Leisure Anxiety and the Random Nostalgic: New Paintings by Bobby Mathieson

Robert William Mathieson’s new untitled exhibition of paintings expostulate the terrain of the familiar ‘National’ outdoors in a blurted, squeezed and frenetic rendering. It’s sites of leisure eschew familiar genus of tree and foliage in favour of a scrawled, tailor-made palette. A mosaic of uneven paint ditches as canned frottage pours on to the landscape direct from the painter’s tube. The convivial outings, the joyful camp, become hyper-settings for an amplified longing, and through the pastoral and the prosaic, the anxiety and terror of leisure are pursued. Family outings during humid sun-stricken daylight and under brisk Canadian summer skies are usually equipped with sensory (somatic) input: the needling buzz of the summer insects, the sweltering thicket and woodland, a cooling agent wafting in from a lake. Yet there is no trifle ornamentation, no superfluous detail; just an aching shining through in harried media.

At a glance, one might be tempted to enlist Mathieson’s jittery application with a slew of contemporary painters, whose stylings invoke Expressionist and Automatiste inklings for impasto and gesture. In 2010’s Charlie, the mono-pigmented paints ring out in a highly-abstracted colour-field landscape. We see the lone wolf on his journey of the scrutinized, and surveiled eye, seemingly poking out of its painted visage. Skeins of colour in directions antithetical to classical perspectival rendering of form, blunt, sharpen and edge out the figure. Even lightly-treated canvas exposes itself through the incomplete form, forecasting other ghosts to follow within the year.
Rodney, with its supposed familial excursion, posits a paternal figure at the helm of a seeming bar, darkened in the sun by indoor shadows borrowed from an unspoken saloon, with a gloom of presence one would expect from a booze-can joint of Vincent Van Gogh’s The Night Café (1888). And to this point, Van Gogh’s utilization of pallid green-whites and putrid malachite under the rancid glow of gas lights to represent the now famous southern French denizen for prostitutes and reprobates , was not cut into blocks of red and green to mimic the Impressionist preoccupation with prismatic effects of light, but to denote the malevolent potential in human suffering. As Van Gogh’s own writing on the work suggests, colour was used to express the degenerative state of human affairs in the lowly public house, with the “pale sulphur” of a ‘devil’s furnace’ contrasting in violent proximity, to the sickly green of the room’s furnishings. Mathieson’s countryside and campground locales provide an escapist empire that is either imbued with the nostalgia of a childhood memory, or a site as refuge from the urban centres of commerce and exchange. The figures’ emptied gaze delimits a kind of terror at being discovered. We’ve come upon them in secret, and beckon them back to the world of labour. But, of what is this leisurely realm composed?

The most notable historical expression of the dilemma of leisure is The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, a book, first published in 1899, by the Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen. In it, Veblen determines the economic divisions of labour were outgrowths of ancient human tribalism, in which two classes of people evolved : the higher status individual’s providence was defense (war) and hunting, while the more meek of the two toiled as menial labourers, farmers and cooks. Labourers of the post-Industrial society, he believed, began to emulate the more violent ruling class, until there emerged a new leisure class, one who contributed to the general welfare of the people, but who controlled through a multitude of  coercions,  including  conspicuous consumption, in which consumption of goods for societal status trumped their utilitarian relevance. The “businessman” was an archetype left over from barbarism, one who failed to add (produce) or even provide particular service, who profits from the abstraction, transference and control of goods. Art itself, a conspicuous leisure, however, would be of a noticeable inconsequence to Veblen, bereft of economic value in its own right.

Another salient text on `leisure’, Joseph Pieper’s 1952 publication, in English, of Leisure, the Basis of Culture,  reversed the adage about idle hands contributing to mischief and argued for the silent and reverent moment of contemplation as the foundation for “culture” in a broad sense, although religious in its overtones.  Contemporary Capitalism, with its 24/7 work cycle, totalized by labour, in the promise of unfettered individualism guaranteed in a commitment to a laissez-faire idealism, as Pieper admonishes, renders the labouring class a possible ‘slave society’. Whatever their intention, the picnics and camps of the artist’s latest crop of paintings are inhabited by a forlorn humanity. Nostalgia for a time long past and hyper-experienced, provides insight for the sorrows of the labour-drone and alienated ‘individuals’, utilizing their agonized leisure as last breaths.