"Let us recognize the fact once and for all…," wrote Piet Mondrian in 1920. "If you follow nature, you will not be able to vanquish the tragic in your art." The great neoplasticist saw the processes of nature—the erosions of the landscape and the human body—as inherently melancholy and exorcised them from his work. Multimedia artist Matthew Picton, now showing at Mark Woolley, finds a similar pathos in nature but chooses not to eschew decay but to embrace it, record it and dandy it up like a debutante for the halogens and hardwoods. "Dressing demise," he calls it. In so doing—in ever more virtuosic variations on his under-droning mantra—he has proven himself one of the most brilliant conceptual artists working in America today.
In his three Portland appearances since 2000 and in recent one-man shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the increasingly well-known artist has conjured inexhaustible ways to evolve his obsession with time and terrain. He digitally photographs weather-worn streets and sidewalks, takes plaster castings of cracked lakebeds, then turns these raw materials into organic fantasias that bridge the chasm between nature and artifice.
In 2002, Picton affixed 16,000 glass beads to an enormous honeycomb structure, then, like some mad pastry chef, drizzled the whole affair with multicolored cake sprinkles and moss from the forests near his home. Smaller honeycombs spilled onto the floor and climbed up the water pipes, as if possessed. In 2003, Picton plunged a syringe of adrenaline into Core Sample, using Slinkies to suspend a network of glittery prisms from the ceiling of the old Margo Jacobsen gallery. Light danced, metal glinted and words failed, except these: tour de force.
The current show is less rampant with geodesic critters, more formal and focused. It has the ozonic whiff of minimalism about it, and the ring of an etude on the drawn, raised and embedded line.
Picton's drawings follow the contours of cracked pavement. In their black-on-white and red-on-white simplicity, they meticulously re-create the byproducts of tires, heels, sun and ice on asphalt, and yet in their austere presentation they become, according to the artist, "more than just a scientific object; wresting something from its natural environment and putting it into a gallery setting forces you to make an imaginative shift between the origin of the thing and the work of art that came from it."
In the raised drawings, Picton traces branching arteries of pavement cracks onto DuraLar, cuts them out, covers them in black, red or lilac-colored enamel paint, then pins them a few inches off the wall, creating intricate shadow play and imbuing the one-dimensional line with a 3-D presence.
Finally, the embedded paintings trace their genesis to the hot late summers of Southern Oregon, where the artist haunts back roads and "foul-smelling lakebeds, covered with rotting vegetation" in search of promising topography. After settling on a site, he pounds rubber into the cracks, taking an impression of the surface and substrata, then spirits the casting back to his studio. Over the course of several days he adds layer upon layer of color, resulting finally in pristine squares of blood orange, amber, Nehi grape, cobalt, and a pugnacious yellow jostling its way toward the fluorescent. Beneath the squares' smooth exteriors float the fissures and nubs of the surfaces from which they were ripped, their inner valleys and moguls aglow with a silver sheen reflected off mirrors mounted behind each piece.
Picton has grounded ethereality in dirt and asphalt via art's ancient alchemy: rock into pigment into paint into Pissarro, copper and tin into bronze into Brancusi. Along with the varied Oregon landscapes his work so ingeniously mines, this artist stands among his adopted home state's most precious natural resources.
Mark Woolley Gallery 120 NW 9th Ave., Suite 210, 224-5475. Closes Feb. 26.
British-born Picton spent much of his younger years walking the English countryside observing the seasons' waxing and wilting.
Picton became a landscape photographer and moved to the U.S., where he trained his lens on the mountains, mesas and canyons of the American West.
He now lives and works in Ashland.