backdrops materialized and his characters clawed their way back to the surface of my gray matter. His artwork had become indelibly inked across my brain.
Undoubtedly one of the most distinctive artists of New Brunswick, Mathieson is a resident of the province’s Kingston Peninsula, a half wild jut of land wedged between the Kennebecasis and Saint John Rivers. Rocky, untamed, rural, it is decidedly unlike the distinctively urban settings of his paintings. Away from the crowded streets, warehouses, and galleries, Mathieson is just as displaced as his work. Quicker than it takes to puzzle out the meaning of “Howay, man, woman, man!” you’ll discover that Mathieson isn’t native to this land, but hails from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in North East England. He attended Bradford Art College, then Nottingham University, his academic career eventually working himself into whatever narrow corner you find Paul Mathiesons. “When I was going to art college, I did a year’s foundation and then you had to choose print making, or you had to go to a different college to do painting. I wasn’t sure where I was going to go. Print making was probably the fine arts section of that particular college. So I opted to textiles. I was kind of floating mentally. I was eighteen. I hadn’t found that niche yet. I did a year of textile designs, but I was moving towards painting. I kept doing paintings instead of doing textiles. Basically, it got to a point where I didn’t want to do what they wanted me to do, and the course wasn’t made to do what I wanted to do.”
A year before graduating, Mathieson found a job posting in the Times Educational Supplement for that most treasured of all things, a fully contracted teaching position in Saint John (this was four decades ago, mind you). Upon graduation, he sought out the publication from the library, mailed off an application, and the rest is history. He taught at Forest Hills Junior High School for two years before completing a Master of Arts degree in London, and then returned to a life of painting and teaching in Saint John. “Since returning from my MA,” Mathieson says, “I’ve exhibited every few years: lithographs in late 70’s, and then back to painting about 1980.”
Mathieson has since exhibited around the country. Throughout his tenure as an artist, Mathieson has consistently worked with gallery owner Peter Buckland, beginning with Buckland’s first gallery, Windrush Galleries, on Saint John’s Princess Street in 1981, twenty–some years before I ever stumbled upon them, and most recently at the new Buckland Merrifield Gallery. “It wasn’t something like I woke up one morning and had a revelation like Saul on the road to Damascus. It was very much something I grew into, and became absorbed with it. I’m producing work now that I wish I was producing forty years ago. There’s a hell of a lot I’ve learned in those forty years that I’m hopefully applying now, but, like anybody now, if you had that ability forty years ago, then you think perhaps what could I be producing in another forty years. I’m sixty-six now. I haven’t got another forty years have I, by law of averages. Chances are, I’m not going to live to one-hundred-and-six.”
“I think for the most part you could describe me as a figurative painter with perhaps influences of largely impressionist, post-impressionism, surrealism, fauvism, and hopefully I’ve taken whatever influences I’ve had and absorbed them and allowed them to come through. Scenes that I’ve painted for the most part, I’ve seen actually happen. But I’ve taken parts that I’ve seen in New York, or Paris, and I’ve applied them to Saint John, or Halifax, or whatever background I’ve used.”
His paintings are not of any one particular scene, but a composite of imagination, sprinkled with experience; things Mathieson himself has seen, and then related to one another. He has grafted elements of each onto what might be the fantastical society pages of a fictional paper in a bizarro universe. Faces appear and reappear in different scenes, some perhaps even recognizable. Even the artist makes an appearance, pounding away on a curbside upright piano. They dance, and shout, and gesture wildly, and sometimes they stare at nothing with their dour little faces, but most importantly, and above all else, it is unabashedly honest. Mathieson doesn’t shy away from his subject matter. It encapsulates the multitudinous facets of life that simultaneously coexist in a densely populated canvas, set to curious environments, and bookended with questions.
“It borders on illustration, and storytelling borders on that. There are stories that are in the painting, and I’m not denying that. I think an illustration is something that visually describes a specific situation. I’m not trying to illustrate, and I never will be. The space is inspired by things I’m putting into it. I think the backgrounds of the series have become far more important. Hopefully there are some humorous elements; hopefully there are some elements that aren’t so comfortable to look at on occasions. But I don’t think they’re things to be frightened of. They’re things that we see, and things that we’re involved with that are part of life: compassion, and you’ve got love, and kindness, and you’ve got that other side, when people aren’t so nice to one another, and I hope I’m not frightened to include any of those in my work. It’s there – it’s part of what I see – what we see. I’m dealing with people, but dealing with a side of society that possibly isn’t as comfortable as other elements of society. Middle-class—sitting there, watching TV—is pretty fucking boring subject matter. No two ways about that. Doing the dishes is mundane. I hope there’s a little bit more excitement in my work. There is a complexity in life, and I think a way to achieve that visually is to include some of that interaction, that complexity.”
For his ability to distill society into its unique parts, and reconstitute them on a mirror-like canvas with mercurial fluidity, Mathieson was awarded the Strathbutler Award in 2015. To love the work of Paul Mathieson is an exercise in self-acceptance. It is our shared moments of mania and decadence, for better and worse, but happily, it’s in these moments that both wine and cheese are most often to be found.
For more information visit www.paulmathieson.com