Man at His Best

Making sense of artist Jonathan Matas' works of art

Just how comfortable are you in your own skin?

BY Cheryl Teo | Feb 15, 2016 | Arts

Image from Louis Kwok

Standing in front of Jonathan Matas’ work, titled “At the Zoo”, and trying to comprehend it, can be a helplessly personal exercise. There is too much detail in any one part of the canvas, for any coherence or system of thought to be applied to the artwork. The colours splash out at you in their extravagance, and it all seems quite dizzying—as if one is standing in between two mirrors facing each other, compelled to look left and right. The viewer cannot know where to begin, and so lapses into a grasping at the familiar; the jam-packed detail on the canvas providing much to work with.

It seems a bit more doable to section up the canvas into shapes that resonate, or make sense: “I see a face.” “Is that a bird?” “So much geometry.” After some time, one tends to notice the multiple gazes scattered around the canvas, pairs of “eyes” looking out—some benignly, some eerily, (some quite terrifyingly inviting), but all quite bewildering. Having spotted eyes, the loose assemblage of a face starts to appear on the canvas, much in the way you would imagine the Cheshire Cat appearing to Alice in her Wonderland; a line, a whisker, a form taking shape in her mind’s eye.

As one stares long enough, the faces, floating in time and space, transmogrify into something else, evoking a shape-shifting other-worldliness to the work. The absence of fixity confers a sense of the unknown that can be unsettling, but also very compelling. There is perhaps an unconscious psychoanalytic mirror aspect to Matas’ art, which does not seek to “be” anything, or “do” anything, but reflect something hidden and unknowable, to be drawn out by the viewer. Like when a person looks into a pool of water and sees a floating, disembodied image of himself, and discovers his face, yes, surely, but also something else, something unfamiliar that must be found out. It is the unnerving sense that perhaps you don’t really know yourself at all, combined with the notion that you should thus relentlessly pursue the exercise.

Matas describes his work as inviting “endless pareidolia… No two people see the same thing.” Indeed, what would a person’s mindscape suggest to him? For some not used to being unhinged in that way, the experience can be perplexing; but to others, enjoyable and fun. There is an incredible empowering of the viewer to shape his experience of the work, a certain trust. 

This trust in the process—from the commencement of the work to its end reception by the viewer—can be due to Matas dwelling on a spiritualism informed by Tibetan Buddhism. He seems to have modulated the artistic temperament (with its rages and highs, peaks and troughs) into a sort of steady, unflinching, unfazed demeanour. There is a meditative labour to his work, which may account for much of the complexity and layered nuances splashed, sprayed, dabbed and stroked onto canvas. Tackling the canvas moment by moment, Matas’ paintings exist somewhere in a time and space unimpeded by human counting. The steady tick-tock of human existence is obliterated by this moment-to-moment endurance of time. Matas paints through annoyance, believing in the spontaneous moment. His paintings thereby comprise a series of moments condensed into a single canvas, a distilled essence from being honest and real in the moment, a kind of bare, vulnerable truth.

This purity may be why the artist struggles to put into words his own craft. Matas speaks softly, almost inaudibly, and you invariably ask him to repeat himself, so you can grasp exactly what he is trying to say. Where do you even begin to try and explain something so distilled, so personal, and fix it into a rigidity of meaning? Trying to put into words what his painting is or could be, and posing it as a question to Matas, thus often meets with a non-affirming silence. 

Jonathan Matas lets his art speak for itself. 

First published in Esquire Singapore's February 2016 issue. At the time of writing, Matas has completed two private commissions of art: “At the Zoo”, commissioned by a private collector in Singapore, and another large-scale work commissioned by Facebook Singapore.