Posted on 20 May 2020
Matthew Bax by © John Laurie, courtesy of the artist
In conversation with Melbourne artist Matthew Bax
on redefining the ways we experience art
To visit a gallery is rarely a purely physical affair. There is bodily movement involved, surely. The craning of one’s neck, the furrowing of one’s brow, the subtle stooping of one’s lower back when they feel the need to conduct a closer, more thoughtful inspection. Even so, the truest experience of art transcends the physical realm completely, as Okakura Kakuzō reminds us in The Book of Tea. In the words of the Japanese scholar: ‘Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their colour; their pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.’
First published in the early twentieth century, Kakuzō’s sentiment speaks not to the material work itself, but rather, to the enigmatic depths of the interaction between the human, the art and its creator—the energetic exchange that occurs beyond pedestals, hooks and placards. Another man who appreciates the value of what occurs in places past the veneer is Matthew Bax, a Melbourne-based artist who is also the proprietor of one of the city’s favourite hidden haunts, Bar Americano.
Drawn to the beauty of that which is considered commonplace—what he describes as visuals sans artistic ambition; the drips and stains on battered city walls—Bax prefers to paint ordinary things, walking away from each work with the knowledge that the observer has just as much of a role to play in the art’s ignition. By taking this approach, he not only prompts us to reawaken the wonder in what may have been forgotten, he invites us to do so of our own volition.
‘We must remember, however, that art is of value only to the extent that it speaks to us,’ Kakuzō writes. ‘It might be a universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies.’
Artwork by © Matthew Bax, courtesy of the artist
KATHRYN CARTER: Where were you born and raised?
MATTHEW BAX: I was born in Adelaide, but I grew up in a very small town called Naracoorte, in South Australia. It’s on the border of the Coonawarra.
And what is your earliest memory of feeling the urge to make art?
MB: My Dad is a painter and an art teacher, so art was all around us as kids. I was also pretty sure I wanted to be an artist.
So it was always your intention to pursue a career in the arts?
Yes, but then I decided to hedge my bets—probably to satisfy my mum and dad—and studied commerce. I also worked for the auction house Christies and Greenaway Art Gallery at school and university, so the other side of the arts was also an interest.
You’re now an exhibiting artist and also the proprietor of one of Melbourne’s most loved haunts—Bar Americano. When people ask: so what is it that you do? How do you reply?
Depends on the crowd, but I often just say I own a bar. I find that it’s easier to understand.
It would most likely elicit fewer questions, for sure. How does art inform, infuse and shape your life on a daily basis?
Hmm, I’m not sure. My apartment is home to a modest collection, so I do go to sleep and wake up surrounded by art. I’m [also] always reading something art-related and I’m in the studio almost every day. It’s hard to get away from art with that structure.
Absolutely. Further to the point of the fusion of both of your professions, do you ever find yourself creating through a commercial lens as a result of your involvement in the world of business, or making business decisions through the lens of an artist?
Not with any intention, but I do think that art welcomes risk into your decision making [processes], which can be a great advantage. I think art teaches you to be less concerned with what people think, so perhaps it steers you in an interesting direction, one you may not have otherwise considered. I think I have benefitted from these attributes. I’m not sure it flows the other way—business to art—into the studio, but that being said it does take grit to survive in the art world; talent alone is not enough. So maybe business experience helps a great deal to forge a career?
The grit you speak to definitely helps one to pave the creative path, for sure. Over the years, have you identified similarities you may not have expected between the world of art and that of business and commerce?
I’m not sure. Art is a funny element—the most useless but [also] the most valuable commodity on the planet. People need art, but perhaps not enough people realise that they do. It’s easier to convince people of the value of a well-made drink. Sorry, that doesn’t really answer your question.
Matthew Bax in his studio, courtesy of the artist
No need to apologise, I think you’ve still made a solid and valid point. I sometimes wonder how the world would feel if it were stripped bare of poetry and art, I think perhaps if this were to happen more people would realise that these are core components of human existence, not just for pleasure, but for survival. French writer Gustave Flaubert once said: ‘There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.’ As someone who has always been drawn to the beauty of the commonplace, to visuals without artistic exertion or ambition, would you say that your intention is to show the symbiosis between these two aspects—the beautiful and the banal?
That’s a nice quote. Yes, definitely. I’m also very interested in the concept of wabi-sabi.
The concept of wabi-sabi (侘寂)—loosely defined as the traditional Japanese philosophic and aesthetic concept that appreciates the beauty of imperfection—is one that resonates with me strongly, too. Given our culture’s obsession with visual perfection, do you feel that the infusion of this wabi-sabi philosophy in your work prompts the observer to reconsider preconceived criteria surrounding what is considered worthy of our attention? Not only in the gallery, but in life.
I wouldn’t want to assume my work does anything for an observer, I can only try to explain some of the ideas that I had when creating the work. Perhaps none of the intentions come through [at all]. This is the danger of artist statements, I feel. The best thing about art is coming to your own conclusions; there is no right or wrong reading of a work. The viewer has a very important role to play in every artwork. They perhaps complete the work with their own responses and ideas.
I definitely agree with the notion that the observer has as much as a role to play as the piece itself, the dialogue between the individual and the artwork is, to a certain degree at least, what keeps its heart beating, so to speak. To the point of the physical makeup of the work, do you find yourself being drawn to certain types of materials or mediums?
Yes, I guess it’s to do with habit. As an artist you learn how to handle certain materials over time. I dabble a bit with alternate mediums, but they all have a relationship to painting.
What comes through in our art is not always a conscious choice. When you step back from your pieces and look at them through the lens of the observer, are you ever struck by any recurring motifs or themes—ideas your subconscious seems ever-eager to explore?
MB: I’m not sure how I feel about the subconscious, but paintings, the better ones for me, tend to paint themselves. The process itself leads to decisions and results that I couldn’t have preconceived or planned. It’s what makes the act of painting so frustrating, but sometimes so wonderful, too. I like looking at a work and not really understanding how I painted it—I tend to move on to a new series when I have solved the riddle. Being comfortable in the execution doesn’t seem to be a place I produce my best work from.
I feel many artists can relate to that feeling. Regarding the forces that fuel the creation, American artist Mark Rothko once said: ‘I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.’ What are you interested in expressing with your art?
If I’m honest, I don’t really know. I guess it’s a medium I use to try to understand the world and myself. I don’t have a goal in mind.
Artwork by © Matthew Bax, courtesy of the artist
In an interview with Broadsheet in 2018, you said that ‘art is too often pushed to the back of the entertainment queue.’ Do you believe that art’s position in our cultural list of priorities has shifted since that time, and do you feel it may shift again in the foreseeable future, given current global—medical, economic, cultural and spiritual—affairs?
I think that this [COVID-19] crisis has made a lot of people ponder what our priorities are, and made us reflect upon the way we were living before, and the way we want to live moving forward. I think art and culture shine in the darkest moments—they remind us of what it is like to be human, and of what makes our species so unique. It will be a shame if people can’t make more time for art in the future, as their lives will be infinitely better for it.
I agree, art serves a kind of necessary function that is near-impossible to articulate, perhaps that’s a part of the reason why it’s so hard to describe the intimate process of its creation. To that notion, the late American composer John Cage once said: ‘When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.’
MB: There is a great book about Cage and Zen Buddhism called Where the Heart Beats, written by Kay Larson, I highly recommend it. I’m not sure I have ever reached this state myself, but it’s definitely a worthy destination. I think, with these words, Cage is talking of art operating on another level, beyond the creator and the medium. All I can report on is the pleasure you sometimes feel when reflecting on a work and not knowing how you did it. That’s always a nice place to sit.
What, in your eyes, is the role of the artist in contemporary culture?
To ask questions to which science, religion and philosophy cannot effectively answer.
A beautiful way of describing the depth and purpose of the journeys art takes us on. Have you ever experienced periods of creative stagnation?
All the time. Like today!
How do you push through?
You just have to show up and keep plugging away. You can’t wait for inspiration to arrive. Cal Newport, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, wrote a good book on productivity called Deep Work, you should read it.
Artwork by © Matthew Bax, courtesy of the artist
To explore more art by Matthew Bax, visit www.matthewbax.com
You can read more about Bar Americano at www.baramericano.com