Richard Speer

The Poetry of a Memory: Matthew Picton Layers Time, Space, and Politics

At mid-career, British artist Matthew Picton has come full circle, embarking on a new body of work whose roots burrow deep into the obsessions of his past. Recent one-person shows at Solway Jones (Los Angeles), Toomey Tourell (San Francisco), Howard House (Seattle), and Pulliam Deffenbaugh (Portland) have found the Oregon-based conceptual artist layering the topographies and infrastructures of the world’s great cities into emotionally and politically charged sculptures that evoke what he calls “the poetry of a memory.” These works—tiered, three-dimensional drawings that appear to float in space—have their roots in the artist’s peripatetic early life in the United Kingdom.

Born 47 years ago in London, Picton spent most of his childhood moving around England with his family, finally settling near Liverpool when he was in his teens. First with his parents, then on his own, he took to wandering the Welsh and Scottish countrysides with the aid of detailed maps, which showed the way through remote terrain with no established paths. It was during this period that the budding artist became acquainted with the landscape sculptures of fellow Englishman Richard Long, whose work would wind up influencing his own. Picton’s earliest paintings were based on abstracted maps of Scotland and shared affinities not only with Long but also with Andy Goldsworthy. Still, the twentysomething Picton found himself more interested in history and politics than the traditional art trajectory, so he forsook art school for a degree from the London School of Economics, where his father had studied three decades earlier. Afflicted with a kind of perennial Wanderlust, he moved in 1990 to the United States, where he honed his artistic focus in New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle. Ashley Peterson, the Columbia medical student who was to become his wife, led him to Ashland, Oregon, where she was establishing a practice, and it was here amidst the Cascade Mountains and high desert of southern and eastern Oregon that Picton found his imagination invigorated in a way that recalled his treks through the British hills and highlands.

This convergence of new environs and long-simmering interests ushered in a period of creative invention and prodigious output that began in the late 1990s and has yet to wane. Picton commenced making drawings and cast-rubber sculptures based on the cracks he observed in the roadways, sidewalks, and dry lakebeds in the vicinity of his new home. Some of these works he presented as meticulous tracings on a one-to-one scale, but often he threw in a dash of whimsy to temper their cartographic rigor. In Cracked Parking Lot #1 (2000) he turned one of his pre-existing drawings into a marvel of glittery light-play by hand-applying 16,000 colored glass beads onto a hardened outline of the piece’s eponymous cracks. “What I wanted to achieve,” he says of the piece (which took four months to complete), “was to make the drawing a sculpture in space.” In sculptures that followed, he used suction cups and Slinkies to suspend the rainbow-hued forms from gallery walls and ceilings, making them appear to float mid-air. In his Cast Roadway series, the artist made rubber moldings of pocked and potholed streets near his home, then tinted them improbable colors like Key Lime, cobalt, blood orange, and violet. The finished pieces, presented as transparent squares hung from lucite bars, are among the most elegant in Picton’s oeuvre: glassy-smooth on the surface, craggy inside, their flamboyant chromaticism transsubstantiating the prosaic subject matter into pure, seductive glamour. This is the crux of what the artist calls “dressing demise”: aestheticizing an otherwise factual recording of a unique form at a singular moment in time—think Amerigo Vespucci crossed with RuPaul. As records of natural decay, Picton’s cartographies are memento mori that remind us of the transience of the unforgiving moment; but as unapologetic, unadulterated eye candy, they are hard to beat for curb appeal. In the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Knight called Picton’s synthesis of poignance and exuberance “an anonymous diary of material collapse,” while the San Francisco Chronicle’s Kenneth Baker saw within the sculptures’ cracks and crannies evidence of “art working against entropy, finding formal epiphanies in a deteriorating reality.”

In 2005, yearning “to take things from the micro view into a wider geographic inquiry,” Picton began etching into Duralar sheets the contours of major river systems: the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus, and Orinoco. Immersed in the nitty-gritty of creating these elaborate pieces, he says, “I couldn’t help but be drawn into the imagination of the rivers themselves—rivers as support systems for civilizations… So instantly, in that one aspect alone, the work changed from something that was just about simple, organic form to something that was also about history and culture.” From the world’s great rivers, Picton moved on to his current series, text- and map-based sculptures inspired by the world’s great metropolises. In his renderings of cities such as Paris, Moscow, New Dehli, Shanghai, Sydney, and Manhattan, he uses a customized soldering iron to cut the contours of a city’s roadways, rail system, subways, and waterways into a continuous filigree of sprawling Duralar. Each layer of the city’s infrastructure is assigned a different color and floated atop the preceding layer with the aid of stickpins stuck into a foamcore board. Their multiple tiers casting complex, interlocking shadows, the finished pieces affect viewers on many levels. Says Picton: “They’re redolent especially for anyone who’s lived in or visited the cities they represent.”

One of the most intriguing of the map-based sculptures is Berlin, which shows the German capital as its “Stadtplan” appeared in 1932, 1962, and 2006, in vastly different physical and political incarnations. “It’s like X-ray vision with a temporal element. I’m giving a tangible physical form to history, which allows the viewer to visually access the past.” A recent piece, Baghdad, juxtaposes a 1943 map with the Iraqi capital’s current zones of occupation as viewed in early 2007 via Google Earth. While Picton insists the works are apolitical, he clearly relishes these extra layers of complexity and says he is eager to map the rich, tumultuous histories of politically incendiary cities such as Jerusalem and Johannesburg. What else does this driven, continually evolving artist have up his sleeve? After autumn shows at Pulliam Deffenbaugh (Portland) and the Bridge Art Fair in London, he heads to Miami for Flow in December. Next February he travels to Hawaii, where he will experiment with various methods for mapping the root system of a giant banyan tree. He is eager to add Mexico City, Bombay, and Tokyo to the cities he has made into sculptures—and then there is the siren song of what the self-admittedly obsessive Picton calls “the ultimate sort of Edmund Hillary level of insanity: mapping the whole world—this perverse desire I have to do it all—because it’s there.”

—Richard Speer is the author of Matt Lamb: The Art of Success (John Wiley & Sons) and has written about cultural matters for Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, Salon, and Opera News.