Monday, January 18, 2010

The Young Man and the Sea: Peter Matthews at the Drawing Center

Who would wade out into the cold ocean water, stare off at the horizon and cryptically record one's observations for up to 11 hours without looking down at a piece of paper diligently nailed to a long wooden board? The answer is Peter Matthews, and he is perhaps one of the most peculiar artists I have ever met.

Yesterday, on a dreary Sunday, my daughter and I stopped by the Iannis Xenakis: Composer, Architect, Visionary show at the Drawing Center, which opened a couple days ago. That show is quite interesting and I would especially recommend it to both musicians and architects. Across the street at the Center's Drawing Room is
Selections Spring 2010: Sea Marks with works by Agnes Barley, Jerome Marshak and Peter Matthews...

"...three artists selected from the Viewing Program who notate, describe, and interpret aspects of the sea. The exhibition examines the capacity of drawing to represent something as dynamic, volatile, and vast as the ocean."

When we entered the extension gallery we saw Peter's work at the far end: three frenetic and jazzy scribblings at that distance, flanked by two walls of Barley's and Marshak's simple, geometric forms. The biggest treat was that Peter was there talking about his work to a visitor from MoMA.

Peter is based in Nottingham, East Midlands and got his MA Fine Art from Nottingham Trent University in 2003. He is a pleasant young man and fulfills most Americans' idea of the British, politely shy and creatively eccentric. When I first saw Peter's work and did not understand that he stood in the surf to draw, I thought his works were aerial views of the ocean...a mixture of cartography and calligraphy and I pictured him aimlessly drifting around in a small wooden boat, tethered only by a drawn line but his work is much more about the horizon, or perhaps more appropriately as a physicist might say, the event horizon, that border of a black hole where nothing, not even photons escape the gravitational pull.

For Americans, the ocean has many meanings depending on when our ancestors arrived and if they came as conquistadors, adventurers, fortune seekers, refugees or slaves. In each case the ocean, for better or worse, is something survived and in the past. Even though Peter has traveled extensively and is of a generation with distance-shrinking tools such as Skype, the ocean still seems to tune him into his national psyche for a more mysterious and perhaps threatening experience yet to be embarked upon. It is hard not to think of Shackleton's miraculous voyage or Turner's storm-tossed splinters of ships when looking at Peter's work.

At the end of our conversation, Peter seemed more concerned with his safe passage to the JFK airport than making it back across the pond. My daughter and I left the warm, bright gallery for the rainy SoHo streets, at which point she exhaustively demanded, "How long can you adults talk for?!"