EMERGING: Matthew Watson's Regal Portraits Treat Art World Insiders as Nobility

Matthew Watson, "J.S. and A.D.C.," 2013, oil on linen
(Courtesy the Artist and Joe Sheftel Gallery)

EMERGING is a regular column where ARTINFO spotlights an up-and-coming artist.

A recent graduate of Columbia University’s prestigious MFA program, painter Matthew Watson is staking his place in the art world in his first solo show at Joe Sheftel Gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His new series of Renaissance-styled portraits highlight prominent art world figures from his ever-growing social and professional network.

The artist garnered attention and early representation with Upper East Side space Davidson Contemporary on the strength of the intimate portraits of Brooklyn-based, Polish immigrants he displayed in his thesis exhibition last year. Their visible traces of addiction were captured with photographic expertise in oil on copper.

After shows at Work Gallery in Brooklyn, and the Pulse Art Fair in Miami, Watson’s newest paintings in “Commission|Barter|For Sale” continue to showcase his exceptional skills with paint, and his fascination with the aristocratic tradition of oil portraiture. However, the new works focus more on the hierarchical structure of commissioned court paintings – with an art world insider’s bent. Instead of dukes and ladies posed in regalia amidst domestic scenery, his subjects are dealers and fellow artists positioned alongside their personal collections of art. Relationships between artist and subject are subtly defined through his brushwork, as seen in the large smile of the sitter in “B.R.D., A.H., J.C. and A.C.,” (2013), or the relaxed slump in “J.S. and A.D.C.,” (2013) – the latter depicts his own dealer Joe Sheftel.

He told ARTINFO, “An artwork can serve as a positioning tool for its owner, and for me the paintings reflect that. The show is a presentation of my community, but it is also a microcosm that reflects the larger field it participates in.”

Watson negotiates the terms of his commissions before beginning each work, and fluidly collaborates with his subjects to position them within their homes and offices next to their favorite artworks – in a way, mimicking the nature of his own personal relationships with them. “The work always begins with an exchange. This is the continuity between this exhibition and previous works. I have always worked on commissioned portraits, and it is here that the exchange seems most transparent.”

Names like Jutta Koether, Dan Graham, and Alex da Corte appear Watson’s paintings, but it is up to the viewer to distinguish between the seated subject and the author of the artwork they are posed with. “Using someone’s full name as a title would locate them in one step,” he explained, “whereas if I withheld it but provided clues it would challenge the viewer to locate them, and hopefully in the process locate themselves as spectators into the field.”

To see paintings from Matthew Watson’s current exhibition click on the slide show here.