In the fashion of other cloaked baddies – the grim reaper, the four horseman of the apocalypse, evil dwarves etc. – “hoodies ” strike fear into the heart of polite society. (Or rather, the sullen teenagers concealed in their poly-cotton folds). Matt Small revisions this maligned, and secretly revered, sub-culture in his latest exhibition This is England.
The Kentish town artist says of his subjects (usually black and Asian males): “If you live in certain areas, talk in a certain way and dress in a certain way, suddenly you do become boxed into this Daily Mail perception….I try to portray them as individuals, full of life and energy.”
Worry not, Small’s message is far from David Cameron’s trite “hug a hoodie” appeal. (The Tory leader said misunderstood teenagers who hide beneath their street uniform are just trying to “blend in.”) For one thing, his paintings are stripped of moral tenor. Faces feature neither malice nor vulnerability and their stoical expressions bring them, perhaps unwittingly, closer to the historical canon of portraiture with its aristocrats and military generals.
But, while these luminaries were expected to sit stiffly powdered for their portraits, Small approaches his subjects furtively. Filming people in secret is both a practical necessity – imagine saying to a 16 year old: ‘I really like your face, come back to my house and I’ll pay you some money’ – and a way of “stealing moments of them in their natural habitat.” For the artist, 15 seconds of footage reveals more about somebody’s peculiar mannerisms and attitudes than hours of posing in the studio.
Occasionally unsuspecting targets catch him red-handed (“the video camera must make me look like an undercover cop”) but the rest never realise they have been immortalised. “It’s not about the fact that the person knows there’s a picture of them in a gallery, it’s about the fact that there is one: that someone has included them in the world,” he explains. Probably just as well, since earlier in his career Matt was confronted by the mercantile aspirations of his chosen subjects. When they saw their likeness selling for thousands of pounds, some of the kids demanded a profit cut.
Once captured on video, the face undergoes a metamorphosis. First, frozen film frames are transcribed as black and white tonal studies, then discarded. With the sketches serving as guides, each painting starts it’s journey as a “conventionally” executed representation, before being doused liberally with Matt’s trademark mixture of oils and water colour. As the immiscible paints retract from one another, lush marbled patterns emerge and he has to wrestle human form out of chaos. “In that time I’m shitting myself because I’ve spent ages on this picture – where are the bloody eyes, where’s the nose? It can go completely wrong but it means each piece is unique – I can never repeat the process,” he says. In the resulting work, faces dance beneath eruptions of visceral red and purple like three dimensional magic eye drawings.
Matt sees his build-and-destroy technique, which he calls “painting from the inside out,” as a reaction against the received wisdoms about figurative art drummed into school children. His biggest influences, Jean Dubuffet and the ‘outsider art’ movement, tried to recapture the pure lucid style of innocents and asylum inmates, who had not been contaminated by academic or modish trends. He explains: “There are mad people out in Texas with houses made of spoons and funny faces – they’ve never been to art college but to me they’re the true artists.”
The artist’s preoccupation with the urban environment dictates his choice of materials. Dubbed ‘the metal man,’ Matt creates his thickly textured works on scrap steel, like abandoned car doors, found in the same vicinity as his subjects. “A lot of kids feel like they’ve been discarded, so it’s very relevant to paint on debris and found material,” he says. In an earlier series included in the current exhibition, hard concrete surfaces are used as canvases.
Matt Small has become something of a celebrity darling in recent years, counting Goldie and British actor Sean Pertwee among his fans. But, when wealthy admirers demand portraits of themselves in rudeboy style, popularity becomes uncomfortable. “I’ve had loads of people wanting commissions but my work is about anonymity, it’s not about rich people saying – I want a picture like that it’s so gritty,” he says.
Most notably nominated for the BP Portrait Prize in 2001, for Matt, the biggest accolade is young people catching a resemblance to their own friends in his pictures: “then it all becomes beautiful.”
Laura Mitchison for Revelation