Matthew Giffin describes himself as a multi-media storyteller. Story telling is the common thread that weaves through the various endeavours of his wide-ranging career. From art direction for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Sir Paul McCartney, to highly visible illustration commissions, to the development of popular interactive school programs and the development of music and art content designed to increase international and cross-cultural understanding, Giffin has used stories as the central device to stitch together relationships between people and to help make sense of the world.
Of his artistic process, Giffin says it “becomes both an observation of – and participation in – how thoughts, dreams, memories and events flow together in unexpected ways to create reality.”
Skydwellers, 2018, ink, coloured pencil, acrylic, graphite on paper, 22.5 x 29 in
Giffin leverages stories to drive his personal creative process. One or more invented characters are the genesis of the artwork. From these fictional minds, all other elements in the piece arise as imagined interactions, communications, or daydreams. An artwork develops as a series of sketches either on paper or as a digital sketch. Even as he works on the final piece, the details continue to evolve, and more emerges in the process of drawing.
From our perspective as viewers, the paintings invite a narrative interpretation, but remain ambiguous and open ended. We’re drawn in and encouraged to stitch all the elements into a story of our own personal interpretation.
The works are intricate and precise. Fields of bright colour and crisp lines interlock over the surfaces like the parts of a fine mechanical watch movement. I thought at first the graphics might be computer generated, but on close inspection I saw the markings of craft: a combination of painting and drawing. Several of Giffin’s pieces are offered for sale both as originals as well as limited edition reproductions. The Helio Gallery specializes in prints and photography and this graphic style of work lends itself well to this treatment.
Travelogue, 2018, ink, coloured pencil, acrylic, graphite on paper, 20.5 x 38 in
I noticed that much of what I saw in these pieces was based on what I unwittingly projected onto them. The first image I saw was in the poster of the show: Travelogue. I saw it in the middle of a busy day. My impression was of claustrophobia and pressure. There were menacing faces – like a crowded elevator; compressed and harried urban crowds. The red colour remained dominate in my memory.
But, when I later saw the original in the festive context of the gallery opening, it had a very different effect. I saw the characters and faces as joyful. I also noticed the water, the leaves and the little duck at the bottom of the frame. All these features had been there all along.
The meaning of the image that I saw mirrored my state of mind. Much of the power of this work comes from this characteristic – its reflective nature. What we see is not inherent in the piece. It is rather a reflection of ourselves. The constituent elements of a story are provided, but the meaning depends on what we weave out of these elements.
Conversation, 2018, ink, coloured pencil, acrylic, graphite on paper, 21.25 x 56.25 in
In a few pieces, Giffin has reduced the palette to black and white while maintaining the intricate narrative aspect. In Conversation, the artist describes a discussion between three people. The imagery gives some hint as to what it might be about, but as in the case of a partially overheard conversation, we are left to wonder what might actually be being communicated. We can’t help but project our own guesses as to the particular dialog.
Dream Into Life, 2019, ink, coloured pencil, acrylic, graphite on paper, 34.5 x 50.5 in
Dream into Life is one of Giffin’s recent paintings. The image works at two scales. From a distance, we see what looks like two large trees surrounding a reclining figure. Up close, we discover an intricate and detailed tapestry of imagery. The world in all its organic complexity seems to be rising out of the figures mind as though created by her thoughts.
Giffin uses stories to generate his artwork. As a viewer, we don’t read his stories like we would a text, rather, we supply our own plot. We interpret these pieces like the half-remembered images and narratives of dreams whose meaning seems familiar but become more elusive and ambiguous the more we try to pin them down. As in a Rorschach ink blot, we project our own interpretation.
Images are courtesy of Helio Gallery
*Exhibition information: Helio Gallery, September 20 – October 12, 2019, 1256 Queen Street East, Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed & Thurs 12 – 5 pm, Fri 12 – 6 pm, Sat & Sun 12 – 4 pm.