by Glen R. Brown,
Professor of Art History, Kansas State University.
Rising on sturdy stems, a group of abbreviated torsos seems to stir in slow circuity like tulips under the soft persuasion of a breeze. Cuplike and lacking head and arms, these forms are among the barest conceivable representations of the figure, yet they convey an undeniably human quality. Perhaps the warm hues and soft contours of the clay, evocative of glabrous skin, are key to this impression; perhaps the structures of the forms, with their long, cylindrical passages, gradual swells and gentle descents into concavities, parallel the shape of the human body too closely to be mistaken for references to anything else; perhaps the history of modernist figural abstraction has simply conditioned perception to accept the merest hints of the body as proof of its presence. There is something else however, a factor less tangible though probably more consequential, that contributes to the compellingly human character of Steve Mattison's ceramic sculptures.
Only after careful reflection on the common thread between his figural works does one begin to recognize that Mattison's concern is less with the impression of the body's physical presence than with its potential to signify: its capacity, in other words, to engage in meaningful, albeit nonverbal, communication. In the individual sculptures, this quality emerges most convincingly from the relationships between torsos, the subtleties of the mutual inclination and actual touching from which one intuites the reciprocity of silent conversations. A self-professed "people watcher," Mattison derived his gift for articulating the nuances of body language – a medium rendered considerably more complicated by his figures' absence of arms, hands and often heads – from a long association with set design for a reperatory theatre and later a touring company in his native Wales. Hours spent sketching the movement of actors rehearsing on stage, each slight gesture charged with communicative intent, left Mattison increasingly receptive to the small signals that in ordinary human interaction reinforce or even replace the vehicle of speech.
Learning to recognize instances of subtle nonverbal communication and developing the ability to represent these effectively through modeled forms are separate endeavors, but Mattison had already established a long history of coaxing nuances of expression from clay by the time he made his first figural works. His distinctive Raku vessels – handbuilt from thin strips and ragged bits of colored clay pressed into slabs – have long conveyed the depth of his connections to the Welsh countryside. In these abstract works a modicum of forms convincingly conjures the deeply shadowed valleys and illuminated mountain peaks, the irregular fields that together form patchwork quilts over rolling hills, the omnipresent gray of slate and the leaden blue of still water under a winter sky. As a landscape artist, Mattison is the Richard Diebenkorn of clay: a master of evoking a sense of place through broad, reductivist shapes and an intricately detailed repertoire of tone and hue.
Against this background of landscape pottery, the introduction of the figure to Mattison's work in the mid-1990s was largely unanticipated, the consequence of a perception-altering encounter with some elongate Dogon sculptures displayed at the Musée Dapper in Paris. Like a host of modern artists in the 20th century who found in African sculpture a ringing confirmation of aesthetic universality on an abstract plane, Mattison drew from the Dogon pieces the inspiration to seek the simplest possible evocation of the human figure, even if that should prove to be the equivalent of a stick and a ball of clay. About the same time, his attention turned as well toward another influence on which modern sculptors such as Amedeo Modigliani, Barbara Hepworth and Constantin Brancusi built the aesthetic edifices of their philosophical primitivism: the blank, white geometry of ancient Cycladic sculpture.
For Mattison, the works of Brancusi – who also adopted his inclinations to economy from African sculpture and Romanian folk carving – have been among the most important guiding lights in his own search for the universal path. Brancusi's towering Endless Column at Târgu Jiu has been especially meaningful because of its uncompromising verticality and the compelling glimpse of the infinite that it offers through radically simplified form. Equally important have been the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, both the prewar fetishizing objects and the emaciated postwar Existentialist figures. Giacometti's slender, armless and headless Woman Walking of 1932, for example, is both a patent descendent of Cycladic sculpture and a lean ancestor of Mattison's tall and narrow forms. The extreme abstraction of Giacometti's later pitted figures – simultaneously an erosion of the body and an uncanny evocation of consciousness – also resonates distinctly in Mattison's smoother but equally sparse forms.
The close parallels between Mattison's abstractions of the human body and countless examples of ancient and modern figural sculpture are not in the least troubling when one considers that Mattison's object is not to achieve an entirely unique style but rather to address something that is perceived as just exactly not unique. His work joins an ongoing conversation about the nature of human existence that no doubt stretches back to the dawn of consciousness in the prehistoric mists. What he strives to add to that conversation is a personally intuitive understanding of the universal: something that arguably can only be manifested through barely perceptible nuances. His works are about not only a subtle, wordless communication between the figures that he represents but also, and just as importantly, the elusive metaphorical conversations that he holds with all figural artists, from the anonymous marble carvers of the ancient Cyclades to the celebrated masters of modernism.
Much of Mattison's figural work over the past decade has consisted of white stoneware that has been wood fired to cone 10 with a small amount of soda introduced to the kiln to impart a slight sheen to surfaces. Recently, however, he has come to rely increasingly on a low-fire Raku process involving oil reduction. Small amounts of borax and copper carbonate add lustrous flashings to the dark surfaces, which in some cases have also been rendered more responsive to light by the post-firing addition of small accents of gold leaf. The contrast of bright gold and smoky surfaces has been emloyed to dramatic effect in Mattison’s current Dark Angels, a series of abstract winged forms addressing the spiritualization of the body in figural sculpture across history and cultures. Simultaneously benevolent beings and harbingers of doom, the Dark Angelsreflect the impenetrable mystery that Mattison associates with spirituality. Although he harbors no spiritual beliefs of his own, he professes a deep respect for those who do. His Dark Angelscould even be described as paying homage to a more-or-less universal impulse to connect human existence to energies beyond the physical plane.
Many of the visual influences on the Dark Angels derive from the religious art, rustic cemetary sculpture and other folk carvings of Eastern Europe, where Mattison has spent much of his time since accepting the position of International Co-ordinator at the International Ceramics Studio in Kecskemét, Hungary. Founded in 1978, the ICS was conceived during the Cold War era as a center where Hungarian artists could freely interact with their counterparts from around the globe. Mattison himself spent the first of several visits as an artist-in-residence there in 1991, and over the years has become intimately familiar with the ceramic traditions of Hungary and neighboring Romania. His own work has responded to some degree to those traditions, and he has produced at least one series, consisting of six sculptures, that was inspired by the political history of Hungary.
In 2006, to commemorate the bloody national uprising against the Soviet-backed Hungarian government fifty years earlier, the ICS initiated a touring exhibition entitled Remember '56. Wishing to participate in the exhibition, yet, as a foreigner, not presuming to represent to the Hungarian people the painful events of their own past, Mattison chose instead to create a series of multi-figure sculptures addressing the universal theme of oppression and resistence. Drawing upon the history of his own country and its long struggle for identity, Mattison's We're Still Here sculptures (named for a popular Welsh song of national pride, Yma O Hyd) consist of crowds of twisting bodies that seem, like Michelangelo's famous bound slaves, to be imprisoned above the waist in solid blocks. On the surfaces of these blocks, Mattison has stamped bits of text extracted from Albert Camus's famous open letter of 1957, "The Blood of the Hungarians," writings by Karl Marx, and Welsh folk tales and songs related to struggle.
Mattison’s We’re Still Here works are exceptional among his sculptures, which ordinarily eschew all particulars of time and place for a more open-ended exploration of the figure. To be sure, his abstraction is a means of probing the absolute conditions of human existence, but it is just as important as a device for preserving the mysteries of that existence. As a consequence, his figural sculptures seem to draw near to something distinct and irreducible, yet at the same time to hold that quality at a perpetual remove. This vacilation between the concrete and the elusive in his forms seems, of course, vaguely familiar: a reflection of the delicate balance between the immediacy of the physical body and the intangibility of the soul.