Synaesthetic enigmas of female disposition.
Delving in the disparities of gender identity, London-based artist Mattea Perrotta re-envisions traditional renditions of women across varying degrees of abstraction and figuration. Geometric and sensuous, her compositions examine both collective and personal trauma in an almost restorative search for balance between softness and strength. Having participated in several international residencies and experimented with installation and tapestry, acrylic and oil are the main vehicles through which she explores beauty, mystery and tragedy, layers that she considers inherent to our human existence. Referencing avant-garde cubist and surrealist pioneers such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, her large-scale canvases conciliate historical male depictions of the female figure, deconstructing prevalent notions of erotism by proposing grotesque expressions that reflect the complexity of the characters. Being diagnosed with grapheme-colour synaesthesia, her palettes speak a coded chromatic language that enables her to communicate these intricacies in subtle ways. Previously a swimmer and daughter of a bodybuilder, her fascination with the “bodily vessel we inhabit”, or rather the human anatomy, permeates in her corporeal treatment in both painting and sculpture, mediums which she has recently focused on by developing a series of figure chair compositions that recreate her portrayals, resorting to her own body parts as self-representations that embody physicality. Currently interested in pursuing a career in Art Therapy, her forthcoming plans include bringing various approaches together into one space where she can continue to investigate the femenine enigmas.
You grew up, studied and worked in California for a long time. When you first started travelling for artistic residencies, did your approach fluctuate in order to accommodate the styles prevalent in these new locations? Or did you stick to a more steadfast viewpoint?
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to travel a lot in my early 20’s. Using residencies as a substitute for an MFA taught me how to be adaptable and it mirrored my work, with my approach fluctuating based on the space and what I was working with. Some experiences were more prolific than others, but I learned I can’t be hard on myself. Making art is an ebb and flow, you can’t always be prolific and make a cohesive body of work every time. Bad moments in between good ones happen, the work will look like shit and you won’t understand why. It’s something that has to be done to get to the next step. To answer your question, I did not stick to a steadfast viewpoint at all.
Working with a live model, though not common practice for you, is something you have undertaken before. What was the last work for which you employed this method, and was the poser professionally or personally associated with you? Does your relationship with the sitter affect the work you produce?
Gosh, it’s been ages since I last worked with a live model. I can’t really afford one each time I paint, considering I draw figures daily. In the past, it’s been a professional association, but if it was a personal relationship it would change the way the figure is seen.
Though you have mentioned in the past that you don’t consider yourself a feminist artist, you topple the tradition of the male gaze by applying your own female gaze, which can be read as feminist. Has the way you identify artistically shifted through the years, and would you say you have come to identify as producing art within a feminist framework?
Yes, from my teenage years up through my early 20’s university time, art was a form of therapy to work on my past. Since then, time helped me heal and I’ve found ways to make work that isn’t coming from pain. I used to be a swimmer and constantly surrounded by bodies. Also, my father was a bodybuilder, that’s why I can’t help but be amazed by the human body. Just thinking about this vessel we inhabit during our lifetime leaves me speechless. How beautifully complex is it? I guess it’s been unconsciously ingrained in me to work from the figure. As I’ve gotten older I began appreciating it more and more. Before, I always felt trapped between masculine and feminine narratives. But since I’ve entered my 30’s, being female feels empowering. This framework has given me so much strength and understanding of myself and others. Women have become my muses.
Having authored plenty of works rife with art historical references like ‘Seated Women’, echoing Pablo Picasso, ‘Studies of Lilith’, evocative of Francis Bacon, and ‘Study of my Synesthesia’ inspired by Georges Braque, are you using canonical male artists as a basis from which you choose to deviate with your unorthodox depictions of women, turning the art historical norm on its head?
Yes and no. I find it interesting to reference male artists and change the dialogue with my work. In a way, it’s reclaiming the power from this “historically masculine narrative”. My earlier works attempted at avoiding it, but now it feels natural to work within this framework and shift the conversation back to the female subject from a female gaze.
The series ‘Studies of Lilith i-iv’ portrays the homonymous rebel woman of Hebrew mythology, Adam’s first wife who refused to lie under him. Focusing on her face as opposed to her body, on her intent expression, her psychosynthesis, are you intending to subvert the history of objectification of women, particularly in the context of religious art, by giving Lilith back her agency? If so, why are you interested in depicting this marginal (and marginalised) character?
I believe Lilith was the first feminist, that is why she’s important. We are all subconsciously drawn to marginalised characters and she was someone I was familiar with, but only after my recent readings I fully comprehended her role and impact on early feminism. I’m speaking as if she was a real person, although I’m not religious in the slightest. I am very much drawn to the traditions set within religions and how they are seen or hidden. In terms of how I portrayed her, I didn’t want to paint her body because I felt it would have not been a proper representation of who she was and what she stood for.
How have the books you have been reading in history, literature, poetry and theory, as seen in your studio, shaped your artistic practice? Do you deem it necessary to be well-versed in the humanities in order to produce a layered body of work?
Not at all! I really enjoy reading because it allows me to shut off my brain. I also think watching trash TV is important – it’s good to not take yourself or your work too seriously. Going back to the books, reading in the studio can help my work or my approach to it. But like I said, it’s more escapism if anything.
The titles of your works range from the direct to the poetic. Do you usually come up with a name before or after completing a piece?
It depends. It’s an inadvertent way for me to say how I feel without saying it directly. Most often, I give titles when the work is completed and let the paintings decide for themselves.
What levels of meaning do your poetic titles create as opposed to your descriptive ones, and how do you decide to shift from one to the other? Would you consider the evolution from the former to the latter linear, or is it ever-changing?
Some paintings are more personal than others. For instance, my seated women series are odes to Picasso’s femme assise. Whilst the recent portraits I did for a show in Berlin are personal – the work becomes a vehicle for understanding my needs. I use my art as a way to say how I feel when words fail me. This allows me to be direct, or vulnerable. That’s why my titles can change from poetry to something more descriptive – an ode to/or a study of.
In a 2020 interview for writer Lara Monro’s ‘Words With’, you acknowledged that the lockdown has made you revert back to a more figurative style of painting. Are there any works you created during the pandemic that marked your return to a more mature revisiting of your earlier figurative approach?
The pandemic erased most of my deadlines. This allowed me to slow down, strip back my process and experiment in the studio. Like most others, it was a really important and tough time I had to ask myself what I wanted from my career and after that my work became stronger. Sometimes we can get in a hamster wheel and forget to take a moment to look at the direction we are going in or what we are doing. It’s crucial for me to maintain my integrity, saying no and knowing when to try something new – even if it’s not a “smart move for me”. My paintings and my studio are my entire world. If I cannot be honest with myself here, then I don’t see the point.
Within the last couple of years, you started experimenting with soft sculpture and ‘Self Portrait floating i, ii, iii’ are the only examples you display on your website. Their bodies look soft and small at first, but placed in the installation context, they’re nearly life-size! Are the pieces an homage to Surrealist and soft sculpture pioneer who meticulously studied the female form, Dorothea Tanning?
They aren’t, but there’s definitely a resemblance to hers and Louise Bourgeois’ soft sculptures. If you look at some of my older drawings, I used forms from the sketches and made them into 3d soft pieces. I wanted them to be life-like, so from those forms I had made a series of paintings that were then transposed into the soft bodies. I love working between mediums and materials as it helps me better understand the context of my work.
Installation, painting, sculpture and tapestry are some of the mediums you’ve employed. Is it technically demanding to move between them? If there is something in particular you visualize, do you adapt the technique depending on the concept and ideas you want to express?
I find it very comforting to work within different contexts, it keeps me on my toes and challenged. I’ve always enjoyed seeing art in museums mounted in a non-traditional way. Through installations we can create worlds that allow the viewer to walk through the inner workings of the artist.
What is the decision process that leads to the vagueness, indecipherability and open-endedness of these female forms, and are these characteristics a way to depict a more universal being? Is their red dyed body a reference to menstrual blood, the signalling of an oncoming womanhood? Or a collective female trauma perhaps?
My earlier paintings were certainly more elusive, and I mindfully made them that way. I didn’t want them to be overtly female, white, beautiful or delicate. I wanted them to be seen as enigmas, as a female, yet masculine through the textures and strength of the shapes. The red dye was a reference to a period. I’ll leave it there…
You have been diagnosed with synesthesia, a condition you share with artists Carol Steen, David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky. To what extent would you say this condition affects your work? Do you find it helpful as an artist to be able to associate colours with numbers, or is it a hindrance?
I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia and yes, it’s incredibly helpful! I cheated my way through school because of it. I also have dyslexia, being able to see letters and numbers through colour helps me remember how to spell things or read more easily. Essentially, I’ve created my own language through colour that allows me to communicate my thoughts and vulnerabilities without having to say it, or paint it in a literal context. I’m very sensitive to colour. One of my favourite fellow synaesthetes is Arthur Rimbaud.
Is there a certain understanding, akin to a code, which you assign to your colour combinations in a way that only you can decipher? Do you associate specific colours (your trademark pastels and nudes, for example) with distinct meanings?
It certainly is something only I can translate. That’s why it is so fascinating. Anyone with synaesthesia has a different neurological experience that is uniquely their own. A few of my professors have it and we spoke about our relationship to colour, texture, sound and smell – neither of us had one experience that overlapped.
A lot of your canvases depict a limited space within which the subject can (or rather cannot) move, as if they are about to spill out of the frame. Is this a characteristic that relates to your study of Francis Bacon’s claustrophobic spatial representations in his canvases?
My earlier work was inspired by my time as a swimmer. I wanted to recreate the feeling of being trapped within the pool’s walls, lane lines and the suffocating smell of chlorine. This is why the anthropomorphic forms were always floating within the rigid context of geometric blue lines.
Why do you characterise the people you portray, mostly identifiable as women, grotesque? Is it because their faces and bodies are distorted, or because you paint them as they appear to you, with their strengths and imperfections?
The latter, I paint them as they appear to me. I’m constantly trying to find a balance between my feminine and masculine side; and how to bridge the gaps between my softness and my strength, my knowledge and my insecurities. We’re very complex beings. I like using the word grotesque when describing my paintings because I feel the textures and brush strokes can be quite abrasive at times, but my use of colours and form balances it out. Now, I feel comfortable within myself, but I don’t feel like I will ever fully know myself. I’m constantly evolving, shifting, making mistakes, growing… I also don’t think we can ever truly know anyone?
With your return to the figurative, do you have a plan as to how your portraiture might develop moving forward? Are you going to continue painting indecipherable women, or rather focus on highlighting more familiar figures from history, religion and mythology?
I don’t have a specific plan in terms of what I might develop next in the context of painting. I do however know I want to continue working at bringing together my paintings, sculptures and tapestry into one space. I’m really inspired by how I could introduce this idea and what I can say through different mediums. But I’m not a big planner, it makes me incredibly anxious.
During our studio visit, you remarked that you are interested in art therapy as a way of helping others experience the emotional release that art making makes you feel. Are there any concrete plans for organising a workshop in this field?
I would like to finish my MFA in Art Therapy. I feel very lucky to paint and sell work as a young woman in my 30’s because I know that this wasn’t the norm for women even 30 years ago. I do however feel more inspired by working with children and teenagers within art therapy because it can positively affect someone. There’s nothing more important than mental health right now as the art world can be fucked up. Money becomes the priority over the well being of an artist, cryptocurrencies and NFTs are the rage and good intentions are lost.
Words by Vanessa Murrell