Artist interview: Matthew Allen - Art Collector

5 September 2011

Matthew Allen takes time out from his current Sydney exhibition to talk to Australian Art Collector about abstraction and the purpose of painting.

Installation view, Matthew Allen's Field Paintings. Courtesy: the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art, Sydney

Why field paintings?

I wanted a forthright and declarative title; the term field refers here to the material and visual structure of the paintings themselves, they are open fields of colour.

It is also an aside to the historical work out of which my practice extends: the abstract expressionist movement and the colour field painters of the Washington colour school.

How do you feel collectors in Australia respond to abstraction?

I can really only speak from my own personal experience, which so far has been very positive. The collectors that I have met have had a great empathy with the ideals of abstract art and an understanding of its history.

It goes beyond buying a decorative visual commodity to an engagement with an object that is created out of and for the human condition.

Matthew Allen, Red with Blue over Red, 2011. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 137.5 x 122cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art, Sydney

When I look at your work I am reminded of Clement Greenberg’s take on formalism and his notion of purity. Has Greenberg influenced you in anyway? Why or why not?

For all the problems with some of Greenberg’s ideas, I do ascribe to his notion of purity or media specificity. For me, painting should be concerned with its own problems and potentials and use its own structure to explore those questions.

What do you think of abstraction in Australia currently? What do we do well, or not so well?

Australia has at the moment a talented and wide range of abstract painters producing strong work that draws from the multifaceted history of not only Australian but international abstraction. I’m excited by the work of my contemporaries as it shows a deep responsive attitude towards material, process and the finished object.

Looking forward for abstraction in Australia I would like to see more survey shows based on the defining processes or shared lineage between contemporary and historical abstract painters.

Could you take us through your process in creating your field paintings?

My paintings always begin with the experience of colour. When I start out to make a painting I have a certain colour experience in mind, it has to do with the sense of weight or density I want the work to contain. This is an intuitive visual response to colour that is difficult to locate with language.

As of now my work is composed of the relationship between a ground colour and a number of translucent or transparent glazes.

After deciding on the size of the support I will mix and apply the ground colour, which acts as the light source of the painting. The next step is mixing the flowing glaze coats for which I use both opaque and transparent pigments. I then apply the glaze to the vertical canvas, completely covering the frontal surface.

As this glaze is very fluid, after I have applied it to the canvas it continues to fall across the surface of the painting as it is pulled downwards by gravity. It is this process which creates the subtle tonal shift from top to bottom in my work. Once the first glaze coat is applied I spend time with the painting (literally watching paint dry!) to see how the glaze colour has transformed the ground colour and gauge my response to the colour combination.

I find it’s good to leave the studio and come back the next day with a fresher eye to decide if the work holds my visual attention and generates the experience I was after or if I continue with another layer of colour.

Above right: Matthew Allen, Green over Blue, 2011. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 122 x 122cm. Courtesy: the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art, Sydney

Installation view, Matthew Allen's Field Paintings. Courtesy: the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art, Sydney

What exhibitions or artists have left a strong impression on you and your development as an artist?

The first time I was really struck by a painting was with one of Monet’s water lily paintings, which was on show in the Monet and Japan exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. The force of the colour and scale was significant and kind of opened up the phenomenological possibilities of what painting could do.

In 2008 I was lucky enough to catch the Brice Marden retrospective at the SFMOMA, which had a big impact. With artists that work like Marden it’s great to compare a lot of paintings at the one time to really gauge the subtle changes and refinements from painting to painting.

One of the most formative experiences in terms of being a practising painter was a number of studio visits I had with the New York painter Joseph Marioni. To be in one of the art capitals of the world and meet an artist with a complete dedication to his craft and a truly international career was really edifying and inspirational.

It has been argued that we are at the end of postmodernism. Where do you think art in Australia is heading?

Honestly I have always felt at the end of postmodernism, or rather that I never even started into it. Through the past 40 or so years there have been painters that have continued to explore and refine certain tenets of modernism, which really are just aspects of crafting art that belong to many periods and cultures. Having said that, I do believe that there will be a shift away from spectacle driven art created by numerous assistants to a more singular, contemplative and engaged art practice.

For art in Australia in particular, it seems that the questions we need to come to terms with have to do with censorship, function and the position of art in society.

Cassie Newman

Matthew Allen's current exhibition,
Field Paintings, continues at Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art in Sydney until 10 September 2011.

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