Entering Supplement Gallery a bright, energetic canvas hanging to my right pulls me in. Strong orange accentuates striking green slashes and soft blue drags. The work feels rapid, energetic. A subtle shift in orange hues emerges horizontally across the surface, providing a weight to ground the piece. It’s not an easy painting; it feels raw, yet considered and accomplished – I respond to it immediately. As I look for longer the initially abstract composition seems to suggest a figuration, which the title (when I eventually move to the related information) confirms – Leg Lost in Grass, Again. Aspects of the loose descriptive handling remind me of that found at the edges of paintings by Bonnard or late Degas – not the central subject, but the quick, deft description of the cat in Bonnard’s The Bowl of Milk (1919) – while something of Willem De Kooning’s energetic slashes also emanate. This hovers above a colour field that describes flesh, the soft, fuzzy edges of which recall Rothko, yet the bold colours are contemporary, artificial – the green a little too green, the orange a little too orange – they imbue a cheeky, humorous attitude to the work. Yet somehow the subject (a leg in grass) still locates an intimate, human moment.
Stepping back a little, a similar work catches the corner of my eye through the door between Supplement’s two rooms – a connection, a repetition – it draws me into the next room. Leg Lost in Grass has slightly bolder colour, pushed into higher contrast. I compare it with the memory of my recent encounter with Leg Lost in Grass, Again (it is now out of view). I rotate, taking in the range of small to mid sized canvases, intense coloured grounds, dappled with dragged, stabbed or scuffed marks in greens and fleshy tones. Three of the pieces follow the same ”leg in grass” composition but with shifts in tone and colour.
Moving into the middle of the space realigns my line of sight back through to the first room, allowing me to see that two of the pieces in this room have counterparts. I enjoy being able to experience the surface facture and the overall composition from a distance at once, but the paintings also stand alone, their partner just out of view. So why this repetition, not displayed side by side, but given space to be viewable close up and at a distance simultaneously?
More than just coupled works, this arrangement offers insight into Musgrave’s process. It is no small feat to make reductive, gritty works feel refined and considered as these do. Perfect execution is needed to hold together the loose arrangement of marks over vivid ground. Musgrave achieves this through carful repetition and reflection. Though here just two of each set is on show, I am told that there may be up to twenty in a series. Each piece displayed is the result of a series of repeated consideration, rehearsal and refinement, allowing Musgrave to perfect subtle differences in the composition, pressure of the mark, speed, tone etc.. As a dancer practices a new piece of choreography time and time again to imbue their body with inherent movement, muscles moving without the mind, Musgrave’s repetition instils his hand with an assured intelligence of its own. In turn, the results of his hand’s increasing fluency affect his mind’s engagement, perceptions shifting, sharpening as the series unfolds. The internal dialogue occurring through this process of action and reflection heightens the maker’s awareness of specific attributes; rough workings become meticulous compositions and sparing handling is injected with vitality.
It is an intelligent hang, one that offers vistas hinting at the process I describe, but not focused upon it. Comparisons made available but not put first. Musgrave’s brave, enigmatic surfaces stand boldly alone, challenging in their raw brevity. They hold and engage me, their odd blend of abstract expressionism-meets-impressionism in a rather toned down English manner, conjures curious references to past paintings while dredging up fleeting personal memories. The adept combination of intriguing composition, bold colour combination and skilful handling makes each work an enticing object in its own right. In the contemplated complex intricacy, and stripped back, refined aesthetic of his work, Musgrave engages with an in depth playing field that few painters today manage to delve into quite so meticulously.
Nicholas John Jones
Matthew Musgrave (b. 1985 Torquay) lives and works in London.
© Matthew Musgrave, Nicholas John Jones, Fisk Frisk magazine
Courtesy Matthew Musgrave, Supplement Gallery London, Fisk Frisk magazine
Editing: Eloise Ghioni