Forlorn coincidence: the nighttime cityscapes of Francis Matthews
by Hugh Campbell
The route described in the most recent sequence of paintings by Francis Matthews runs from Heytesbury St to Harcourt St, moving across territory that varies from the domestic to the commercial and from two-storey nineteenth-century domestic to four-storey late Georgian. Its very nature is that it cuts across the fabric of the city, traversing the ‘Six Streets’ of the sequence’s title, working through the back of plots rather than along their front. The city would not naturally offer up this route: it must be discovered. That sense of discovery is heightened by the fact that what we are offered are nighttime views. Following his established practice, Matthews has photographed specific views of streets, lanes and intersections at dead of night, and then used these photographs (sometimes single shots, sometimes composites) as the basis for meticulously crafted oil paintings. The content of the views themselves are commonplace, almost mundane: front doors, parked cars, shop-fronts, road-markings – the everyday furniture of the city. It is the fact of their being paid attention to and rendered with such skill, that makes them compelling.
Francis Matthews has made the emptied nocturnal city his own. He has identified the particular quality that urban spaces hold once the bustle of nightlife finally subsides and before morning brings a quickening into life again. In this state of stilled suspension, Dublin’s streets and spaces seem both weary and expectant. Things have happened, there is more to come, but for now, we pause. Matthews makes this particular atmosphere vividly available. Unlike Edward Hopper’s nocturnal paintings, with which they bear some affinities, his views are uninhabited. Instead the viewer is cast as the inhabitant of the scene, a feeling achieved through the careful organisation of viewpoint and framing. The resulting, slightly forced perspective often presses foreground close, so that the lit surface of a front door (on Pleasants Street) or a car window looms towards us while the street itself tails off into blackness.
The paintings are characterised by a re-balancing of elements and of hierarchies. The textures of a road surface – pockmarks and Luas rails on Harcourt Street, brick paviors on Camden Place – are more prominent than the details of the buildings. Illuminated signs and road-markings jump forward even as the surfaces supporting them recede in the dark. These re-calibrations might be viewed as a conscious attempt by Matthews to make evident to us how the nocturnal view is apprehended, but they are just as much the natural consequence of his method. As he builds from a black painted canvas to light, fragmentary elements flare out of the darkness – sometimes as concentrated bursts, sometimes as more extended spills, washes and patterns. The scene is painted in a manner analogous to how we experience it, with darkness the unifying medium and brightness a constructed condition.
Consider how differently a daytime scene would be assembled – each built element populating a perspectival scaffold to produce a continuous mass of fabric consistently visible in light. In the daytime scene, continuity is inescapable – everything is present. The nighttime scene, by contrast, is discontinuous, fragmented. There is just enough information to allow us intuit connections and fill in gaps between, for instance, the foreground pathway of Camden Place and the illuminated buildings of Harcourt Street glimpsed through a distant arched opening. Ultimately it is the handling of these breaks in tonal continuity – the caesuras, elisions and eruptions – which give the paintings their allure. Looking across the series, a modest repertoire of artificial light emerges: the vivid red and green of traffic lights, the sodium glare of the streetlamp, the pasty whitewash of office fluorescents. Bereft of activity to support, artificial light blazes on. Understood thus, it becomes a leitmotif of passive continuity, connecting the specifics of each scene to the unifying systems and rhythms of the city.
This balance of specificity and incipient larger orders is common to many depictions of the urban landscape. We might think, for instance, of Thomas Struth’s photographs of city scenes. His viewpoints and subject matter tends to be deliberately generic. He searches for the typical rather than the special, what he terms the city’s Unconscious Places. But from this rather mute material, Struth manages to generate a formal grace and quiet power. By virtue of close looking (as captured by his large-format camera), he discovers a Gestalt – a formal whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
Each place upon which Francis Matthews alights in Dublin is equally unprepossessing, deliberately chosen, it would seem, for its very lack of distinguishing characteristics. What is it, you wonder, about that Camden Street frontage – limp flags above a Ladbrokes – that deserves our special attention? What about it merits the painstaking process of photographing, enlarging, transferring in gridded sections to canvas, and meticulously painting in oils? The answer, of course, is that it is the act of attention that we are witnessing as much as the place itself. As with all worthwhile art, the quality of the artist’s seeing makes us freshly aware of our own powers of apprehension. We stop and look at what we usually see without looking. In the short story Miles City, Montana by Alice Munro, the characters stop off at a lay-by to break a long car journey. Everything seems suddenly vivid and fresh to the eye. ‘This is the way you look at the poorest details of the world resurfaced after you’ve been driving for a long time’ writes Munro ‘you feel their singleness and precise location and the forlorn coincidence of you being there to see them.’ The poorest details of the world resurfaced, and us being there to see them: such are the pleasures offered by the work of Francis Matthews.
Professor of Architecture at University College Dublin