The six figure paintings in Matthew Watson’s debut solo exhibition, though differing in dimension, all share roughly the same scale. Each draws the viewer close enough to engage the artist’s subjects—but not too close.
That calculated distance reflects the nature of the relationships Watson renders here, and the complex layers of commerce and influence that define them. The portraits in “Commission / Barter / Sale,” on display through Feb. 24 at Joe Sheftel Gallery, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, are of Watson’s art world peers and financiers—his personal network of curators, buyers, collectors and fellow artists. They are friends, but they are friends with benefits.
Like the scale of their rendering, their mostly implacable gazes, cool yet vulnerable, point directly at the viewer, beckoning us close—but, again, not too close. In K.W. (2012), for example, we see the very recognizable artist Kara Walker, Watson’s professor at Columbia University, sitting upright in a richly patterned floral print dress atop a plain, overstuffed love seat. She is barefoot, and her legs are folded beneath her. Her eyes are red, as though she is very tired or just finished crying, but her gaze is stoic and authoritative. It is charged not so much by what it shows directly as by what we invest it with—drawn from what we know about her relationship to Watson and from the African-American artist’s intense racial, sexual and political imagery.
“There is a connection between myself and each of the subjects in the show, but there are also connections between the subjects and the gallery, and then everyone involved is connected into the broader art field,” Watson explained to A.i.A. The production of each portrait was facilitated by an exchange of some kind, whether it was a commission, trade or sale—an exchange that is “largely symbolic,” as he put it.
As for the sitters’ identities, some viewers will no doubt recognize them on sight or piece them together from the initials given as clues in the titles. Watson won’t reveal any more than that up front. “I do think we attach a lot of value to name recognition, and I wanted to turn this into a game for the viewer,” he said. “If they know or recognize any of the people or artworks depicted, it’s a way of locating and positioning the viewer into the field of art. But with the viewer who does not know what is specifically being depicted, the process of decoding becomes less about prestige and more about looking into the way things are depicted to try to understand the varying relationships and exchanges.”
For an artist to paint his professional circle might seem a bit cynical or wearisome in lesser hands. But the images’ layers of commercial transparency add fresh complexity. Perhaps more important, Watson’s portraits are rendered with such pathos and precision that their human subjects are compelling without the context. To an outsider unaware of who these subjects are, they could just as well be anyone’s circle of acquaintances-a yoga instructor, boss or rich, flamboyant aunt.
The clearest reference point for Watson is the painstakingly refined work of pre-modern portraitists, who painted the nobility of their day on commission. The social landscape has changed in the centuries since, but it hasn’t eradicated class or patronage. As Watson put it, “There was a move from sacral art to court art, which in turn shifted from court art to bourgeois art. Yet the secularization of art left intact the forces of power it always deals with, it only moved them from one sphere to another.”
Adding to the layers, Watson incorporates works by other artists in several of his subjects’ surroundings. If each portrait is rooted in a transaction, it is merely one transaction in an infinite chain.
In C.H. and D.G. (2013), a woman holding a cat stares at us from in front of a piece by Dan Graham depicting a multitude of drawn sex positions. Like several of Watson’s subjects, her eyes are slightly red, as though she may recently have been crying. She is another fellow artist, who also shows at Joe Sheftel, and she works for Graham. But for as firmly as those relationships root her in the painting, her eyes (and the cat’s) are unnerving. She seems to be somewhere else—either a bit vacant or untouchably self-possessed, it is impossible to be certain. Where she got the blotchy, red streaks on her upper right arm—finger marks, maybe—perhaps only the cat knows for sure.
A work by Jutta Koether—a black triangle that seems to hover atop a pink shadow and torn edges, with all the dark, sexual energy that implies—hangs behind a man with an open shirt collar in N.G. and J.K (2012). Koether’s work, which is often understood in terms of networks, is an inside joke; the artist-critic postures in front of it, forming Watson’s punch line.
The paintings call to mind Velázquez, whose Pope Innocent X (1650) so obsessed Francis Bacon. Bacon admired Velázquez’s portraits of 17th-century Spanish royalty for their ability to be “so near to what we call illustration and at the same time so deeply unlock the greatest and deepest things that man can feel,” as he said in a 1962 interview. The same can be said of Watson at his best. The power, force of will and patriarchy frozen in Pope Innocent X reverberate similarly through Watson’s paintings.