by Charmian Saville
Having invoked sun, sea and sky in the various forms of his previous work, Steve Mattison has now brought a human world into being. The fragile, blooming Raku shapes of vases, bowls and pots, cracked with blues and greens and seared with charcoal stripes, have been set aside; the Visitors have arrived.
Ancient Cycladic and Dogon figurative sculpture, classical architecture, Eastern European churches, Greek mythology and philosophy connect to a modern sense of minimalism and purity of line and a complex and dynamic experience of reversibility for the onlooker. The viewing of each figure can conjure both presence and absence, admittance and refusal of solid form and ethereal form. The Visitors invite their witnesses to consider, through their suggestiveness, multiple possibilities, definable and indefinable. In the words of Christione Falgayrettes- Leveau: 'Ce serait accepter de reconnaitre l'autre, de respecter ses mysteres et ses secrets. Car, pour etre entendue, la parole exige aussi le silence' (It is to accept to recognise the other, to respect, its mysteries and its secrets. Because, to be sensible, the speech requires also the silence') - Dogon, 'Dapper editions, Paris, 1994.
The Blue Tower Block has delicately lit coral windows as if a sunrise or sunset had flooded its facade with colour. It is slightly crumbling and out of kilter, like so many in our world's cities. Headless and armless like many of Mattison's figures, these shiny, ivory Visitors with their precisely placed genitalia, (the male in realistic style and the female imitating the pubic triangle of the Dogon school) have a blush of rust on their curved thighs. The base of the legs shows evidence of a slight twist like an umbilical cord attached to the building. The female suggests a feeling of affection and warmth as she leans towards the male, the slope of the legs and the angle of his torso show a more tentative, shy connection. Humans can enfuse buildings (even old and crumbling ones) with light and life; the coral light filtering up into the feet and the rust filtering down into parts of the building seem to confirm this. A completely contradictory response is also possible. Mattison seems to refuse narratives. The Dark and Ancient Tower Block' is reminiscent of Eastern European buildings, particularly in cities like Prague. Its blackness gives it a night-time aura, the terracotta coloured windows feel as if they are lit from within. The resplendent mottled female poised on top, in 'Kind of Blue', out for the night, expectant and graceful. We can only imagine the look in her eyes, the fullness of her lipsticked or bare mouth; initial responses revolve around the contemplation of a melancholic and mysterious beauty. Another more classical architectural square column stands about 30cm. high, its strong, glistening sand-blasted surface contrasts with the subtle relationship evident between the three females perched on top. The older female stands close to younger girls of different ages; they seem to radiate a sense of pride in themselves; but look again, and they could appear slightly self-conscious. Mattison achieves what would seem impossible, solid forms that inhabit an emotional contrariness, forms that resist definition.
Mattison receives both inspiration and support from fellow ceramic artists, these include those working at the International Ceramic Studio, Kecskemet in Hungary, Peteris Martinsons from Latvia and Vladimir Tsivin from St. Petersburg. The influence of the latter is evident in the modernity, purity and refinement of the human form in two pieces of work, they are single cream figures on small square blocks of the same colour. They also relate closely to the Cycladic figures of the Kapsala, Schematic, Louras and Spedos traditions in 2500-2700 BC and the African Dogon sculptures exhibited by the Musee Dapper, Paris in 1994-95, both acknowledged and important sources for the artist. Again the experience of looking mobilises a series of contrary projections towards these 'quiet', seemingly unassuming, figures.
The move from Raku to wood-f iring at high temperatures has demanded many technical changes, the myriad hues apparent in his work occur because of experimentation and searches for different finishes. Mattison's slender, hollow figures, whose slightest turn indicates and elicits so many messages, evolve from the bending motion of stick inserted in clay. The Baroque 'Charcoal Angels', inspired by statues in a cemetery in Prague, have a great sense of muscularity where the wings join the armless torso. The heads are rough-hewn, giving the male angel a beard, looked at from one particular angle; his gaze is both down towards the smaller female angel and beyond her, as she presses her left wing-pit into his upper thigh, in what could be interpreted as parental or sexual love. They recall dark, flitting, evil spirits as well as shadows that watch over you. They stand on a plinth built like a miniature Stonehenge construction, a fascinating juxtaposition of cultural icons and a fusion of the spiritual and earthly. Meanings relating to this relationship of ancient civilisation to mythic figures are bountiful and contradictory; are the angels guardians of the sacred human sites, are they dark harbingers of doom, or spirits, perhaps, raised by the power of the henge? The ragged necks and heads disturb and shift the association of angels with the power to do good and yet given another glance a vulnerability and gentleness are foregrounded, a protective parental moment is witnessed.
Another stranger and more alien henge platform, both reptilian and futuristic, gives the impression of being pliable and has four supports covered with raised circles. Out of this the 'Terracotta Quartet' stretch like reams of twisted gut , their thighs and torsos becoming smooth and refined in form, only to be punctuated by distorted twisted necks which strangely mutate into faces, canine and human, when glimpsed from certain angles. The relationship between them seems full of tension, with a smaller figure at the rear of the group seeking protection. The communication of alienation, disorientation and loss, coupled with a dignity and will to survive, may remind the spectator of the journeys undertaken by the heroes in Greek myth. The arrival home is sometimes complicated by the experiences and changes that occur during the journey and the cruel realisation that home is not what you thought it was. In the next two pieces, figures stand on rocks that are partially glazed with a bluey-green suggestive of lichen growth. The two cream female figures in the smaller sculpture further develop this sense of growth, with their prominent belly buttons and distended stomachs evoking pre-pubertal children. The confluence of the natural form of rock against the graceful curves of young girls communicates both a sense of optimism, beauty and vulnerability. The second group of three rise out of the rock with twisted gut shapes denoting the lower legs. The relaxed male form has a female leaning towards him, her thigh touches his, another pert female faces him. Suggestive of sexual chemistry (possibly antagonistic), this group has a dramatic, story-like capacity.
Mattison's work is evidence of his acute abilities to observe people and to analyse their relationship with, and effect on, different environments. His sculptures reflect the complex interaction between the elements of earth, body and spirit. The deliberate absences of faces and hands, in the majority of the work, complicate the experience and imagination of the spectator as they observe the work. The grace, purity and simplicity inherent in his work invites deep contemplation, and the rewards are complex. As an artist he does not offer confirmation, reassurance or solutions; he is - as Marx said of our age - pregnant with his own contrary.