Overgrown 81.5 x 302 cm
The Wallpaper Man: pattern and meaning in the work of Matthew Meadows.
For art with such a powerful pleasurable visual hit, it is hard to imagine that one of the starting points for Matthew Meadows' work is the wish to teeter on the edge of dislikeability. The look of it has something to do with Philip Taaffe, or Richmond Burton -- but there's also a touch of Enid Marx (who designed seating material for London Underground in the 1950's).
At the moment he is printing with fluffy or crinkly textured wallpapers from the sample books you see in builders' merchants. The ones with endless pages of cream and white or magnolia with flocked flowers or gold lines. He uses them, building up layers of colour and pattern, until the whole surface shimmers.
We can run up a flight of stairs or find a break in the traffic to cross the road because we are acutely attuned to pattern. Our ability to detect irregularities in the order of a visual rhythm is important to our safety and survival. But rigid rhythmic predictability can be dull. With patterned materials like textiles, a certain degree of unpredictablilty is often a by-product of their use -- folds in the way curtains hang for example, or what darts, sleeves, collars and pockets do to stripes in shirting fabric. Interesting complexities come from the three dimensional context in which patterns are deployed. Design products are unlike art works in that they have a secondary function. Art which uses pattern in a pared-back way usually gets over the problem of visual boredom by shoring up its look with a supporting scaffold of what it means. This is exemplified by the ironic, decorative formalists who emerged from Goldsmiths in the mid 90s - light on the visual, heavy on the social.
Matthew Meadows' work isn't encumbered with rhetoric, but its finish, tone and pattern make it immensely rich to look at. To paraphrase Gombrich -- the pleasure of pattern lies somewhere between boredom and chaos. Meadows works in this gap - there is a visual order, but it is always on the point of dissolving.
The work he had in Colour My World, a show which Matthew Collings and I recently curated at Riflemaker, was a wallpaper specially made for the space. It combined the familiar - floral anaglypta , a textured wallpaper -- with a pulse of proto-Modernist glyphs in vivid off-bright colours, to create something new. It is hard to judge the plane on which the work rests - your eye dances across the space. We are used to music re-contextualising what it samples - George Formby doesn't seem the same once you have heard what DJ Yoda does with him - and Meadows pulls off the same trick. He describes the process as one of setting up rules, then making certain kinds of shapes emerge positively or negatively.
There are a number of levels on which this work reads. You can have the illusion of a unified background fizziness, and in fact he does achieve a unity of ground, but the impression of a single field is sleight of hand. He starts from a single matrix 'mother pattern' printed in two or three colours, which he goes on to break up, masking out areas, responding to what he feels the look requires. There are probably a dozen patterns in all, in pattern families, some chintzy, some naturalistic, others falling between the two. As a mosaicist I know how difficult it is to keep an elegant balance of shape, tone, pattern and finish. The graceful way he accomplishes it is impressive. There is a nasty vivid emerald at the end of each wall, which he cleverly modifies with the adjoining peach and blue 'figure'. The light tone of the peach takes the sting out of the intensity of the green. Then he modifies the peach with the tonally similar lime and red, allowing you to move effortlessly back to his unifying mid-tone pea green - counterpoint to a pinky-purple.
All of this sounds impossibly smock-wearing (the bourgeois English equivalent to a beret). Artists don't think about colour any more - or at least they don't foreground any thoughts about it they might have. Martin Herbert, who writes both for Artforum and Modern Painters, was one of the speakers in a series of talks organized to accompany the Riflemaker show. He summarized the contemporary mind-set accurately when he said colour is simply a by-product of an artist's intention to examine more urgent content - an accidental secondary issue. But although this is true in one way, it is also misleading . Ian Monroe, Martin Maloney or Wolfgang Tillmans might not prioritise an interest in it, but it is still at work in what they do. In the 70s we all learned that not noticing ideology, doesn't mean it isn't there. Likewise colour - if it's working it is invisible. These artists (consciously or unconsciously) are using the tools at their disposal in an effective way.
In describing the way one of Meadows' wallpaper 'figures' modified another it may have sounded as if the printing order of components was significant. Although the process might have a nerdy technical fascination, the work is really about what is arrived at, not the act of getting there. The weight, curl and shine of the heavily inked paper are all contribute to making a vivid visual experience. (Meadows experimented, less successfully, with similar themes printed onto MDF. The sheer unresponsive flatness of the surface produced much deader objects.) With so much going right, where is the dislikeability that was his starting point? It comes from the challenge he sets himself, picking colours that give him a slight shiver, and manipulating this quality to his advantage.
He is conscious of the signs that load his work - conflicting meanings of class, ethnicity, nostalgia and technology. The class content comes from where you buy anaglypta - his basic printing material - and where you find it used. Fuzzy or figured papers are more likely to be associated with Indian restaurants and rented rooms than loft-life or suburbia. His floating Modernist squiggles cannot exist in a realm independent of twentieth century art's appropriation of the primitive. Intertwined with these forms -- reminiscent of African influenced Matisse cut-outs -- run unifying pink and blue mutant Islamic arabesques, a reference quivering with cultural contemporanaity.
Orlando Figes, in Natasha's Dance -- his historical overview of Russian culture -- tells us the middle-class vogue for peasant traditions arrived at precisely the moment when peasant life, as it had previously existed, was coming to an end. There is probably some of this nostalgia latent in the appeal of Meadows' work. He acquired his Albion press from an art college. Albion -- the combination of poetic cultural confidence with industrial machinery gives us a glimpse into the sensibility of a radically different moment. All over the country colleges are disposing of the old technology of print-making, in favour of the technology which facilitates our global economy. Once an industrial process, print-making has become a craft. Decoration, colour, pattern, craft - all areas traditionally associated with women's practice - these horror areas of bourgeois complacency are the territory he is not so much claiming, as planting a few seeds in.
'MODERN PAINTERS' APRIL 2005.
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