Detail of ‘The Artist’s Uncle (Moses) by Rob Matthews
In his latest exhibition, Rob Matthews presents ‘Kindred’ a series of reverent drawings that quietly pose questions of legacy and likeness.
The twenty graphite drawings in the suite are so delicately rendered they appear to be woven into the paper itself. Each drawing measures seven inches in diameter; their identical circular format, a tondo, can be traced back to the Renaissance when it traditionally contained biblical scenes. Here, the small circles are inscribed with delicate portraits that depict in great detail members of the artist’s extended family: aunts, cousins, parents, and grandparents. In each vignette, the sitter holds an object of their choice, laden with significance. These personal totems range from the secular to spiritual – from basketballs to rosaries. While ‘The Artist’s Cousin, Jeremy’ cradles what appears to be a handmade fishing lure, ‘The Artist’s Brother, Reid’ offers a bible held open to a passage marked with the ichthys of his faith. The distance between one man’s fishing and the other’s fishing of souls is not a far leap.
The genetic proximity of these two men is also made clear; we can see the shared familial traits. Bonded to the others in the room through blood or marriage, each portrait links directly to the artist, further blurring the line between portraiture and self-portraiture. The title of the show ‘Kindred’ evokes not only the tribe of a specific family but the overlapping beliefs shared within larger social groups.
Even when not outwardly spiritual these are intently reverent drawings. Rob Matthews’ studied observation inspires equal intimacy on the part of the viewer; we lean closer to see the slight tilt of his aunt’s necklace, the careful knit of his grandfather’s sweater, the worn knuckles of his uncle’s hands. Small details, carefully observed, become discoveries; they are things we notice (or neglect to notice) about those we love. The hours of intense work evidenced in each drawing might recall a meditative act not dissimilar to prayer, but their fidelity to observation might also speak of a different desire. At the core of portraiture is a need to preserve and remember.
We can appreciate the flickering flame of the candle captured in ‘The Artist’s Aunt, Carolyn,’ precisely because we know it is no longer lit. Although frozen in time, each image speaks of the ephemerality of existence. Contemporary versions of momento mori, the drawings remind the viewer of death within life. The Proustian attention to detail takes on a deeper meaning; we are presented the minutia of life as cues for memory or, perhaps, as fallible charms to ward off mortality.
In the center of the exhibition sits a double-sided self-portrait; the artist’s chosen artifact is an image of his grandmother. We can witness the care attended to her likeness, while recognizing a degree of separation within this represented image. Her presence is marked by absence. The back of the drawing reveals an inscription hidden on the other portraits, but it also uncovers the illusion at work throughout the exhibition. Although the artist can hold the image in his hands, it stands as only a relic of a loved-one. In this lovingly rendered drawing, both the promise and limitations of portraiture are revealed. ‘Kindred’ presents a very human longing for connection while offering faith in its existence.
* Rob Matthews ‘Kindred’ ran from September 11 – November 15, 2008 at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York City.