Culture Grinder of the Month: Matt Bahen
Table of contents for Grinder of the Month
Matt Bahen is a Toronto-based painter best known for large-scale canvases depicting abandoned architectural settings and barren, snow-covered landscapes. The dominant themes in his work are decay and transition, brought to life by the thick, melting textures of his impasto brushwork. Rejecting an approach that privileges aesthetic theory over aesthetic arrest, his work upholds classical painterly values by focusing compositional complexity on detailed, well-rendered representations that call attention to the process of painting itself, challenging viewers to carefully question each wrought decision made in regards to technique, lighting and content. As a result, his paintings elegantly balance visual craftsmanship with emotionally resonant subject matter, leaving viewers with an experience that is viscerally, as well as intellectually, engaging, and illustrating that the expression of highly developed talent is not only a sufficient part of art, but the crux of it.
The majority of his work, and his strongest pieces, are painted on human-scaled canvases (roughly 5” x 5”), lending them a corporeal element that invites viewers to immerse themselves in the works’ imposing depth. From a distance, the grandness of his settings envelopes and quiets, while from other closer-up angles, the tactile nature of the surface – begging to be felt as much as seen – engages viewers in the process of painting as much as in the painting’s representational content.
Muted earth tones chromatically dominate Bahen’s palette, with flashes of vibrant colors perforating the darkness in small yet profound ways. Light in Bahen’s work is visible on the ground, complicating light as a metaphor, becoming something we must actively seek in the crevices. In an interview, Bahen he is committed to the “blind sense of hope” inspired by novelist Cormac McCarthy, whose post-apocalyptic novels graphically detail the moral determination of characters in face of demoralizing situations. This paired with the dramatic events he has witnessed others experience through his work as a social worker, increased his interested in the way trauma defeats some while
inspiring change in others.
Though influenced at a young age by the bucolic subject matter of Canada’s legendary Group of Seven, Bahen did not initially set out to become a landscape painter. His earliest pieces, in the tradition of Goya, were modest watercolor sketches depicting the horrific atrocities of war and people in duress. Interested in art’s ability to enlighten and provoke engagement with larger social issues, he saw art as a potential bridge between “society and the streets”.
Bahen began creating much larger-scale oil paintings in 2006. His work continued to focus on images of war, depicting both its causes (tanks, aircraft carriers, submarines) and effects (hopeless refugees, plundered villages, stray, forlorn dogs). Gradually, however, his work began shifting away from the specific politics of conflict. People began disappearing from his increasingly vivid and somber settings, their absence highlighted by the continuing presence of displaced animals, particularly the “dogs of war” he had employed in his earlier work. Around the same time he also began depicting empty, snow-covered
woods and fields, in many ways as silently beautiful as the work of the Group of Seven but also reminiscent of Anslem Kiefer’s war-ruined landscapes. Bahen describes the dogs as Virgil-esque totems guiding the viewer through Hell, but it is not clear whether we should view them as friends or foes. They are certainly less forlorn and foreboding in Bahen’s sprawling exteriors, however, where the traces of human “civilization” are less apparent and the prospect of redemption is closer at hand.
Bahen is interested in conveying an allegorical narrative through painting that tells a “different truth” about the world we inhabit, one in which progress can lead to destruction and destruction may lead to reflection. His settings are not based on particular places, allowing them to be “nowhere and anywhere” at once. The foliage and animals are imposed on the image last, disrupting the literal truth of the image and activating a broader understanding of the meaning behind it, one that makes us turn inward and feel the weight of the responsibility and loneliness. But if we continue viewing, we may find a moment of respite within the light.
You can see more of his work on his site.