James Mathison. Homo mensura 1
by Félix Suazo

For several years now, James Mathison (Caracas, 1966) has been tirelessly evolving the human theme, that bodily shell which every so often cries out for spiritual reappraisal. His undertaking is tireless as if nothing had happened since Adam’s downfall or as if art had not exhausted that quest for likeness that has driven it since the dawn of time. The question is still present in the bronzed flesh of his sculptures, in the dismembered bodies and the anatomical fragments that abound at their risk in his workshop. Heads, arms and hands prefigure the unfinished humanity of the subject, perched atop the abyss. There it sits, a blank page waiting for the artist to etch or emboss its surface with lines, text, hollows, grids, warps and wefts.

His delving deep into the idea of what is human suggests an analogy between the bodily structure of the subject and sundry instances of spiritual activity, moving in an expressive gamut that ranges from naturalism to hyper-reality. The subject itself hangs in abeyance, shaken by contradictory impulses, between narcissism and melancholy; an incomplete yet serene humanity facing the gaping precipice of an age-old interrogatory whose answer lies somewhere in the middle, equidistant from Dionysian impulse and Apollonian severity. His characters are distant and resemblant, the expression of a multiple ontology that manifests itself in diverse facets and where the ego is the sum of all the identities that inhabit them.

The Homo mensura exhibition proposes an excursion through some of his most significant work, fashioned during the years 1992 to 2012. Protagoras it was who stated that “man is the measure of all things,” and Mathison’s sculptures would appear to again take up this formula almost verbatim, maintaining an ambiguous position somewhere between man as a unique creature and man in the collective sense. His characters have a certain physiognomic affinity, as if they were the same subject in different emotional situations (meditation, introspection, melancholy, etc.). However, many of his facial features (eyes, mouths, noses) offer a synthesis of diverse ethnic attributes, highlighting thickish lips and subtly stylised eye sockets in the series of faces and figures that allude to Asian culture.

His sculptures therefore explore that irreducible proximity of the subjective and the corporal. Arms, hands, faces, torsos and heads take on the consistency of a “plural” ego in which the carnal and the spiritual commingle. In some ways, these pieces could be deemed the interception of those “identifiable flows”2 which according to Deleuze pass through the body, leaving behind a contradictory imprint of repression and desire.

More than represent the physiognomy of this or that individual, Mathison proposes an allegorical look at man that is directly associated with the process of constructing and multiplying stereotypical identities, where the technical reproductivity - in this case casting - is not only a procedure, but also a metaphor of the duplicated being and of the dissolution of otherness.

In his own way, Mathison reveals the nakedness and helplessness of the subject and the volatility of the powers that pass through him. The man of “flesh and bone” gives way to the man that refrains from the singular and the finite, offering his figure as a mirrorlike support. Thus approached, his sculptures attempt to perpetuate the ephemeral in fixed volumes, in the sense given by Lessing when affirming, in reference to his celebrated distinction between poetry and painting, that “…the single moment receives through art an unchangeable duration …”3

It should be noted that as far as Mathison is concerned there is no scission whatsoever in his way of handling his work, except for variations in scale, distinctions of genres (heads, faces, hands, torsos, figures) and the matter the series focuses on (the winged pieces, the plane men, Asians, observers, immigrants, etc.). Whatever the case, the human body - either fragmented or whole - is the centrepiece of his proposal. However, if you look carefully you can distinguish between certain moments or stages that relate to notions of matter, spirit, time, language and consciousness. Each of these concepts defines a specific environment for reflection and evocative effort, allowing for the combined exploration of the relationship that exists between the medium and the themes, with relative independence from the chronological aspects.

Metamorphosis / Man - Matter
The sculptural œuvre of Mathison traces an arc that interconnects that shapeless matter where mass and figure are undifferentiated with the scrupulous configuration of individual characters, which suggests a quest that takes us through different moments of existence. His works from the beginning of the 1990s are wrapped in a material swirl, driven by an overwhelming energy that hints at neofigurative rhetoric. Gradually, however, the figure starts to shed the substance that contains it until achieving its full autonomy. There follow the Busts in Transformation (1992), the Winged Pieces (1992), the Plane Men (1994), the Figures of Christ in Ascension (1994), Whirlwinds (1995), Torsos (1995) and Heads (1996), among other proposals.

Ascension / Man - Spirit
The idea of the transformation of matter that characterized Mathison’s first works acquires an allegorical connotation in the pieces that focus on the figure of Christ, understood as a symbol of earthly detachment and spiritual transcendence. Following this insignia, the artist takes as his starting point the sacrificial body of man anointed on his way to celestial resurrection. To do so he only has to present anatomical fragments of the Messiah - a foot, an arm, His torso - now released from the perpendicular timbers that affixed His flesh to this physical world.

Decline / Man - Time
In this section Mathison presents us with the vestiges of a catastrophic era that is typified by its eroded material. A sundered and splintered arm, a suspended torso with parched and furrowed skin, a severed head, all display the lost conceit of bodies tortured by the fury of the hours. We cannot be sure if this is the future of the species or, perhaps, its past. Whatever the case, it is both strange and obvious that these lacerated pieces are not fragments of the exhausted and decrepit bodies of old men; they rather come from vigorous Titans, thrashed by the elements and neglect. What is clear in these works is that substantive equivalence between being and temporality which assigns the sense of humanness to pure occurrence which is, after all, what leads him both to his exaltation and to his decline. Chance projects existence to an undetermined possibility which sooner or later ends up having to confront the irreversible.

Scripts / Man - Text
Alone or accompanied, the body is a sign in space; carnal writing that describes and recounts its moods and states of mind, exteriorising its strengths and its helplessness. It is where the demiurgic pronouncement and skin, words and matter come together. In Mathison’s sculpture language is almost literally incorporated, particularly in the work he has been producing since 1996, based on poetic and philosophical texts, a search that coincides with his fascination with calligraphy, fonts and design. The graphic force of the letters embosses its mark on the surface, naturally absorbing the roundnesses and troughs, like reverse tattoos.

Each sentence is a path, an encrypted line that melts into the inert flesh of the work, leaving behind its mark. Speech cuts across the open hand, the clenched fist, the outstretched arm, the serene face and the erect body in its quest for the substantial concatenation of matter and the senses, until there is no longer any separation between the support and the idea. Espinoza, María Zambrano, Octavio Paz, Rafael Cadenas and the aforementioned Armando Rojas Guardia - among other authors - lend their words to render human opacity partially intelligible and the visible readable.

Faces, Heads, Characters / Man-Conscience
In Mathison’s sculptures the subjective is projected in moderation, without gashes or violence. His faces, heads and characters are introspective, bereft of symptoms of extreme affectation, despite their apparently being psychologically distant. Yet beyond this kind of voluntary self-absorption, the idea of man as the permeable subject is suggested in the meshes, patterns and holes that transfix or cover the pieces.

The artist proposes a very clear distinction between the face and the head, a matter that not only has spatial and volumetric implications, but which also affects the meaning arising from each of these situations. There is nothing behind a face except the negative reverse side of an appearance. The head, on the other hand, is a vaulted and unpredictable world in which the subject finds a fortified dwelling with which to enclose itself or its own “sky” for internal flights.

Then there are the full-length figures among which the fragmented man recovers his anatomical oneness. Always standing, his arms at his sides, crossed on his chest or at his back, feelings of expectation, vulnerability, oppression and indifference alternate in these characters.

Although the five nuclei of work discussed - material, spiritual, time, language and consciousness - allow for an overview of Mathison’s sculptural œuvre, it is important to note that these are not separate fields of activity but rather facets of the same search that has man as its symbol. Finally, the yardstick is the body, a refractory container of repression and desire and measurable redoubt of existence where all its obscurities, yearnings and shortcomings are revealed.

We close these considerations on the sculptural proposal of Mathison with the issue of nudity. The volumetric shape - like the flesh - is the inverted mirror of what is within or underneath. Muscles tense and relax according to the will that stirs or freezes them, whether it be internal or exogenous, subjective or physical. However, what is visible on the surface of these works is the body totally free of blame or certainty, still to discover its appetites or the interred energy that circulates beneath its skin. The energy of primeval nakedness which, even in the stalking presence of an intrusive gaze, precedes sin and offers itself “clothed in grace”.

Caracas, April 2013

 

1 Abridged version of a homonimous text published in the book James Mathison. Homo mensura. Centro Cultural B.O.D., CorpBanca, August 2012.

2 Deleuze, Gilles. Derrames. Entre el capitalismo y la esquizofrenia. Editorial Cactus. Buenos Aires, 2006, p. 19

3 Lessing, G. E. Laoconte. Editorial Porrua, S.A. Mexico, 1993 p. 22