Unknowable Spaces: William Matheson’s “Dissipatio” at Nationale

William Matheson, This Day Is Narrowing, 2022. Oil on canvas. 48 x 68 inches. Courtesy of Nationale.

William Matheson’s quiet mastery of his medium manifests in the way his paintings fray and fall apart if you approach them, and spring together again as you step back. His recent suite of paintings—currently on display at Nationale in an exhibition titled Dissipatio—are all rendered on thickly woven jute canvas, a material with the same bristly consistency as pig skin. His choice of support makes his controlled renderings of light and volume all the more remarkable. Look past the cockeyed parrot perched on the clothes rack in Burning Field (2022), and focus for a moment on the background. Our sense of the closet’s shape and depth is communicated solely by the tonal variations in Matheson’s color washes. Step close, and the space erupts with the matted, hashmarked texture of his canvas.

In this gratifyingly spare exhibition, curated by Nationale’s owner and director May Barruel, Matheson plays the role of meta-painter and visual trickster. Often choosing the studio itself as his object of study, his artworks are chock full of mimetic riddles. Take This Day Is Narrowing (2022) as an example. Is the rectangle in the top left corner meant to portray one frame in a large, tripartite studio window, or an in-progress painting of a crepuscular landscape?

Although he captures interior scenes with geometrical precision and perspective, Matheson’s rich washes of color and limited use of hardline contours offer only vague impressions of his figurative subjects. His tableaux are for the most part populated with featureless silhouettes (the aforementioned parrot is a lively exception). From Latin, Dissipatio translates fittingly to “dispersion.” Through their reticence to signify—their unwillingness to depict any particular person, parrot, or pair of scissors—these paintings inspire a kind of mental diffusion. There are some portraits, yes, but of whom? It’s useless to try to identify a shadow with any degree of certainty.

William Matheson, Burning Field, 2022. Oil on Jute. 27 x 42 inches, Courtesy of Nationale.
William Matheson, Leviathan, 2021. Oil on jute. 15 x 27 inches. Courtesy of Nationale.
William Matheson, Dissipatio, 2021. Oil on jute. 16 x 21 inches. Courtesy of Nationale.

If anything, Matheson’s ghostly motifs invite projection, evoking the objects and people one has briefly beheld, and, for the most part, forgotten. He might paint studios, but none of the rooms portrayed in the show is identical. Leviathan (2021) seems to make a visual pun of the word “projection.” From a rightward perspective, the painting depicts a self-contained ochre landscape situated in a darkened room (a theater?), upon which a vague, masculine effigy has been stained. Seven undetermined figures appear to gaze upward at the shape, yet their shadowy coloring––indistinguishable from the darkness of the auditorium—suggests that they might also be projections cast upon the screen. In this chamber, subject and ground are the same; the simulacral and “the real” prove to be one and the same.

More importantly, perhaps, Matheson often paints images of artworks—some apparently rendered on canvas, others on paper. They appear suspended from the walls of studios and domestic interiors. Frames sit within frames; surfaces rest upon surfaces. Each discrete rectangle in his compositions disseminates ambiguity; they might be painted from life, or from some pre-existing artwork. A straightforward reading of Dissipatio (2021) seems to depend on a single strip of masking tape. By juxtaposing an artwork taped to a wall with a self-enclosed image of a domestic interior, Matheson pesters our ability to locate ourselves in space, shifting the ground ever so slightly beneath our feet. The frame on the left could just as easily represent an adjacent room, as the bottom right corner of another canvas. This in turn raises the question of whether the skull and the figure in the hallway are equidistant from our vantage point (because both are flat, two-dimensional surfaces), or if one is further away. “Are you here, or there?” the painting seems to ask.

The world contained in this compact picture expands even further if we take a second look down the hallway. Notice the two panels on the left wall. Are they paintings, or asymmetrical windows? If the former, what might they depict? Still more images of artworks, receding forever in an infinite sequence? If the latter, what sort of city or landscape might those portals look out on? By leaving them blank and featureless, Matheson avoids foreclosing on either possibility, and lets the viewer’s imagination run itself ragged in its attempts to fill the gap. Alongside his mastery of depth and perspective, Matheson’s pictures within pictures allow us to peer into spaces far more voluminous than the two-dimensional surface of a painting. He leaves us careening through thresholds and windows, running headfirst into canvas.

William Matheson: Dissipatio
February 18–April 3, 2022
Nationale, Portland, OR


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Author: Sebastian Zinn

Sebastian Zinn (he/him) is from Portland, Oregon. He holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature with an allied field in Art History from Reed College. He is a freelance writer and editor, whose interests include critical theory, digital art, consumerism, and portraiture.