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Mathew Tom: The Way the Image Is Interpreted

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1. What is the source of inspiration behind your recent solo exhibition at Christine Park Gallery?

I am interested in the idea of universal images.  I often wonder if paintings have some form of power.  Certain images seem to have a certain charm and are able to attract an audience regardless of the time period or location.  So I am curious about these universal images.  I have a deep interest in Eastern imagery, so I wanted to create a show based on images that I thought had a power regardless of their country of origin. 

2. Tell us about the way you explore the images in your painting. What is the difference between the “East” and “West” visual tradition of seeing images? And why is it so important to you?

For me, the biggest difference between Eastern and Western images is the way the image is interpreted.  In my mind, western painting, after the middle ages, has been about trying to represent the world through ideas of observation.  Trying to manipulate light and colors to accurately portray what they were looking at. 

When I think about Eastern painting, I feel it is about symbolism and maintaining a visual tradition.  For example, when painting a portrait of someone in Ming Dynasty China, their goal was not to capture their likeness.  Instead, they would compose the face based on symbols of his personality.  So the final image would look nothing like the actual person but as a viewer, you would recognize, by the symbols, the sitter was wise and benevolent.  

I am mixed (Half-Chinese/Half-White) and I think it really affects the way I view the world.  This idea of mixing east and west is really ingrained in my mind and can never seem to go away from it for too long in my artwork.

3. The transformation in image between different parts of the world is nothing new in our culture. Universal recognition of the image is imbedded in culture. The internet and globalization seems to have changed that. Don’t you agree? Could you explain to us, this contrast between “East” and “West,” and how it is represented in your work? 

I definitely agree that the internet has expedited the globalization of imagery.  When I am browsing Instagram it is often hard to tell if the image I am looking at is from America, Australia, or Korea.  I find it interesting how quickly visual culture can match each other. The internet is just accelerating it to such an unbelievable degree.  

I think in a technological context, there is much less concept of east and west because, as you said, globalization has changed everything.  An Iphone has parts made from around the world, developed in America and assembled in China.   

However, I am not really interested in Globalization in that sense.  My inspiration is from classical artwork before trade lines had been fully developed so the works had a more distinctive style.  So I am trying to mix these pre-globalization images into new works.

4. In your opinion, do you think that in order to create, we need to present two opposing things, or entirely different things, to create something new or unique?

I don’t necessarily think we need to have contrasting opinions to create something new.  Often times, I find simplifying the image to be a way to create interesting artwork.  Normally, in my artistic practice, I would follow the strategy of presenting very different things but mixing them.  In this show, I am trying to see how minimizing the visuals can be a strategy to create something unique.

5. Tell us about painting that reinterprets history. How is it relevant to your background?

I would say it is one of the key parts of my practice.  Because I am so deeply engrossed in historical artwork. I, of course, am a big fan of contemporary artwork.  But my real passion is classical artwork from around the world.  So for me thinking about history and how important images were to that time inspires my own painting practice.  90% of my inspiration comes from art history.  

6. What is “Minhwa?”  And how has it changed your work?

Minhwa is a type of folk painting coming out of Korea.  I had participated in an artist residency in Gwangju, South Korea.  There I studied under a teacher and she taught me the basics on Minhwa.  It is a painting using symbolic objects and made using traditional materials like rabbit skin glue and raw pigments.  In the painting process, you have to blend the colors using a back and forth motion which is almost like rubbing.  After I finished, I began to wonder…what if I just using the same technique as Minhwa but in oil paint?  So I would say it had a very meaningful impact on my technical style.  

7. Where did the images for the recent paintings come from? 

Beyond being an artist, I consider myself a lover of art and images.  I am constantly going to exhibitions and scanning online museum collections. Sometimes, certain images will catch my eye and I will keep it in the back of my mind about how I can incorporate those pieces into my future works. It is just a long process of research and figuring out the best way to make them my own.  

8. Is any color in your work symbolic? If yes, to what extent?

Yes, I am interested in creating a mood with my paintings.  So by making a room full of black paintings, I feel I am able to create a unique feeling by controlling the colors.   

9. What is your next goal?

Lately, I have been interested in the idea of screens.  I like how the paintings on the screens are each different individually but combined, they create a new, different narrative. I would like to create artworks which have the potential to be placed together to create a more complex meaning.

10. Is simplicity in painting a key to successful artwork? How would you describe the phrase “successful artwork” or “great painting?” What is it for you? 

I am interested in more minimal compositions but I don’t believe there is any one way to make a successful painting.  I believe it is really about taste which everyone has very different ideas. I guess I would say harmony would be the main factor when judging a painting.  All the parts need to fit together.

11. Stoicyzm was based on knowledge, living wisely, and harmony. Would you say your paintings are full of harmony and silence? Does the Stoic philosophy apply to it?

Yes, I would say that it applies to my paintings. My goal is for my painting to possess harmony and stillness.  I hadn’t thought my work in that context before but I think it is a good descriptor. 

12. What is contemporary art? Do you have a word that suits it better?

I consider contemporary art to be any artwork made in the present.