The sun is white hot, outlined in a red ring. The haze of burning earth is just beyond the window. A large house sits in darkness. A yellow light glows from a solitary room. These are among the scenes of disquiet stillness within William Matheson’s new body of work, Dissipatio on view at Nationale. The paintings are a rumination on the last few years of isolation, destruction, and collective unease. Figures appear as shadows or reflections moving through the rhythm of days that no longer make sense. But these surfaces are not without hope. By exploring the tensions between exterior and interior and the atemporality of life in this moment, Matheson reveals that a creative practice can not only be an antidote to anxiety, but can also invite connection during a period of extreme detachment.
A haunting silhouette of a figure leaving a narrow room occupies the left half of the painting Dissipatio, which shares the same title of the series. The title, which translates to “dispersal” in Latin, comes from the novela, Dissipatio H.G.: The Vanishing by Italian writer Guido Morselli (1912–1973). The story centers around a man who, after retreating to the mountains to commit suicide, fails his mission and returns to town to find that everyone else has vanished. After this event the protagonist watches as the natural world thrives, no longer impeded by destructive humans. Morselli writes: “The world has never been so alive as it is since a certain breed of bipeds disappeared. It’s never been so clean, so sparkling, so good-humored.” These lines bring to mind the 2020 reports of the positive effects of human lockdowns, like dolphins swimming in the crystal clear canals of Venice. Morselli’s last man on earth narrative runs through Matheson’s paintings. We are left to wonder: what will come next and will it be better than what came before?
Within this series, Matheson includes many references to his studio practice. We see paintings within paintings and hints of a physical studio space. In the work, This Day Is Narrowing, a burning red and orange sky is seen beyond the large window that recalls the glass panes of warehouse studio spaces. On the ledge, a model horse and bottles—the necessary detritus of an art studio. Child Rider shows a painting of a figure on a horse within a painting that pictures fragments of a studio wall. These details drop the viewer into a self-referential world. In a few works Matheson’s own ink paintings appear to be taped onto the studio wall. These studies are in fact real paintings (on view in Nationale’s project room), that offer another glimpse into Matheson’s process. They are quick, gestural paintings where he experiments and plays with symbols and imagery, a contrast to the developed and detailed world of his works in oil.
Matheson brings us back to the act of painting, not only through visual cues but also through material choices. A number of the paintings in Dissipatio are done in oil on jute or linen, both natural materials that refuse sleekness. Matheson writes: “There are gaps and faults, small crevices that interrupt the image. Paint fails to fill every area. I work in thin washes of paint so that the materiality remains present, so that previous layers show through. Spectral traces of previous figures and spaces linger.”
Like spectral traces, the works in Dissipatio linger in the mind, a welcome recognition of our collective unrest.
William Matheson lives and works in Portland, OR. He has exhibited nationally at galleries in Richmond, VA, Washington, DC, and New York. Internationally, his work has been shown in Switzerland, South Korea, Japan and the Czech Republic. Matheson is the recipient of a Milton and Sally Avery Fellowship Award from the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, VT, an Artist Grant from The Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation in Montreal, Canada and a Project Grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council in Portland, OR. He has been an artist-in-residence at the Örö Residency Programme in Finland, Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA, AIRY in Kofu, Japan and the Vermont Studio Center. Matheson Received his MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, in 2016 and his BFA from Portland’s Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2013. Dissipatio is Matheson’s fifth solo exhibition at Nationale, where he has been a represented artist since 2015.