Charles Matton: A Photographic Survey

“Is the beauty of everything a truth that we don’t see most of the time, or is it a truth we invent?” Charles Matton

The above epigraph was taken from a personal note made by the French artist Charles Matton on a telephone pad on January 29, 1992. This quotation represents the forces at play in the current exhibition of Matton’s work at Stephen Bulger Gallery. This solo show marks the artist’s Canadian premiere and presents nine contemplative photographs from his oeuvre.

The N.Y. Bow Window N.Y. with Urbain, the Bull-terrier, 1987 © Photography Charles Matton, credit: Estate Charles Matton

The images themselves are painterly, depicting various minimal yet decidedly domestic interiors. The palette is largely muted and there is a stark absence of humans in the images. However subtle inclusions of objects of everyday life make the suggestion of a lived in space: newspapers, worn armchairs, a lone dog, a piano. While the absence of human activity within the frame is not unusual in itself, there are certain details which also imply that the spaces may have been abandoned. A couch draped with a cloth for protection, or in “The Green Living Room with Two Armchairs”, a faded patch of paint to the right of the door which would have been left after the removal of a framed image.

The Green Living Room With Two Armchairs, 1987 © Photography Charles Matton, credit: Estate Charles Matton

It is only upon closer inspection that these photographs reveal themselves as fabrications instead of real spaces. There are, for example, broad brush strokes across the walls and other surfaces in the interiors which stand out given their unusual scale in relation to the scene. In fact, Matton is a self described “manufacturer of images” and was responsible for first designing, building, sculpting and painting numerous interiors in the form of miniaturized sets (at a scale of one seventh their original size) for the purpose of photographing them. This is a process the artist began in 1985, and the works on view represent a small fraction of the models crafted by Matton, which have been displayed internationally along with his photographic images.

The Grand Piano Tail in the Whitened Windows Living Room, 1986 © Photography Charles Matton, credit: Estate Charles Matton

Aside from the detail and expert craftsmanship in the models, what makes these images so believable at first glance is the artist’s astounding understanding of light, with an emphasis on not only how to illuminate interior spaces but on how shadow and light give a sense of atmosphere. What we experience through these images feels somewhat theatrical, with the reconstitution of both familiar and foreign domestic scenes. With his mastery of illusionary space and engagement with constructed reality, it is unsurprising that Matton worked in stage design and as a screenwriter for many years. The meticulous construction of the “Boxes” (as the artist calls them), allow the images to negotiate the relationship between reality and fiction. Regardless, each image demands that the viewer recognize the simplistic beauty which surrounds us in our everyday lives, true or invented.

A White Draped Couch in a White Space, 1987 © Photography Charles Matton, credit: Estate Charles Matton

Katie Lawson

*Exhibition information: November 28, 2015 – January 16, 2016, Stephen Bulger Gallery, 1026 Queen Street West, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tue – Sat, 11 – 6 p.m.

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