Frame 61

Peter Matthews

Frame 61
Peter Matthews

"My work, through time, connects with something beyond myself and that is important to me."


Could you tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been a practicing artist and where did you study?

Since studying my BA and MA in Fine Art at the Nottingham Trent University, I ran into challenges and hardships as most emerging artists do, and I remember doing a whole range of jobs from street cleaning in Exeter to working night shifts cleaning mechanical equipment at a quarry near Leicester just to make some bread you know. But I’ve always felt that motivation to be an artist so whatever I went through I just went through it, because that’s what you have to do, just do it as they say. I have always been deeply drawn to nature, the sense of curiosity, beauty, wonder, those things draw me to nature and never cease to amaze me. 

Some of my earliest memories growing up in England were climbing trees and pushing Tonka trucks around in my sand pit, listening to talking book stories on my portable cassette player in the garden…and now I find myself collaborating and working with ocean scientists to gain a deeper awareness of my subject matter, the ocean. I am though, deep down, an artist who seeks to be alone when I work, and that pursuit to be out there in the wild, alone, nomadic, solitary is at the core of my practice. I work in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and have taken my work to place such as Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil and Taiwan.

In Search of the Sublime, solo show at Beers London, 2016 (Image credit: Damian Griffiths courtesy of Beers London)

In Search of the Sublime, solo show at Beers London, 2016 (Image credit: Damian Griffiths courtesy of Beers London)

Do you feel the physical act of being in/by the ocean when painting/drawing gives the work multiple layers? With the time/residue/evidence/movement that it creates.

Yes very much. My working relationship when I draw and paint, as I do this while immersed in the ocean, free diving to the bottom of the ocean or working along the intertidal zones on the beach is one of being direct and physically in touch with the ocean and environment. I don’t work in the studio. There is, by the nature of how I work in the ocean, a whole set of forces at play when I work, so although I work in solitude for days and days on end, I am never alone in that sense of working because for me there is always this beautiful relationship of working ‘with’ nature, through observation, experiencing it, being in it, learning from it, surviving with it, and so on.

My work, through time, connects with something beyond myself and that is important to me. As much as the work is a time worn relic of my experience out there in nature, there is always a trace and narrative of the ocean and universe writing and drawing itself onto and through the works and I am very open and inviting to that, often channelling those happenings through lighting a fire, leaving paintings out there in rock pool or sea caves for weeks.

In every work there exists a slippage point between the object and subject, sometimes it happens an hour after being in the ocean drawing in the waves, or sometimes a few minutes after starting to paint on a canvas and it begins to rain heavily. 

This beautiful and more often than not unpredictable but sensed slippage point happens when the object, the drawing for instance slips over into the subject, where the object becomes the subject and the subject becomes the object.

I often write on works while I am making them, I don’t know why really, it just comes to me and I do it, notating something I see or sense. But there is a constant stream of the ocean and the forces and actions of nature writing themselves onto the work that I am very much intoxicated to watch and follow.

Drying the painting beside a driftwood fire on the Pacific coast of Taiwan, 2016

Free diving to the bottom of the ocean to paint in a place and space and time different to that found and experienced on dry, Pacific coast of Taiwan, 2016

Drawing while immersed in the Atlantic Ocean, 2016

Atlantic coast of England, Cornwall, July 2016

Could you talk about the process of your mark making? Are you responding to the forms and shapes around you, or do you slip into an automatic mediative writing/drawing like state?

Well, in terms of drawing… it’s all about the succession and layering of marks on paper by using pen. I drift with the paper nailed to a wooden board while in the ocean and I do this for as long as I can, either in one long experience of several hours of being out there, or sometimes till sunset, then I crawl out of the ocean, legs and feet numb, I sleep wild on the beach in a tent and then continue again at first light. I’ll leave the drawing in a rock pool most times so it is in a continuum with the ocean and that time and spatial dimension which is unlike any I know on dry land. That’s how I work but in terms of what am I responding to, well it’s all about a live and experienced relationship of sensing nature, seeing the world and reaching out into the universe. I follow whatever I see happening in real time with my pen, simply floating and drifting along, sometimes passively sometime actively, just drawing what I see, that’s it.

I don’t really know when it will arrive each time I am out there in the ocean drawing, but there is always a set of experiences that flood over me, surround me, take me somewhere, and it’s when my body and inner self go through an experience of what some people might call ex-stasis, or in nature an experience of transmigration I suppose. Across the drawing plain, after I work an look back at the drawing, as sometimes I can’t see the paper due to the glare of the sun of the watery surface, the paper being just under the surface or just observing what I see unfolding in the cosmic fields out all around me than worrying what the drawing looks like.

A mysterious experience happens throughout the making of each drawing and that is the sense of knowing what is coming from a future time to cross over in my recent time, perhaps that is because a lot of what I see in the ocean ad it unfolds in real time is like a pattern, a wild pattern but a pattern in a sense, so this does elicit and stimulate a sense of being hypnotised or sedated, being cast into a meditative state yes. 

 I just journey through these channels until I cross over with something I see happening which comes out of nowhere. I remember once drawing in the Atlantic in Cornwall and a small dark object landed very close to me, caused a splash and then vanished into the ocean.

My thoughts are it was a meteorite fragment reaching earth, or reaching the salty skin of a parallel world. How to visualise such observations and experiences – I just make it up, a line, a mark on paper, it is a primal response, felt deep from within but as fresh and fleeting as a rainbow spreading over the open ocean.

12 Hours In and With the Atlantic Ocean, 2016, pen, rust and earth on paper, 56 cm x 97cm

It Came from a Long Way Out There, film still image, 2015, documentary photo from the project on the Pacific coast of Taiwan

You work across variable mediums, from paintings to sculpture and video installations. Could you talk about your videos, like the piece “Double Negative”?

I work fluidly across different mediums all the time. It’s not that I ever get bored or stuck in drawing or painting, but I just feel that some mediums can take me places that others can’t and can allow me to explore and discover, visualise and transmit ideas and experiences in more effective or different ways. I always carry in my backpack a simple waterproof camera which doubles up as a video camera. I’m on my second camera now as over time the salty water, occasional drops while rock hopping tide pools and travelling long distances had taken its toll.  Typically I use this tool as a way to document the process of working, but now and then I’ll make a video work which becomes a work in itself. The film ‘Double Negative’ was a short film I made in the Pacific Ocean while working along the east coast of Taiwan earlier this year.

It’s a film made by layering one film onto another film at the editing stage, a process and approach I am really intrigued by when working with moving image. I was curious about how to visualise the impossibility of a boat passing over the horizon, which is a very mysterious line and presence on the ocean which we can never grasp hold of and touch because the closer we travel to the horizon the more elusive it becomes and recedes into a future time which we can perceive but not be in, if that makes sense. At that time too, I was painting very long hours each day in the winter rains which came from way our far in the Pacific, after a while of this physical exhaustion painting I began to see things which were not real, but what it real after all – so the film was a way to visualise that sense of being disoriented and disconnected with reality and place but at the same time being closer to it.

Double Negative, video installation, 2016

What do you hope the viewer gains/reacts from looking at your work?

I don’t really think about this when I work. Some people say they are reminded of old sea maps when they look at my drawings after being immersed in the ocean. And recently someone commented how my paintings from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans brought a deep sense of calm to them. I’m interested in the space in which the work is shown and enjoy working with curators who can take the viewer/visitor along a meandering narrative and journey, because after all, my work is about the journey, the going out there in the wild, into nature, at the fringes of where human civilisation reaches that vast void of space and nothingness and I cross over into it and begin that search and coexistence with having a human relationship out there. But then I bring back something tangible and visual from that lived experience and then at that point the work lives on its own to a large degree. 

I feel strongly that the painting/drawing should have a life of its own, and that thought and approach extends to how the work could be seen. I would like that a viewer gains and shares a sense of what the work and I experienced while we made it together out-there. There is a whole raft of human emotions attached to the work’s history and individual odysseys, from elation and enlightenment to loss and exhaustion, a deep sense of rootedness to the universe to a trembling sense of vulnerability, from a reawakening again of being a sensitive living organism to being simple lost and hurtling through the universe not knowing at all what is coming next. Last summer I worked with a wonderful architect in France, Alvaro Siza, and he reflected to me that we should try and sense and see the beauty in the world which is already around us, and if possible, leave the place in a more beautiful way. I really like those sentiments a lot.

In Search of the Sublime, solo show at Beers London, 2016 (Image credit: Damian Griffiths courtesy of Beers London)

Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/studio routine? Do even have a studio or is the ocean your studio?

The last studio space I used was at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California last November while I was an artist in residence collaborating with oceanographers, biologists, technical engineers, etc. I remember that studio time really well. I was super intense painting four large canvases on the floor with a nano-engineered paint that the University California San Diego had been producing. This paint is one of the blackest in the world and used in solar technologies and water boiling as a way to generate sustainable power. I travelled with the jet black paintings to the Anza Borrego desert and painted on them using raw sunlight, aided by the profound light absorption yield on the surface of the canvas painted in this incredibly dense black.

I see the ocean as my studio though. I have no electrical points to charge my phone, no roof to keep dry, no four legged chair or table or wall. I’ve learnt to adapt to the places I find though. If it rains, I get wet or sometimes I take refuge in a sea cave, or quickly install a makeshift shelter under the canvas I’m working with – as I never stretch the canvas until the painting has reached that time when I feel it has gone far enough and so on. When I’m tired I just lie down in the sand or move a few rocks slightly to find a place of temporary rest. For food, as I often use a lot of energy to hike to the places I work and then the making of the work over hours and hours, sometimes working into the night after sun down takes a lot of energy, I simply eat fruit, nuts or open a can of beans and heat them up on my camp stove. Occasionally, in the autumn for example, I will collect berries and fruits on the trek to the place I work, enjoying the simplicity and honesty of living off and with the land.

My practice evolves continuously and is adaptive to the places I work. I spend vast amounts of time just looking, thinking, being, wondering, dreaming, sleeping and reflecting when I am on the coast.

And there’s quite a lot of rituals and practices that I go through too, some of them go back to previous experiences of meeting and learning about ceremonial rituals before drumming with Native American tribes. I take practices from them and make up my own practice as a way to start the making of work and being thankful and respectful to the ocean and spirits and so on which resonate and coexist in the places I work, in nature in general you know. This is important to me. Over the last year or so I have learnt more about the practice of Tai Chi while travelling and working in Taiwan, so I incorporate what I remember and make up new moves too as a way to keep warm, relax, keep awake and alert, etc. This has influenced me a lot because I see the canvas as extension of my body, or more so a body in its own right, and one thing about that I’ve gained more insight in is that energy needs a space to move and flow.

I will sometimes start painting by drinking a small amount of Coca-Cola, remembering my time with the Tzoltzil indigenous people in the Chiapas highlands in southern Mexico. These beautiful and earthy people drink the beverage as the consumed gassy liquid makes them burb and thus release any bad energy lingering inside their body. When I finish making work, I touch the earth with my fingers, pluck a hair from my head and give this to the earth along with my thankfulness for the time to make, to be, to live, to learn and this is what I remember after drumming in a fire circle with Abenaki Indians in North America several years ago. Most times when I travel far to make my work I suffer jet lag and sometimes tropical illness, so those affect my working relationships. I remember so clearly all the places I’ve worked to date, I remember their unique sense of space and time, the smells, light, textures, character, voice, colours. My studio is always expanding and that’s an exciting thing to let happen.

In Search of the Sublime, solo show at Beers London, 2016 (Image credit: Damian Griffiths courtesy of Beers London)

In Search of the Sublime, solo show at Beers London, 2016 (Image credit: Damian Griffiths courtesy of Beers London)

How do you go about naming your work?

The core body of the drawings since 2007 working in the Pacific Ocean in Mexico are simply named as how many hours the drawing embodied and spent in direct touch with the ocean while being drawn, then the ocean and the country. That has been ongoing and evolves to where the work takes me.

For the paintings over the last year, the names comes to me in various ways, either before, more times than not when I am painting or shortly after and I have travelled away from the ocean. Some names come to me while in a dream state. Some are poetic and lyrical spins of an experience, such as ‘Whole Nothing’, which was when I saw and followed a whale in the Pacific in Taiwan and I was following it northwards with my binoculars as it journeyed out along the coast, so the word whale and whole and north and nothing merging as a double barrel name to a profound experience which informed the painting.

The names of the paintings recently have all associations in some way to the notion of taking a journey or the rawness and primal calling that I feel when I am making them, ‘Hobo’, ‘Passage’, etc. ‘White Rain’ came to me in a lucid dream on the Pacific coast when I was exhausted and I slept on the beach to restore my energy, and I remember a beautiful white rain over the ocean. I woke up with the rain on my face shortly after and the name felt right to what I was getting more into while painting on that work at the time.  

What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?

A few weeks ago, wondering around the Tate Modern, I passed by and was tremendously drawn into the aura and presence of a painting by Agnes Martin called ‘Faraway Love’ (1999). Such a beautiful painting painted in her late life when she suffered mental health challenges. I am not sure what it is which draws me to that painting, and it had to be in the flesh, something immeasurable and undefinable, something beyond language you know, just a really beautiful painting and portal into the world.

Outside of the gallery, I free climbed this huge boulder on the Atlantic coast in Cornwall last week, and when I got to the top and sat upon the boulder looking out to the open ocean I saw five white shells and white stains on the rock. I didn’t move them as they looked perfectly placed in the universe. The shells and white stain had been left by a sea bird who had brought the shells to the boulder to open up the shell, consume the contents and then leave its mark after that exchange and interaction. It reminded me of the balance of life, the fragility of where we are, that everything is in a continuous state of flux, and had this primal visual language which was beyond written language but spoke of the cosmos, the heavens and earth, life and death.

Hobo, 2016, Oil, Acrylic, Chinese Ink, Enamel, Pencil, Oilstick, Pen and Earth on Canvas, 172cm x 193cm

Distant Sunrise Over Pacific Ocean, 2016, Chinese Ink, Oil, Acrylic, Enamel, Pen, Sand, Earth and Found Object on Canvas, 171cm x 185cm

What does the future hold for you as an artist? Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?

I’m busy at the moment working on some new paintings that I’ll show in a solo show at the Artissima art fair in Torino, Italy with Beers London, that will be early November. Later this year in the Autumn I’ll be showing some drawings alongside works by Bill Viola, Richard Hughes and Marina Abramovic and others in an exciting group show at the Ferenczy Museum Center in Hungary.  

I’m showing some drawings from the Atlantic in this year’s Wirksworth Art Festival, curated by Geoff Diego Litherland which is happening in September. Last week a major new touring show opened in Plymouth at Peninsula Arts, curated by Lara Goodband called Sea Swim: Head Above Water. I’ve got a selection of works in the show which will travel to Folkestone and Scarborough later in the year. 

Artist website

BEERS London

Publishing date of this interview: 12/08/16