Dr Joseph Brennan speaks with Matthew Cheyne about the works of ‘Picnic’ – optimistic and tilting, in balanced tension between extremes.
‘A picnic spot is a necessarily removed and optimistic position, not positive, just optimistic,’ Matthew Cheyne tells me about the title of his exhibition. ‘The cliché picnic spot is a well-chosen grassy patch with a view, but if we think of picnic as a verb, we picnic in all sorts of places.’ Like the artist’s broad view of what picnicking entails, this exhibition draws together an expansive range of works and approaches to the picnic. There are 12 paintings, six sculptures, a set of three wall works and three volcanoes – the last of which were a collaboration with Cheyne’s wife, Caroline. Twenty metres of wallpaper and two garments, which have been created collaboratively with costume designer Leigh Buchanan, are also on show.
A figurative painter at heart, whose recent works have abstracted backgrounds that invite us to fill in the scene, the act of looking, as at a picnic, is central to both the reception and creation of Cheyne’s works. ‘I always thought I’d be a writer when I was younger, and for a long time I think I ‘painted’ writing,’ Cheyne says. ‘Back then, I spent a lot of time life drawing and studying the canonical masters to try to better meet that aim of legibility. Eventually though, after three solo shows painting in that mode I had a crisis: I just couldn’t say what I wanted to say. I guess I was reading less and looking more, and my personal poetic language had flipped.’
‘The piece in this show that is closest to my older work is Life Vest (2021),’ Cheyne says. ‘It has a level of detail that in general I try to avoid, because details can become magnets for attention and obscure the idea.’ In this work, the artist sought to create a ‘picnic spot between extremes’; part geometric abstraction, part representation, part painted, part blank, and part glowing in the dark. ‘A lot of the work in the show does this,’ Cheyne says about this final, temporal element, ‘parts of the painting glow in the dark so it is different from day to night.’
Focusing on the figures, I was fascinated by those wearing hoods; hooded subjects of which are loaded symbols with meanings that shift depending on worldview and location – delinquency vs a vibrant street culture, for instance. ‘You kind of sum it up perfectly – that notion of youth and vitality and anonymous delinquency,’ Cheyne says. ‘I would say ‘and’ between these concepts rather than ‘vs’,’ he adds, ‘because that for me is the picnic spot. In Copper Thieves (2019), the social positioning vis-a-vis the hooded thieves is obvious – they are delinquents, so the image had to be softened, warmed up, almost candied, to pull it to a point that felt neutral to me.’
In Party Boat (2021), the major work in the show, Cheyne explains that he ‘wanted to present the crowd as a figure not so much an assemblage of figures’, while Nude in a Yellow Jumper (2020) serves as Cheyne’s comment on the male gaze and symbolic departure from painting nudes. Faces, too, function differently in the works, often performing a role that is separate or supplementary. ‘In a work like Dog Walker (2019),’ he says, ‘the face of the hooded character is left off entirely so that the dogs do the emoting.’
For me, tensions seem to be bound up in the works of ‘Picnic’, something that is helped by Cheyne’s ‘part oil painting, part hyper-colour drawing’ signature; between the figurative and the abstract, the line and the melt, drawing and painting, observing and taking, ancient and youthful, subjective/identifiable and shielded/masked.
‘You’ve nailed it, Joseph,’ Cheyne says in response to my reading, ‘tension is everything in my work. My ultimate aim is always to create an even tension between two extreme positions, such that it balances. The elements and tactics you describe form the tool kit I’m deploying to try and achieve that balance. That balance point is personal to me, and it may well feel tilted left or right to the viewer, but by maintaining that sense of optimistic neutrality, hopefully, it just tilts rather than topples.’
Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, author and cultural scholar based in Far North Queensland.
Mitchell Fine Art
25 August to 2 October 2021