William Matthews poses himself a fresh creative challenge in multiple mediums
By Norman Kolpas
“I’m choosing to go off on a tangent that not everyone is necessarily going to endorse,” says William Matthews of his latest artwork. He’s wary, yet cautiously optimistic, about his new show of more than 50 paintings, on display from March 16 to 24 at Great Basin Studio in the revitalized warehouse enclave of River North Art District, just north of downtown Denver.
The word “tangent” certainly applies. At 62, Matthews enjoys the worldwide reputation he has established over the past three decades as a preeminent portrayer of the West. His richly detailed, realistic watercolors led Forbes FYI to declare him the “new Remington of American painting.” Yet, although some works in his familiar style are included in the show, this latest collection boldly defies expectations.
Dating back as far as 25 years, but mostly executed more recently, these images are not all painted on the sheets of watercolor paper Matthews is known for using. Yes, that material does appear here and there, but it may form a background for streaky daubs of oil paint instead of tightly rendered watercolor brush strokes. Those oils, meanwhile, reappear as broad, blunt brush strokes on a large sheet of butcher paper. In still other works, Williams completely casts away conventional materials in favor of spray paint on galvanized corrugated steel. There are also collages of newsprint or fabric swatches of children’s clothing from the mid-1950s era. Watercolors reappear unexpectedly in minimalist Japanese-style compositions.
And then there’s the subject matter itself. Every one of the paintings that fill the gallery represents a single building: a Midwestern-style granary incongruously built in the remote northwestern corner of Nevada in the mid-1950s on what remains to this day the largest working ranch in the West, the Winecup-Gamble Ranch near the town of Elko. “Buildings like this don’t show up in the American western landscape,” says Matthews. “But as soon as I first saw it all those years ago, I thought to myself, this is the ranch version of a great castle. Yet, being a functioning, industrial building, it has a modern simplicity of planes. The way it’s positioned, it catches light in such a beautiful way all day long. Even at night there are lights on it that illuminate it beautifully. There are so many elements to this building that are so good.”
In short, year after year, the granary all but begged Matthews to paint it, even as he was also studying, sketching, and preparing to paint all the daily working scenes of cowboys at the ranch.
Precedents certainly exist in art history for such creative departures via tightly focused concentrations on a single subject. What may come most immediately to mind are the 31 canvases of Rouen Cathedral painted between 1892 and 1894 by Claude Monet, the father of French Impressionism. His series became not merely an exploration of the Gothic cathedral’s ornate facade but of the myriad and intricate ways in which light played on those surfaces. “Things don’t advance very steadily, primarily because each day I discover something I hadn’t seen the day before,” wrote Monet of those paintings. “In the end, I am trying to do the impossible.”
By attempting such seemingly unachievable feats of painting, Monet kept his work fresh and vital. “The older I become,” he reflected, “the more I realize that I have to work very hard to reproduce what I search: the instantaneous.” And his intense delving into single subjects—a cathedral, haystacks, a water lily pond—helped that master to continue growing as an artist, even into his late 70s. “It’s on the strength of observation and reflection that one finds a way,” Monet observed. “So we must dig and delve unceasingly.”
While humbled by the comparison to a major figure in art history, Matthews nonetheless gets the point. “When Monet started painting those canvases, it was just a matter of the building continuing to speak to him. Every time he would look at it, it had a different personality. Once you’ve stood in front of any subject for so long, its elements become so ingrained in your mind, and you have the proportions so cleanly delineated, that you can get more into the sensual aspect of the paint itself and explore multiple facets of yourself as an artist.”
That’s an experience Matthews had found lacking of late in his own artistic life. Growing up in a San Francisco family of artists, with a modernist grandfather and a mother who painted oil portraits, by the age of 12 he had already dedicated himself to watercolors. At 19, he was making a name for himself as a graphic artist in Hollywood, designing album covers at Warner Bros. and Capitol Records. (His lifelong passion for music continues to find expression in the cover art he has painted, in his signature style, for many western and country recording artists including the Sons of the San Joaquin, Michael Martin Murphey, Randy Travis, and Vince Gill.)
Eventually switching to fine art full time and settling in the greater Denver area, Matthews began to paint the cowboy subjects for which he’s justifiably earned his fame, as well as painting scenes and subjects from his far-flung travels to places ranging from Italy to Ireland, from Scotland to Spain to China. Along the way, he also developed a 20-year friendship with the late, great American watercolor realist Andrew Wyeth, one of his inspirations as an artist.
However much Matthews continues to enjoy the work that brought it and appreciates the benefits that result, fame can, nonetheless, have its drawbacks. “I’ve gotten so comfortably in the groove of watercolor that I have been reluctant to be too experimental,” he admits. He continues, “In the western art world, people don’t try new things as much. They tend to paint in very predictable, predetermined styles and vernaculars.”
A desire to escape from that sort of expected, not-always-challenging groove helped fuel Matthews’ desire to take this new tangent. “To really grow,” he believes, “you have to put some obstacles in front of you. I’ve been trying to do things I haven’t done before, to push my experimentation buttons.”
No more tangible example of an obstacle may be found than the 5-foot-tall sheet of corrugated steel Matthews pried from the basement wall of the warehouse where his new paintings are being shown. The same material that clads the Nevada granary itself, it challenged the artist to try an entirely new medium for him: spray paint. He delineated the structure’s edges in stenciled lines of black, while leaving the walls in the panel’s uncovered, galvanized finish, with swaths of fiery orange and red providing a blazing sunset background.
In this case, Matthews’ mentor was his son, Austin, a graffiti artist who teaches street art in the Oakland and Berkeley public schools and who is an artist-in-residence at the San Francisco Zoo. “He’s a real master,” says the proud father. “So I took a page out of his book, keeping in mind his techniques along with airbrush techniques from my earlier days as a graphic designer.”
In sharp contrast with that bravura piece is one in which Matthews employs the medium for which he is best known, only to produce a work that seems atypical for him. On a ragged-edged sheet of watercolor paper, the very basic structure of the granary building is barely suggested in subtle washes of ochre, gray, blue, and purple. Across this almost-abstract rendering, a large conical bucket near the top of the building and the pipe leading from it down to the ground are portrayed in rusty hues in the artist’s well-known, detailed style.
The effect is akin to East Asian brush-and-ink painting, in which a few skilled strokes on an otherwise blank sheet can suggest an entire bamboo grove or a mountain stream. “That sense of restraint and singularity has always been inspiring to me,” says Matthews. “Sometimes it’s fun to use as little information as possible to tell as much of the story as possible.”
Looking at such widely varied images, one of the most fascinating impressions they make is that all of them still look remarkably like paintings done by William Matthews, and all are executed with mastery. “Even when I’m doing the watercolors for which I’m known, I’m not conscious of trying to work in a recognizable William-Matthews technique,” says the artist. “I don’t think about technique as much as I think about how to be effective in a particular painting. I guess that, like handwriting, your voice as an artist becomes recognizable, and you unconsciously manifest it.”
Though Matthews may feel some trepidation about how these works will be received, his fears will likely prove unfounded. Their aesthetic appeal, coupled with the artist’s well-established reputation, will likely lead to many if not all of them quickly finding homes with collectors and museums.
But sales are almost beside the point in this case. “This has been about exploring multiple facets of myself,” Matthews explains. “I think a lot of the story is about reinvention, and the value of doing something over and over and over again in different ways. I believe doing that can draw out more energy and depth the more you do it, and really improve your art.”
Featured in April 2012.