Multi-disciplinary artist Manuel Mathieu works across painting, ceramics and installation. Through his diverse practice, he investigates themes of historical violence, erasure and cultural approaches to physicality, nature and spiritual legacy. Mathieu’s interests are informed in part by his upbringing in Haiti, and his experience relocating to Montreal at the age of 19. Freely operating in between and borrowing from numerous historical influences and traditions, the artist has developed a distinctive abstract visual language. In his works, amorphous forms vacillate and dissolve into one another, creating boundless landscapes. Through his quest for meaning, transparency and openness he undertakes a process, as he puts, of discovering his work, as opposed to creating it. Newly represented by London gallery Pilar Corrias, a solo exhibition of Mathieu’s latest body of work, titled Keeping Things Whole, is set to open at the gallery’s Eastcastle Street site on 28 April, running until 28 May 2022. To learn more about the artist and his inaugural presentation in London, Something Curated spoke with Mathieu.
Something Curated: Can you give us some insight into your background and journey to art-making?
Manuel Mathieu: My mother is an art collector so I was surrounded by art growing up, and this shaped my sensibility towards the objects around me. I can say now this was her contribution in my journey as an artist. The qualities of the objects in my environment affected the plasticity of reality. I was a troubled teenager growing up. I say troubled but when I think about it, I simply didn’t know what to make of my existence. It was in this context that I met my mentor at the time, Mario Benjamin. Mario gave me books and catalogues and started my initiation into Western art – books on Christian Boltanski, Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Sol LeWitt, Mona Hatoum and Christo to name a few. I remember I used to drive around the city and dream of wrapping up mountains or complete neighbourhoods, Christo style!
I was fascinated by the idea that these artists could live from what was in their souls – this was a very liberating feeling for a teenager. At that moment I decided that was it, I wanted to spend my life joggling with that sensation of infinity. All those discoveries triggered my first artwork, Room. When Mario saw that my room was becoming a complex installation, he gave me a book about eccentric rooms. That’s the kind of relationship we had. His generosity taught me about the abundance of creativity. I don’t think I was consciously making art at the time – it really wasn’t my priority to find answers. To be honest, it’s my sensibility that got me hung up. Today I understand it as a spiritual journey that can take many forms. The transformative discoveries happen outside the gallery, outside the studio and outside of academia, and my room was the beginning of that awareness. I had a sense of freedom and the capacity to mimic what was vibrating inside me.
SC: Your practice seamlessly oscillates between painting, ceramics and installation — could you expand on your approach to using materials?
MM: Having been introduced to art by Mario and his openness to the world early on, I never understood art as something that must exist on a wall or as a sculpture. Art for me is an experience, something that accentuates our presence. Anything used to do that becomes a residue of that experience. With that in mind it was natural to me to slowly get out of the surface of the painting or the painting as an object and place elements in relation to it. It happened gradually with the silicon and the fabrics. I was naturally drawn to the silicon and how it could exist in conversation with the painting. There is something prosthetic that I am still trying to understand, something organic that when added to the painting feels like a living organism. Hopefully over the years the meaning behind this will reveal itself to me. Otherwise, I will simply keep going and find trails in the making.
The fabric made its way into my work through sexuality and desire. This material forced me to question my process. I was familiar with my background as a painter to deal with apparition by putting or taking away marks for an object to get to its spiritual maturity. Just like a flower blooming, there are different ways to get to that point. My mind is more in a space of collages and ruptures when I am thinking with the fabric. The discovery of the work is much more of a surprise. With the combination of the fire, the soil and the ink, I am often left to compose with what is left behind. My interest in ceramics grew from the alchemy of the medium itself. The possibility to create an object that has a spiritual value using the four elements fascinated me. When I had the opportunity to explore that medium, I jumped on it. I never looked back. It’s a material that I have a lot more to say with.
SC: How do you think your upbringing in Haiti and relocation to Canada as a young adult has influenced your work?
MM: In Haiti art is a way of living. This country shaped my sensibility and the way I understand my presence in the world. Coming to Montreal confronted me with the power structure around art. The way that art circulates in a country says a lot about the mind of their citizen and how they understand their sense of preservation. As a young artist the only thing that mattered to me was to keep doing it. It seems obvious but I knew that if I wanted to be a sailor the best place to learn is on the water. Thankfully, I understood early on that outside of the power structures that are trying to define art, the biggest challenge is to make a “great artwork.” Every significant artist is trying to achieve that. My studies in Montreal were a pretext to create that time, to stay on the water.
SC: Could you tell us more about the works included in your upcoming exhibition at Pilar Corrias?
MM: Keeping Things Whole is a body of work that touches on several aspects within my practice, including the obsolescence of the figuration/abstraction binary, to exploring new ways of apparition. It’s a show mapping some of my new investigations and previous ones that are slowly coming to maturation.
Feature image: Manuel Mathieu, Resilience – A Landscape of Desire, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias