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Jan Oliver & Susan Hawkins From Diffractional Conversations: Pro Gallery

Matthew Harris
Written on the Wind

3 - 24 June 2023

Matthew Harris is based in Naarm/Melbourne and is a studio artist at Gertrude Contemporary, he was born in Wangaratta of mixed European and Koorie descent.

In Written on the Wind, Matthew Harris has done little to cheer up the dank greyscale bowels of Milani’s CARPARK. Instead, he has sparsely populated each low-ceilinged, dimly lit gallery with just two or three works in a limited palette of black, grey and white. There is a quiet eeriness to the hang—the works look as though they are the forgotten remnants left by a previous inhabitant, or even the minimal possessions of a sometimes tenant. Matthew draws upon the legacy of monochromes, translating the work of seminal “tragic abstractionists” including Mark Rothko and Agnes Martin to a broader mood of existential dread.

For all its supposed formalism, the monochrome has never been apolitical. In many respects, Matthew’s manipulation of the monochrome after its modernist boom is a deeper investigation into the social and political weight that the artform holds, despite having been championed as pure surface by modernists such as Greenberg. Indeed, the materials that he uses—white ochre, charcoal and possum tails—hold important ceremonial significance for Aboriginal people that can not be negated by the abstract format.

In the first gallery, a pair of small paintings titled Fringe Dwellers (2023) are hung side by side. Each one is an abstracted possum—a grey monochrome painted with ochre with a real possum’s tail attached to the base. The idea of two possums huddled together in the cold, dark gallery is heartbreaking but also humorous given the paintings’ formal qualities. That is, if these are possums, then their bodies are flat, compact boxes. The paintings are withholding. Matthew has said that they are proxies for his grandparents but he gives us little else to work with. He either intentionally redacts information, or simply does not have the facts to substantiate the narrative. Indeed, these works have grown directly out of a larger collection of paintings that depict a museum storage facility housing Aboriginal remains, which Matthew will present at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in late June.


In the next room, Matthew uses abstraction in a pathetic attempt to warm the space. Where Agnes Martin produced gridded canvases of a meticulous, matter of fact logic, Matthew has taken the grid and added curtains, to make abstraction (in his words) “nice and cosy” (Art and Decoration, 2023). In this sense, Matthew has transformed abstraction into a figuration of types. Although perhaps it is more accurate to say he has produced a dialectic between abstraction and figuration and, in the process, created a tension between what the two painterly formats have traditionally stood for—abstraction’s emphasis upon surface and figuration’s tendency to be characterised as a portal onto a world beyond. Refusing to frame Art and Decoration as a trompe l’oeil, Matthew applied the curtains with the same one-dimensionality as the grid, the texture of the ochre betraying the painting as a material object. 

Written on the Wind comes to a bleak albeit comical climax in the final room. A meteorite complete with possum tail (Baparra Banarrak, 2022) hangs above a large monochromatic painting (Suicide Painting, 2023). Prior to his 1970 suicide, Mark Rothko produced a series of paintings similar to his famous colour field paintings, expcept that they were painted in muted greys and blacks. It has been widely speculated that these works were an ersatz suicide note, an encapsulation of his depressive mental state in the final years of his life. Here, Matthew has transformed Rothko’s painting into a night sky, the top section populated with stars. Hovering above the landscape, the meteor threatens to pierce the painting’s surface. About his paintings—which commentators widely labelled “apocalyptic wallpaper”—Rothko said he wanted to make his viewers “feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up…”. In Written on the Wind, Matthew brings that bleak sentiment to reality. Contained in a bunker beneath the earth, his works sit in waiting for a yet undetermined moment in time.

–Amelia Winata

For more on the artist's work please see here - 

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