There are three obvious layers to Matthew Stone’s work in Back into the Body: what we see, how it’s made, and where it comes from.
What do we see? Figures surround the gallery at an imposing, more-than-life-sized, scale. The evident fact that they are partly composed from conjoined strokes of paint, together with the apparent gaps in the bodies and the way neighboring figures intertwine with each other ambiguate their reception. Is there a photographic source? Do they derive from live models? Is any of the paint real? Are they fighting, dancing or loving? How many are there? Whose limb is that? We are drawn into questions.
How are they made? The production process is complex. Stone starts by defining computer-generated figures which he adapts extensively by carefully posing and sculpting their individual appearance with a degree of control not easily achieved by other means: it’s simple to alter a viewpoint, to reverse a decision, and possible to edit a person’s jaw line or to skew a nose to the side. Stone’s characters are the digital ground for brush strokes from his ongoing library of files, originally made by painting on acetate and photographing the strokes at high resolution. Those strokes are applied to the 3D models of bodies, so that they appear contoured and shadowed to wrap around the flesh, or are applied to abstract shapes that act as extensions of the bodies into the digital space. The bodies or shapes onto which the paint accumulates are then removed, leaving the paint interacting with the implied presence of what is now absent, a negative space produced by the unpainted areas. That causes the elisions, increasing the fragmentation of bodies and the number of brushy and transitional ‘edges of paint.' That knowledge helps us to understand what we are seeing, but does less to suggest why the artist wants us to see it. For that, I think, we need to go back into Stone’s history.
So, where does the work come from? Formally, Stone has consistently sought to generate representations of the body–literally ‘figurative’ work–which he can accept as forward rather than wholly backward looking in an art historical context. Thus his instinct when photographing people in performance was to push the images towards abstraction through how their bodies combined in reality. He later made his references to the history of painting more explicit by photographing and combining gestural brushstrokes–their movement across the canvas standing in for that of the bodies they replaced. But now the flesh is back, albeit at a digital distance from the community of performers and friends whose networked presence originally inspired Stone. This latest body of work, then, represents a point of dynamic equilibrium in the to and fro between the figure and its abstraction, between art and life, between paint visibly applied to a surface and seemingly applied to virtual thin air.
Stone’s thinking doesn’t generate the work in any programmatic sense, but his reasons for making it do manifest themselves in the result. His primary subject matter is social relations, as foregrounded in his previous life and art. Stone spent six years squatting as part of the Peckham-based artists collective !WOWOW!. He organised happenings and restlessly applied his artistic language to photography, performance, music, fashion and film in an effort to spread it in and outside of the artworld as democratically as possible. This was all consistent with the manifestos and texts he issued online and published in street-style magazines between 2004 and 2016 that began as propaganda for and in some sense, later came to reject parts of the term he coined; ‘Optimism as Cultural Rebellion.'
Stone now lives a comparatively pared-back life. In part that’s been imposed on him by four years of ongoing recovery from a Chronic Fatigue-like illness. But he has accepted and embraced the lifestyle changes which his condition requires, seeing them as a route to a different mode of being and thinking. Stone says he is ‘transformed by the illness’ and sees it as ‘a difficult but necessary initiation onto a path of learning, healing and humility.' He lives alone; roams Walthamstow and Hackney Marshes with his dog, seeking out the plants at the centre of his pursuit of ‘intuitive herbalism,' which links to an ongoing interest in the esoteric and shamanic; and spends long hours at the computer, editing digital paintings. Those paintings have emerged as the core of Stone’s practice: on the one hand, he feels no need to oppose the traditions of art production, seeing its grounding history as a positive; on the other, he sees no reason to deny the digital print on linen as his natural medium–so that when the logic of the work’s production no longer demanded final hand-painted elements, he wasn’t inclined to maintain them just to conform to the norms of what is most readily categorised as a painting.
One link with that past practice is the way Stone pushes against the distinction between art and non-art, but now does so within the fine art context of painting rather than by branching into less historically elevated modes of expression. You can’t get a more overtly artistic language than the brushstroke, yet a digitalised brushstroke (not, in its effect, unlike Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day brushstroke) is a different matter, especially when it is applied to a computer-generated figure. Yet perhaps the key continuity from those days of experimental living is the assertion that there is more to life than the market drivers of what people want to buy and look like. Stone’s work still concentrates on how people relate to each other in groups, or–in the more meditative single figures–to themselves, rather than how they relate to material culture. We might go further, and attribute Stone’s somewhat paradoxical generation of tender emotional interactions from a starting point in virtual reality, to a perceived sense of potential for the intuitive over the rational in an often overwhelmingly digital age. That also chimes with how the figures, simultaneously confused and enriched by their ambiguities of form and interaction, navigate the norms of individualism.
Back to those three layers: what is shown, how it’s made, and where it comes from. They may seem obvious aspects, but are resonant and compelling: a new figuration born of networks and relationships; a process of abstraction, folding art into life as much as life into art to generate a distinctive aesthetic; and creating a space for fluidity, intimacy and intuition, proposing that there could be more of those in our lives.
Text by Paul-Carey Kent. Courtesy CHOI&LAGER Gallery.