Matthew Cheyne

Matthew Cheyne’s paintings observe people, scenarios, and the built environment. Rendered with an at times de Chirico-like sense of drama accentuated by the brightness of his palette, they strive for ‘an optimistic neutrality’ and balance, within compositional dualities – flatness and depth, movement and statis, realism and abstraction.

Matthew Cheyne has structured his life around family and home, both tethered to an art practice that is integral to who he is. Sustainability is environmental and his house and studio were designed and built by Cheyne and wife Caroline in recent years, overlooking its bush surrounds and sitting lightly on its small imprint of earth outside Ipswich, on Brisbane’s outskirts. From his studio he has a vista into the bush, and the domestic world of his own making, both a long way from the densely populated European centres in which he lived, worked and exhibited during the ten years to 2019. Returning to Australia, the art practice which supports his family unit is predicated on financial sustainability, and requires a level of moxie that he and Caroline embrace. It is central to the particular picnic spot from which he shapes his painted views.

While he studied film, literature and design before he “was dragged back to the family business” (his father is also an artist), Cheyne has done “nothing but painting since 2001.” However, he said, “Originally I was a writer who was a painter – but the longer you paint the more you become a painter. There is so much potential in painting, rather than trying to force it to narrate something that could be written. Over time I became a visual artist rather than someone who was trying to paint their writing.”

Each of his works begins with an idea. In Perfect Lawn 2, 2021, triangular shapes resolve into a building which overlooks a defined area of green and groomed lawn. Overshadowing this suburban idyll is a volcano which discharges an echo of its own triangular shape into the rosy sky. This scene is screened by a grid of dots that cover the surface of the canvas. They could be the ubiquitous pixelated screen, but also suggest a symmetrical ash shower from the discharging volcano. This painted dalliance on the safety-scary nature of a suburban existence is part of Cheyne’s forthcoming exhibition ‘Picnic,’ at Mitchell Fine Art, Brisbane, in which paintings, sculpture and wallpaper express a tension at the centre of the urban conundrum.

Volcanoes are a central Cheyne motif, and the sense of lava making a straight descent mimics a rectilinear notion, the hardness of the man-made in the built environment. There is classical training in the tightly-tied compositional strength of these works, using triangulation, lines created with lane ropes, the motion of people and animals in stasis.

To Cheyne, “The underlying motivation of ‘Picnic’ is to maintain this equilibrium between extremes – the ‘extremes’ being attraction-repulsion, order-chaos, serenity-noise or flatness-depth.” Surreal scenes observed in the city – people with their animals, swimming pools in linear landscapes, revellers from a party boat, and others heading to costume parties – are expressed in patterned outlines, blocked out in psychedelic colour combinations.

Cheyne’s work changed during his residence in Europe, when he became less interested in sketching the detail, letting go of the “rational symbolism” of earlier work. He is also colour blind and recalls, “I had an epiphany in a life drawing group in Berlin. This hand-eye coordination training exercise suddenly felt like a strange nineteenth century thing to be doing; realism becomes the end goal. Having been a writer, an idea starts the process. I wanted to relate an idea without the details and came up with a different way of going about it. I changed the way I drew using a system of four colours. I would blind draw contours without a structural notion of bodies and anatomy. The system I use now is more focused on accessing the meta-components of the subject.” Solo exhibitions in Cologne, Berlin and Luxembourg over the period are testimony to his ability, using this method, to convey a particular internal reality drawn from observation of humanity and environmental follies.

Accordingly, Swimming pool canal development, 2021, evokes human environmental control, with a modernist white house partly concealed behind palms and garden in electric colours and a dark canal contrasted with the bright blue of the pool. Trees and plants are juxtaposed with hard-edged architecture, layering notions of the organic and the irrational.

In Cheyne’s work, swimming pools symbolise the disconnect between the concept of a hard rectangle containing impossibly blue (fluid) water, and water’s organic realities. This notion of containment he describes as “very human. I’m always trying to catch that negative space around the idea from a few points of view.”

Party Boat, 2021, has a dark reflective foreground, with the crowd of people on the boat united in a morass of shapes and colours, no longer individuals but a colourful “ship of fools” in one moment and people having fun in the next. Behind them the green sky and exotically coloured shrubbery is portentous in a Shakespearean way, symbolising the drama to come. Pink highlights suggest fading light, and the abstracted duality in the group has a definite sense of the boat’s precarious stability, both physical and emotional.

A face remarkably like Cheyne’s appears in Life Vest, 2021, over a body strapped impossibly tightly into a fluorescent life vest over a white hoodie that conceals his hair. This is the structural core of the painting. Around this rigid form the background is ephemeral, arms a suggestion of colour, evoking tension between the recreational use of a vest (on a boat or jet ski sustaining life) and the hazards of asylum seekers, who may die at sea trying to find safety. It makes for compelling viewing, drawing the eye, with Cheyne’s own face implicated in the collective political will that holds us all.

There is an experimental aspect in his hand-crafted wallpaper made for this exhibition, hung on two walls at right angles. While it has the ability to “heckle other people’s work,” it also operates to take some of the seriousness out of his own. “It is an enormous work on paper, a way of making two-dimensional artwork operate like a sculpture. This is an architectural version of a picture.”

With his studio space so central to the life of his family of four, Cheyne’s investment in his art is complete. He credits wife Caroline, a musician by training, with a significant collaborative role in his work. “We talk about it all. I am interested in the philosophy, the semiotics of the work. She is always invested in the dynamics of the picture.” And, in their lifestyle, they both accept restrictions imposed by “being what you want to be.”

“We’ve been on the run from reality for so long it’s stopped looking for us. We are lucky to have been able to build on my parents’ land. And to be given social permission to live this way.” It makes for a holistic view in the work, both distanced from and invested in the urban world, turning perceived views inside out for a unique view of the human condition.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 56.

Keep Off The Grass
6 – 24 June, 2023 
Mitchell Fine Art, Brisbane

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