An encounter with one of North Carolina-born artist Rob Matthews’ works can be curiously disorienting. In one way, you’re sure you’ve never seen anything quite like it before. But on the other hand, something about it feels familiar, making you linger a little longer as your brain tries to pick out what that something could be. In Flight to Egypt, it’s probably the underlying composition, which Matthews based on a medieval Madonna and Child icon. But the subject of the painting is Gabriela Hernandez, a 27-year-old pregnant mother detained at the US border near Tijuana. In The Chess Player, the body is an abstraction of a Hans Holbein portrait, and the head, marked by a modernist nod to the geometry of Kazimir Malevich, is also a mashup of Paul Cambon and Sir Edward Grey, the French and English signatories for the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement — a secret treaty that carved up the Middle East with little regard for existing ethnic, tribal and religious groups.
If all these references sound a little haphazard, they’re not. Matthews is a man with a very specific goal. Through his work, he seeks to crystalize events from our news feeds — to highlight people and events that too often get lost in the shuffle — while also interrelating their stories into the greater narrative of the human epic. News cycles come and go from our attention so quickly, but Matthews believes that taking more time to reflect on them might help us realize that we’re looking at events that — just by switching out surface details — very well could have happened 600 years ago. It’s a concept that first began to take shape in his mind when he was working part-time at the Philadelphia Museum of Art cleaning the art on display.
“I fell back on a lesson that I learned in undergrad: I may not make great work, but I can make a lot of it. I committed myself to working twice as much as anybody else. I think looking busy is what got me scholarships.”
He began seeing patterns between disparate art movements as he dusted his way through the gallery halls, noting how both early Northern Renaissance artists (15th century) and Cubists (early 20th century) created shallow illusionistic spaces by bringing the background forward. As he mused on these similarities, he came to view the flattening of space as a metaphor for the flattening of time. Seeing the near and the far so close together is akin to having an historical understanding that allows contemporary events to share space with those of the distant past. Could these really be the thoughts of an average custodial worker? In this case, no. Matthews earned his BFA from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and his MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University.
His introduction to university-level art instruction was heavily conceptual, under the tutelage of an unorthodox freshman painting teacher who taught theory but did not give actual assignments. The 15 students in his sophomore painting class were competing for five spots in the next level. “I was number six,” recalls Matthews. “So, I didn't sleep and made 20 paintings in three weeks. I think my teacher made me number five, just for quantity.” Matthews’ robust work ethic and prolific, self-propelled output helped him produce stand-out work that would earn him a number of scholarships and fellowships over the years. Today he is a master visual storyteller who uses his talent to bring more attention to global crises — from the crimes of ISIS during the Syrian civil war to militia massacres in the Congo and immigrants being kept in cages at the Mexican border — and the human beings who continue to suffer, even when the news cycle has moved on.
How would you describe your work featured in the ArtSuite exhibit?
Themes of upheaval, power, displacement and the unspoken message of ‘home’ anchor the work. Some subjects of these paintings are heroes. Other subjects are villains. The remaining that are depicted are caught in the middle. All of the work is made to spend time considering events and people that get lost in the shuffle of the ever-changing news cycle.”
So, you were in a band in college? What kind of band was it?
“A bad one. Just a rock band. But even bad rock bands are very time-consuming hobbies.”
Tell us about your first introduction to art in an academic setting.
“My teacher never had any technical training; he was a conceptually driven artist. In his class, we mostly just talked about theory. You would expect freshman painting to contain assignments with still life or figure painting, or other traditional approaches. We had to read and discuss Michel Foucault’s ‘This Is Not a Pipe.’ He talked about Miro more than anything else. I didn't know what I was supposed to be learning. I just thought that was what freshman painting is.”
How did you land on your current style or method of composition?
“I’ve always liked Northern European primitive [art], like the space in a van Eyck, the fuzzy use of perspective that deliberately has two or three vanishing points to flatten the space. Then I started coupling that with Cubist ideas. I didn't really see them as dramatically different from one another — this idea of pushing the background forward without destroying space completely. Then I started looking at a lot of Byzantine Icon painting, which is very graphic in how it tinkers with space. I honed in on elements that I liked out of all these different movements. And things started to get a bit flatter, and more graphic elements were woven into it. I think that helped me land where I am now.”
How did you teach yourself to draw?
“Mostly I taught myself how to draw by looking at Albrecht Dürer etchings. I was drawn to his concepts of cross contour and cross hatching. Looking at etching was a weird way to learn how to draw. It's a very specific kind of graphic mark, without a lot of nuance from one line to the next. I made hundreds of pencil drawings with that technique, and I ignored painting for over a decade.… So I focused on drawing for 12 years probably. That taught me a lot more than anything. I didn’t realize how much it would help me once I finally started painting again.”