Matthew Bourbon, Ritual to Remember to Forget (detail), Acrylic on Canvas, 60 x 60 inches, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.
Matthew Bourbon has an old-school academic’s approach to painting, a fact that translates in his carefully-crafted discussion of his own work. His process is a daunting combination of hours logged and painstaking moment-by-moment analysis: “Every little adjustment at [the] end stage feels monumental. If I make a wrong move, or a poor choice, the painting rips open again and it will demand much more work to find a finish.” This intense and sustained pressure results in paintings that are confident and breezy, making Bourbon’s studio regimen something akin to crushing coal into diamonds.
Bourbon comes by these onerous work-habits honestly: he’s professor of painting at UNT, and has been an art writer and critic since 1998. What this means is that an offhand question about his heavy use of pattern opens an art-historical can-of-worms, and just one small window into his densely layered thought process. “At some level they are generically about the history of abstract painting, my personal sense of the immediacy of mid-century painting. But now that quasi-modernist patterns are ubiquitous throughout contemporary culture (on fabric designs, coffee mugs, advertising etc.), I feel that the use of flat abstract forms has become a kind of building block serving a whole host of visual information within our society—there’s almost an unspoken common language we use with abstraction of this sort—albeit a vague and mumbling language.”
There’s a temptation to lump Bourbon’s figural works into this “vague and mumbling” category: not only do they avoid the viewer’s gaze, but most have facial features that descend into complicated graphic patterns or fuzzy layered brushstrokes. They are perhaps the least-figural figure paintings I’ve come across. What these people are doing, or may be about to do, is lost in the overwhelming visual noise of their surroundings. At first they feel like slightly unsettling snapshots, but they quickly transform into Bourbon’s particular brand of subtle subversion: menacing pink forms floating in an office-like setting, or the candy-striped legs of what might be a mannequin. As he describes it, the “source imagery” is more of a jumping-off-point—a catalyst rather than an end goal. “I used to take photos of old films from the 40s to use as sources. I occasionally still use movie-stills. The beginning image or images that start the proverbial ball rolling are quickly altered and transformed in many ways.” One of the works from his recent show at Avis Frank began as a still from a Hitchcock film, but the only echo of that reference is the sense of impending action in the rising figure, whose features have been subsumed by horizontal masked lines.
For Matthew Bourbon, it’s important to consider all sources, all imagery, and all modes of painterly representation. His upcoming show at RE gallery in Dallas (on view April 11 through May 10) refers to this brand of postmodern image-gleaning with its title, Though It’s Been Said. After all, we live in a post-artistic-manifesto world, and Bourbon’s not doddering about in some specialized niche. This artist is searching for answers to the Big Questions: “How can I make painting something that is about thinking, feeling, or experience? A knitted web of all sorts of patterns and mark-making inculcate every moment of our lives and I strive to make paintings that reflect this reality. Plus, in a dumb, painterly way, patterns are beautiful.”