John Constable, the renowned English landscape painter of the 19th Century, believed that the essence of any great landscape painting was the sky. His belief was not merely grounded in compositional functionality but rather in the pure evocative power that clouds provide. Key to the self-professed “man of clouds” was the sheer range of emotions conjured by the sky, from the awe inspiring peril of the sublime to the calm beauty of a golden sunset. Initially including tree-tops and parts of buildings in his famous cloud studies as a means of grounding the sky-scapes to some form of earthly reality, Constable eventually progressed into painting pure skies.
The work of Melbourne based artist Matthew Quick may prove difficult to neatly position within the tradition of landscape painting, however his sky-scapes filled with luminous clouds literally and metaphorically form the background to his ‘Pure’ series. While his skies do not possess the same urgent brushstroke of Constable, Quick’s intensive process of applying many layers of glazes to build up colour, reminiscent of the Old Masters, does not diminish the expressive nature of his paintings. Velvety clouds, varying from opaque to translucent, coupled with the tonality of light renders an atmospheric gauge for the entirety of the paintings. The clouds in ‘Pure Exuberance’, for example, have an effervescent quality that gives the painting an uplifting and energetic feeling.
Ultimately, Quick describes the ‘Pure’ series as an “exploration into humanity” – one fraught with contradictions and metaphors that are abundant in meaning and interpretation. The works exhibited in Pure Freedom are the most recent paintings in the ‘Pure’ series - they reveal a wittiness and conceptual strength that has developed since Quick first began the ambitious project in 2007. What at first appears a random positioning of inanimate objects against a cloud-filled sky transforms when considering the title. Here human traits and characteristics are laid bare in their ‘purist’ form – ‘tenacity’, ‘deception’, ‘humility’, ‘hope’ and ‘freedom’ are words that, strictly speaking, are un-representable. Yet Quick links them with imagery that forces the audience to question the connotations and cultural associations of these words, highlighting the difficulty of ever uncovering a ‘pure’ or solitary meaning.
When considering Quick’s word/image play, one may think of Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s famous 1928-29 work ‘La trahison des images’ (The treachery of images) in which the words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (This is not a pipe) is inscribed beneath a realistic depiction of a pipe. Seemingly paradoxical, Magritte calls to the fact that images are merely a representation of an object and confuses the traditional role of image and text. Like Magritte, Quick is a self-reflexive artist, wittily drawing attention to the illusory quality of his work in ‘Pure Deception’ where a flawlessly painted industrial chimney appears to be peeling away from the picture plane.
While Quick cites Magritte as an influential artist, interpreting his work simply through a surrealist framework would overlook the complexity of his practice. He is an artist who masterfully layers meaning – not only are the works a unique amalgamation of the tradition of landscape painting and surrealism, they are filled with metaphors and stories that the viewer is invited to create. Quick often begins with a personal instance, historical reference or philosophical musing as a starting point for his imagery – for example, ‘Pure Freedom’ is founded on an experience in Beijing in 1989 where he observed older Chinese gentlemen taking their pet birds locked in ornate wooden cages for a ‘walk’, hanging them in trees as they stopped for a game of outdoor billiards. Quick notes the cruelty of the situation, stating “somehow it seemed worse to be able to glimpse freedom and not experience it, than to not see it at all”. While the instance may be specific, the concept of freedom is universal - Quick does not dictate the interpretation of his works, instead he provides a key for innumerable conversations to unfold.
Matthew Quick is a thought provoking artist that possesses both a technical and conceptual strength difficult to find in artists practicing today. Acknowledging the history and mechanisms of art, advertising, design and literature, Quick has forged a unique path in contemporary Australian art. The works exhibited in Pure Freedom have a timeless quality, for as long as history succeeds us, so too will the meanings and connotations that are conjured by these images, each viewing offering new insights into humanity and the world around us.
Emma Crott, Art Equity Sydney Australia