Recorded, Translated, Transposed: The Drawings of Matthew Picton
Cracks in the road are a mundane fact of life. Not exactly beautiful, too ordinary to be sublime, a network of cracks might nevertheless induce a sense of wonder in the attentive observer. Yet, how many of us have pulled off to the side of the road and ventured out of our vehicles in order to survey a flat, anonymous ruin driven upon thousands of times each day? Matthew Picton has spent a lot of time wondering about cracks in the road. Now, as a consequence of thinking about his work, I do too.
Picton’s nominal subject matter is the landscape. Still, the subject matter is not the art, or what one might call ‘the work of the work of art.’ Picton’s elaborate drawings are not about the ravages of time, weather, tectonic shifts deep below the surface, or the intermittent pressure of traffic on an asphalt road. Though the drawings do serve as an index of specific patterns of cracks encountered on particular roads, and therefore bear witness to these phenomena, his transpositions of the entropic industrial landscape are about something less tangible.
Though the landscape always remains at or just below the surface, Picton’s work – or the work of his art – is about making wonder legible. Wonder, as an unavoidable consequence of observation, uncovers our surroundings, revealing that which was hidden in plain sight. Picton uncovers these phenomena for the viewer, but does so slowly and with considerable labor. He provides a document for the viewer, but more importantly, he preserves the sense of wonder from his encounter with the subject, and in that preservation makes art that provokes an analogous sensation in the viewer.
His process begins with observation. First, he selects a site, which must then be recorded. Photography plays a significant, if unheralded role in methodically recording the site. This site is then translated into any number of materials – whether ink on paper or glue on Mylar, and, in the case of the ‘sculptural drawings,’ cake sprinkles or thousands of colored beads cast in small clear plastic spheres. It might seem obvious, but it should be noted that in the process negative space – that is, the cracks – becomes positive, transforming nothing into something.
Picton’s works on paper are exacting transcriptions of cracked patterns found on the pavement. Unlike the sculptural drawings, which maintain the actual size of the patterns they index, the ink drawings are scaled down, demanding intimate contemplation. Placed on the vertical plane of the wall, the horizontality – and the attendant gravitational force that, in part, allowed for the road’s ruination – is displaced. ‘Plain sight’ is transformed into ‘plane’ and ‘sight’: the act of observation, and wonder, is bequeathed to the viewer.
Road Surface Drawing, 14th Street, Seattle, WA, May 16, 2004: Meticulously rendered with purple ink on paper, this drawing bears witness to the singularity of this asphalt road at this stage of degradation on this date in this year. The specificity of its network of cracks follows some unruly logic outside the laws of mathematics. Just over two square feet in size, the drawing obviously manipulates the scale of the road from which it was created. At this size, and perhaps at first glance, the drawing resembles a spider web, or the product of neurological mapping. Without a key to the scale, the pattern might even reflect some vast system of intertwined nebulae.
Picton’s ‘sculptural drawings’ take several steps beyond the works on paper. First, the site is translated into materials – cake sprinkles, beads, acrylic spheres – that signify associations quite removed from the landscape they translate. Second, these works, which are typically fabricated at a one-to-one scale relative to the site, are brought into a dynamic relationship with the architecture of the exhibition space. At this point, translation gives way to transposition.
As installed in Miami, Florida, Cracked Parking Lot, Sculptural Drawing #8 creeps across the gallery like a multicolored crystalline parasite, spreading from the floor to the walls, partially covering a rollup garage door, and hovers mysteriously overhead. Sections of cracks are assigned candy colors – blue, orange, pink, green, red, yellow – and the sections are in turn rearranged and brought into a relationship with multiple planes of the gallery. Sections are cantilevered from the wall with hundreds of pins, and overhead several planes of Cracked Parking Lot are suspended from the ceiling with Slinkys; sections and colors are overlapped, and therefore transposed into something entirely new.
Picton risks losing hold of the indexical relationship to the source material, but in taking the risk he preserves the sense of wonder in his initial encounter with the cracked road by pushing the viewer into asking: What am I looking at? With some effort – and because the artist always takes great pains to translate the original, the source of the patterns can eventually be identified. But, the source of the work is not the point. Why would Picton give away the ‘secret’ so easily in the title of the work? If the blunt, documentary factuality of Picton’s titles belies the playfulness of his materiality, it also suggests a certain confidence in the power of wonder. The artist thinks: Even if I give away the secrets, the work will continue to work. And it does.
Cracked Parking Lot, Sculptural Drawing #8, installed more recently in a converted warehouse space in San Francisco, is recharged by its new context – a two-story bay of windows. The sculptural drawing is attached to the glass with suction cups, and incoming light transforms the translucent material as the work surrounds the viewer. Despite the scale of the installation, the viewer is drawn to minute details of the work – particularly the intense depth of color in the individual, jewel-like beads as the sun passes through. Stepping back, the viewer becomes easily overwhelmed with the complexity of the whole installation, and once again retreats into the private contemplation of a single colored bead suspended in a tiny sphere. As an object of wonder, the artifice of the chosen material is no less strange or beautiful than the material of nature.
Picton’s practice began with photographing the surrounding world, but eventually moved into other media because he felt compelled to ‘possess the landscape physically is some way.’ Picton follows a lineage beginning in the mid 1960s that includes Richard Long, Jan Dibbets, Robert Smithson, and more recently Roni Horn and Wolfgang Laib – artists who work in the landscape and transform that ‘fieldwork’ into works of art to be experienced indoors. Like Horn and Laib, Picton evolves from this historical foundation by re-inscribing aesthetics into the document – by folding sensation into information – producing art that occupies some shifting territory between the rational and the inexplicable. If he has indeed come to ‘possess’ the landscape, he has also been generous with his possession: Recorded, translated, and transposed, Picton’s wonder becomes the viewer’s wonder.
Michael Ned Holte is a writer based in Los Angeles.