mon 26/07/2021

Charles Matton: Enclosures, All Visual Arts | reviews, news & interviews

Charles Matton: Enclosures, All Visual Arts

Charles Matton: Enclosures, All Visual Arts

Miniature rooms ask oversize questions of space and beauty

There is nothing new, nor inherently artistic, about making miniature models. Otherwise everyone who's ever stuffed a small ship into a glass bottle would be in the National Gallery. (Yes, Yinka Shonibare's fourth plinth ship-in-a-bottle outside the National Gallery is different.) But the boîtes (boxes/enclosures) of Charles Matton are of a different order entirely: recreations of artists' studios, imaginings of authors' libraries, tiny real rooms and tiny fake rooms. As well as the craft and the beauty, they challenge our very idea of seeing, space, reality.

These are grand claims for what originally started out as a modelling project, with no great artistic intention. Matton, a polytech (the artistic equivalent of a polymath), honed his skills of painting and sculpture to the finest of scales from 1985 until his death in 2008 with these scenes: his rooms have small newspapers, books, playing cards, dollar bills, glasses, bottles, packets of medicine, beds, desks, chairs, easels and even the entire detritus of Francis Bacon's studio (which is visible at full scale in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin). He and an assitant even wove their own finely patterned miniature Persian rugs.


The desire for accuracy - whether in a real or imagined scene - is keen, or obsessive. In A Romantic Collector's Bedroom, the walls are covered with paintings of various styles, which Matton painted himself (to his own designs) in normal size first, then again in miniature. He is not only playing with size but is also parodying or admitting jealousy of his predecessors, who made work of their own. He deals directly with these predecessors in his recreations of their studios (Bacon, Giacometti, Lucian Freud), and while they are popular, and interesting as curios, they do not carry the weight of some of the other pieces here.

The tension in these empty rooms is very much that of Edward Hopper, which Matton admits in Homage to Edward Hopper I: light shines through pale blinds onto a deserted room, where a lonely chair appears to have self-combusted into a pile of dust and struts. The only presence, since humans are rare in Matton's work, is absence, if that's not too pretentious. A lonely moment is caught in Sigmund Freud's Study (Day), a recreation of exactly what it would have looked like on a particular winter's day (Matton had photographic evidence for this, as for much else): a faint light shines onto a desk with miniature Egyptian, Greek and Chinese sculptures. Freud, of course, is nowhere to be seen.

Click on an image to enlarge
  1. Anna Freud's Room (2002)
  2. Babel Library Homage to Borges I (2006)
  3. Library Homage to James Joyce I (2004)
  4. The Narcissistic Fat Lady (2003) featuring Sue from Benefits Supervisor Sleeping by Lucian Freud
  5. A Romantic Collector's Bedroom (2002)
  6. Detail from A Romantic Collector's Bedroom (2002)
  7. Detail from Sigmund Freud's Study (Day) (2002)
  8. Mirrored Cupboards III (two chairs) (1999)


So how does Matton turn these sad scenes into provocative works of art? In some of his earlier boîtes, the viewer simply looks in, but Matton realised that this was too literal an approach. Thus he started to experiment with glass, mirrors and two-way mirrors in varying combinations. For example, in Mirrored Cupboards III (two chairs), the mirror is right in front of you within the box, but why can't you see yourself in it? The glass you are looking through is a two-way mirror, meaning the facing mirror only reflects that mirror. The same happens in Anne Freud's Room; Matton has taken the liberty of putting miniature photos of Sigmund around the mirror's frame.

This playfulness is given freest rein in his imagined libraries of various authors. In Babel Library Homage to Borges I, which starts with Borges's idea of the infinite library, the bookshelves are arranged with mirrors to make it appear that the shelves head off forever. The exactitude of Matton's layout means you are convinced, for a second or longer, that he has built an infinite library within a clearly finite box. (Each tiny book is handmade then hand-painted.)

He does the opposite with Library Homage to James Joyce I, where you seem to be looking at a mirror, because a ladder and newspaper appear to be perfectly reflected. But where does the rest of the library you see come from? It can't be outside of the box in front of you. When you think outside the box (a stupid phrase which in this context acquires some meaning), you realise that he has put two ladders in, two newspapers, and actually built the rest of the library which he wanted you to imagine you were only seeing as a reflection.

All Visual Arts have had an absolute triumph in bringing these boîtes to London


He thus turned reality into a plaything which could be manipulated, misrepresented, mistaken for fiction and then misunderstood as reality. He is an artist whose concerns you could describe as metaphysical and be instantly comprehended, without sacrificing craft for concept. All Visual Arts have had an absolute triumph in bringing these boîtes to London, along with Matton's own photographs (long exposure often makes humans there and not there in them), sculptures, models and maquettes. This is as comprehensive a show as you could hope for and it brings back to light a man who can no longer bask in the reflected glory.

Share this article


While obsessively fascinating, these boxes owe much to Joseph Cornell and Susan Sontag's pioneering recognition . . . . THE APP on javari New York NY

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters