Matthys Gerber

Dutch born, Sydney-based artist Matthys Gerber’s oeuvre of work refuses to file neatly into line and happily be classified. Rather he hotfoots between genres and influences, seeing scales, styles and colours shift with each work. All of it – the photorealism, the abstraction, the portraits, the landscapes – come together for the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s (MCA) ‘Matthys Gerber’ exhibition. Rather than organising the works chronologically, the exhibition shuffles them together, so that they can be cross-referenced, they can converse, their voices amplifying to provide some insight into Gerber’s motivation and process.

“I take the tropes, the methods, or the techniques of painting, the borrowings for my own reason,” says Gerber. “If you can imagine a guitar player also channeling other forms, from blues to hip-hop or whatever. It’s not a particular time I’m living in, I’m more aware of things that have happened in the past, so it’s not so much about taking things and rendering redundant the meanings of things, I’m juxtaposing and overlaying the meanings. It’s more than just juxtaposing, I like the overlay, the transparency that happens between different techniques of painting.”

Gerber has exhibited his work extensively in Australia, Europe and the USA, and lectures at the Sydney College of the Arts but is largely a self-taught artist. “I’ve never been to art school so teaching has taught me how to look at things historically but also how to clarify painting as a historical idiom.” This knowledge comes into play in his works and at the MCA’s exhibition. Like in Gerber’s L’Origine du Monde #1, a landscape that references with its title an 1866 Gustave Courbet painting of a woman’s genitals. Gerber’s landscape uses composition – gushing streams, strategically placed rocks  – to mimic the shape of Courbet’s woman, while also referencing the erotic subject matter. Other pieces also riff on the nature of desire and perception; his works that feature the Rorschach (a psychological test to analyse a person’s personality); a reappearing motif in Gerber’s paintings, bring figurative elements to abstract works.

The mix of genres appeals to Gerber on a few levels. The first is as a commentary on art and painting.  Gerber says, “Maybe I’m trying to get to something about painting, rather than actually about my own style. Something of mine will come through anyway no matter what, it’s a kind of totemic, totems of painting, possible through a grab bag of history and the twentieth century, that I use as a kind of found object kind of thing.”

The second is that it champions his desire for artists to have a varied career, like the first artist to excite him, Salvador Dali. After seeing a retrospective of his work in Rotterdam as a child, Gerber says, “I remember first becoming aware that it was actually a job, a profession, that you could be an artist, I could see somebody who had a lifetime variation of work and I’ve since then found it very interesting how people change and what people do throughout their career and that’s not something you see very much in Australia.”

What runs through Gerber’s work is a strong use of colour and it’s also something that links him back to former Dutch artists, (like CoBrA artist Karel Appel). “I think you become slowly aware when you paint, that you’re really just doing it as an excuse to use colour. I think that’s something that an art student might not know straight away. You start off making pictures and then you slowly learn how to make paintings. It’s more that you start noticing, what they all have in common of course is colour and that’s something you learn.”

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Until 6 December, 2015

L’Origine du Monde #1, 1992, oil on canvas
Photograph: Ashley Barber
Courtesy the artist and Barber Cottier Collection, Sydney

Bush Flower, 2003, oil on polyester
Photograph: Ashley Barber
Courtesy the artist and Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney