Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Real Illusions

By David Ribar

It's excruciating to wait while the Frist people butt heads with the state government people over the art center in the Broadway post office. In the meantime, the Tennessee State Museum continues to present mini-shows of local and regional artists that hint at how good some of the programming in the center could be. In conjunction with painter Bruce Matthews' exhibition at the Arts Company, seven paintings by the artist are hanging in the TPAC lobby through June 29. Matthews, who has lived in town the past two decades, has been quietly producing a significant body of seldom-seen work while simultaneously creating many of the murals, signs, and backdrops in the Opryland Hotel. Although his personal style originally sprouted from a kind of surrealist illustration all too popular with Photoshop users, his current work clearly shows that he has traveled miles beyond such trivialities.

Scores of contemporary artists produce stylistic hybrids, and among the more interesting ones are those that combine equal parts realism and non-objective abstraction. This juxtaposition isn't easy because these two elements don't readily go together. In Matthews' case, the hybrid developed after many years of practicing an icy realism, into which he slowly incorporated abstract components; he has only recently perfected the style. His trademark imagery has always included snatches of male and female figures, industrial objects, and fragments of numbers, letters, and landscapes. Painted with a deft sense of draftsmanship, the forms in his older work leapt off the canvas, interpenetrated one another like ghosts, or fluctuated between clarity and haziness. His canvases embodied the notion of multiple temporal and spatial realities. Now he's gleefully throwing in painterly accidents or spontaneous effects that only abstract methods can produce, and with fascinating results.

"Comes Fully Assembled" is typical. It brackets richly oxidized metal surfaces and strips with random marks of color. Parts of the surfaces are riddled with blotches that coalesce into a sunset by a wooded lake. Patches of the landscape then dissolve into pure color, while other swatches of shape cast shadows as they lift away from the background. It's an enchanting set of visual tricks, a play with figure-ground relationships, and Matthews has great sport with the visual ambiguities. "What is real?" he seems to ask.

Driven to abstraction Bruce Matthews' painting "Measure of Existence"

His archly titled "He Sez She Sez" goes further into abstraction: It's nothing but two colored planes of scumbled brushstrokes, with the title spelled out in gold letters on the left and the right halves of the painting. On the left are passages of intensely hued color; on the right, subtle chromas of brown, gray, and yellow. Each half is separated by an implied edge that's sharp as a knife. Conceptually speaking, it's a portrait of male/female conflict, with overtones of domination vs. subordination. It just as pointedly speaks of how any two people can experience the same thing in totally opposite ways.

Matthews proves he's a master of certain technical tricks that only a seasoned painter can produce. He makes planes of color and form pop off the canvas as if they were sheets flapping in the breeze. He uses enticingly hot contrasts of cadmium reds and cerulean blues, lacing them throughout most of his works like a signature. He conjures up deep pockets of space, or he captures rusted metal and hard-edged metal gears with a startling photographic precision. And in many ways his best work carries on a sassy dialog with the history of modern painting. On the one hand he seems to frolic within Hans Hoffman's tradition of "push/pull" color planes; at the same time, he mocks the efficacy of such abstraction by backing the planes with shadows, filling them with imagery, and fastening them in space with tacks. When presented with this kind of contradiction, one wants to laugh and reflect at the same time.

The most compelling of such works is a 7-foot-by-10-foot canvas called "Senseless Act of Beauty." The painting is composed entirely of slapdash color patches over an orange stain, save for a delicate gold ring that floats above a broken shadow in the lower right-hand corner. Abstract purists would be horrified at such a token, but Matthews' representational inclusion seems to summarize a kind of visual philosophy: Life is a vast sward of dreamy vagueness, punctuated by certain cold, hard facts--in this case, a small but unwavering, perfect one.

Over lunch, the artist recalled for me one of his favorite scenes from a Carlos Castaneda book, applying it to the kind of thought process that produces the inspiration for his imagery. Carlos and Don Juan are out in the desert, and Carlos sees a dying animal twitching and swaying in the distance. He wants to get closer to investigate, but Don Juan warns him not to; by doing so, he'll ruin what's happening. Carlos (as always) doesn't believe Don Juan and goes ahead anyway. As he gets near the creature, he suddenly realizes what he's been looking at isn't a dying animal at all--it's just a cardboard box flapping in the breeze. Castaneda's mental jolt and Matthews' games with visuals are very much the same "animal."

Now for a few complaints about the TPAC space: The canisters stuck in the ceiling were never intended to light art displays, and the daylight sneaking in from the Deaderick Street windows makes a bad situation worse. Get some decent lighting! Next, hang all the pictures at a level where they can be seen by people rather than by giraffes. With Matthews' show, it's nearly impossible to see many surfaces, shades of color, and any detail smaller than a softball. Finally, establish some consistent exhibition policies. I realize the display of nudes in a heavily trafficked public space may offend some TPAC visitors. Thus, Matthews left out some work that deservedly should have been seen. But shouldn't that second-rate Russ Faxon sculpture of a nude woman, placed near the main entry, be removed as well? Frankly, it offends me greatly, not so much for its nudity as for its blatant mediocrity.

Horsey set

Kim Hadley's May 21 Nashville Banner piece nicely outlined the politely heated discussion about the bridles on the two bronze thoroughbreds gracing the entrance to Belle Meade Boulevard. The disagreement centers on whether or not real thoroughbreds would be let out to pasture with such devices. Some members of the Middle Tennessee Pony Club, among other discussants, said no way; the artist and the Belle Meade city manager said yes way. Since a black lawn jockey is probably out of the question--though it would fit the, uh, noble tradition of the Belle Meade Plantation quite nicely--why not take the Faxon sculpture, dress her in some bronzed trainer's clothes, and stash her next to the horses? It would be...just...CUHNnin.

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