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A Clown’s Nose or a Red Sphere? By JJ Charlesworth

What to paint and how to paint it. In an office in the gallery, as we’re discussing his paintings, Matthew Burrows jokes about how a friend recently teased him for ‘secretly being a modernist’. It’s a surprising, but not completely mischievous accusation: modernist painting – the painting of the better part of the last century – was in various ways an argument about the ‘what’ of painting’s subject-matter versus the ‘how’ of painting’s material presence. Making an image in paint can never be an innocent act, and Burrows is not an innocent painter. He refuses to ignore the ‘how’ of how to paint, all the while questioning what it means to make an image, the ‘what’ that one finds among the blots of paint arranged there on the canvas.

Being a modernist ‘in secret’ begs the question; why the secrecy? Don’t painters now have the license and the freedom to paint whatever they like, however they like? Might not the harbouring of modernist ambitions merely take its place as one of the many private perversions permitted to painters? If one needs to keep one’s modernism slightly covert, maybe it’s because modernism is that project of art that was always making demands of artists, of culture, always dissatisfied with what had been accomplished, always looking to push art further into the future and into the unknown. In short, modernism demanded a certain rigour, forced the taking of sides, split opinion, and was impatient, restless, dissatisfied. And in an era where artists are less prone to take sides and to form movements, to make rigorous demands of one’s own painting is perhaps to imply criticism of the painting of others. Best stay quiet, then keep one’s counsel, and refrain from making enemies…

Because for all their gaudy effervescence, and their hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic ebullience, Burrows’s paintings still draw their strength of purpose from the sharp, sober consideration of the image’s split from the paint that brings it into being. And this might be the quintessential demand that modernism would make of painting – that we should become conscious of the reality of the medium by which we mediate reality. Yes, there is an image there, but it is an image made of paint, and it is paint which makes the image. And, pushing the question further, we could also think of a painting as itself an ‘imageofpaint’. So to see only weirdness and fantasy in Burrows’s ‘saints’ and other portrait paintings would be to mistake them for unproblematic images of literal subjects – however strange or exotic they might at first appear. As we talk, Burrows returns continually to the question of how to make an image of a person – a portrait – not as a likeness of how they look, but of how they are. What constitutes the identity of a subject is, for Burrows, not necessarily what its ‘looks like’, but a process of discovering visual equivalences for what might not be visual qualities.

This might sound like an odd sort of metaphysics for a painter today, but it is nevertheless consistent within Burrows’s project. The idea that things are not merely how they appear is a philosophical problem that reaches back all the way to Plato, and strands of that problem were carried forward in the development of modernist painting, with its constant struggle regarding the priority of form over content, of the truth of the medium over what the medium might represent. In the opposition between abstraction and representation, the metaphysical was often not very far away. And as we know, modernist painting became so stuck on this opposition that it ended up (with American abstract painting) in a dead end, full of coloured canvases that could point to nothing but themselves, or nothing but infinity.

Burrows, meanwhile, is happy to flirt with the metaphysical, playing with the wild ambition of representing the unrepresentable. After all, hasn’t he has chosen to name some of the figures he paints as saints and prophets, human figures traditionally understood to possess some other dimension to their being – spirituality, a connection with the invisible? But these are post-religious saints, and we live in post-metaphysical times. The religious icon has become a mere image, like any other, stripped of its religious power. And while modernist painting also flirted with the transcendental and the numinous, linking abstraction to the spiritual, it discovered, with a jolt, that there was in the end, nothing but paint there. If Burrows’s saints and prophets seem to be cobbled together from bits and pieces, assemblages of body parts and more or less recognisable elements, it’s perhaps to acknowledge the uncertainty and instability of their identity. More fundamentally, Burrows seems to use their uncertain state as a metaphor for how we negotiate matter and meaning, in a culture which has now mostly ruled out the metaphysical or spiritual interpretations of human existence.

Burrows writes of his saints that they are “thrown together, stitched and grafted with latex, flesh and hair. Filled with air they are in a state of tension between phenomena and the spirit.” So the spirituality of saints, but also the more secular notion of human consciousness as something that might exceed the literal presence of our fleshy materiality, hang precariously in the balance of Burrows’s paintings. That there should be something-more-than-what-appears-to be-there is for Burrows a question intimately bound with the nature of representation. This is why although he is concerned with finding forms of equivalence for those aspects of human presence that cannot be seen, he is also acutely preoccupied with the imaging of base matter, as something which also fails representation. In many of his paintings, the flesh of his protagonists is reduced to nothing more than blobs or balloons or soft spheres. In other paintings, such as the cascading Eyes, Noses and Halo’s elements of different bodies (wings, eyes, intestines, fingers) tumble down, and while we are able to recognise such elements, we also realise that these are really only our own projections onto bits of painting which barely sustain such interpretations: where we see a string of intestines there is just a pattern of interlocking crescents; where we see an eye, there is only a set of concentric circles. And critically, where we see cartoonish faces staring back at us with exaggerated long red noses, we cannot be sure that these are cartoonish faces, or instead the real masks of clowns, performing a masquerade of what is and is not there. The painting seems to say – there is only ‘stuff’ and surface; there are only body parts and masks; and in the end, there is only paint on a canvas. Nevertheless, Burrows seems to ask, why do we still see a clown’s nose, and not a red sphere?

Burrows’s recent paintings play across the different points where painting encounters matter, and matter becomes representation, while raising the question of what also lies outside of these divisions. He paints saints because their bodies are symbols for something which might be more than mere flesh (but which doesn’t need to be religious, just something else) – a sense of whatever it is in being human which is not fully represented by an image of a body. But at the same time, he paints the fragments of bodies in order to undermine the easy notion that everything about a human subject can exist in a single, coherent, physical human form, and should necessarily be represented as such, in the work of a painting. And if the image of flesh is not the same thing as the nature of being human, then what and how a painting represents is no longer a question of representations of a single visible reality. Burrows talks of making a world in his paintings. It would be too simple to call this world a ‘fantasy’ world, as if the world of the paintings and our real world were neatly separated and kept apart by the surface of the painting. Instead, we could think of Burrows’s paintings as a kind of zone in which the normal distinctions between object and image, between visible and invisible reality, and between thought and matter, cease to apply; where painting ceases to represent flesh, and instead becomes the flesh of things itself, in a world whose energy and matter is paint. In this particular world, where is the difference between the idea of a clown’s nose, the matter of a red sphere – and the artist’s brush, turning a stroke in wet, red paint?

© JJ Charlesworth, February 2009