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{First published in Taos Magazine, August 1993}

The Sad Beauty
At Quast Galleries, Taos, works by Miles Mathis
revive the tradition of realistic figure painting

by Gene Beckwith

In the French film Tous les Matins du Monde (All the Mornings of the World), the baroque cellists St. Colombe and Marais, trying to come up with a reason for their art, can only say, “One must leave a drink for the dead.” The Japanese have a word for this languishment as artistic motivation, this obsession with the passing of time—they call it mono no aware, the sad beauty.  It is this beautiful sadness that inspires the work of Miles Mathis.  

Working in the classical tradition, Mathis is an accomplished draftsman. His handling of paint is tightly modeled, its effects subservient to the illusion of surfaces and textures rendered. “The painting,” he insists, “must be more important than the paint.” His use of chiaroscuro is reminiscent of Caravaggio’s—dramatic and mysterious plays of light at once cloak and reveal. Silent shadows and frank lighting heighten the emotional tenor of the work. Mathis explains, “For me, bright light chases away all depth—whether it is the physical depth of three-dimensionality or, more importantly, the depth of emotions.”

In depicting these emotions, Mathis uncovers remarkable nuances of gaze and gesture, of mood and spirit. His intimate portraits of young women and girls are appealing for their honesty and simplicity. “Most of my work does represent a certain age. You could say my subjects are innocent, yes. But I prefer the adjective ‘ingenuous’. It conveys the idea of a physical and psychological presence that is uncorrupted. It is an innocence that has nothing to do with being, or not being, sexual.”

The beauty and allure of Mathis’ women is subtle but mesmerizing. These faces and figures are not classically idealized archetypes; they are not overtly seductive nor cloyingly sentimental. Through a range of feelings, these portraits finally elicit an uncanny and complex sense of intimacy, involving subject, artist, and viewer. “I often think that I am attracted to a different kind of beauty—a feminine gravitas,” he says. “After all, it is not only men who can have a strong or ‘weighty’ presence. The women I paint are intelligent and possess this intangible or ineffable quality—as if they know something I can never know.”
       Mathis is indefatigable in his pursuit of excellence—he may spend as much time with a charcoal drawing as with an oil painting, for instance. He works in all the traiditonal media, including watercolor and pastel, and he has recently added the sculptural media of terra cotta, bronze, and marble. A trip to Italy in March yielded 900 pounds of Carrara white marble to his inventory. His galleries, he says, can expect some three-dimensional work by Christmas.

 



Mathis is a National Merit Scholar who graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. To pursue a career in fine arts he gave up a full merit scholarship to attend a two-year Masters program in politics and management. He is still committed to his study of art history, art theory, and art education. Currently he is working on a book of art instruction that addresses many issues of art beyond style and technique, including an informed attack on the tenets of Modernism. Mathis writes, for example, “Self-expression and novelty are all that remain of the tools of the modern artist, but no one thinks to ask whether the new ideas being expressed are well-informed, interesting, beautiful, or (heaven forbid) true. Nor does anyone demand that his art which is only self-expression be well-expressed. Much of contemporary expressive painting must be explained verbally (by an agent, dealer, or critic) which doesn’t say much for its expressiveness….
      “The great artists of the past are remembered because they managed to create works of beauty and power while living in a world that was just as crass and illiterate, mercenary and shallow, as ours. They managed this because they recognized, and deeply felt, not only this senselessness, degradation, and squalor, but also, and more strongly, the astounding beauty, complexity, and meaning the world around them.”

As for his connections to the Southwest, Mathis, a Texan, says, “When I was very young, my family used to spend summer vacations in Sipapu, and I’ve never forgotten the smell of the pines, the coolness of the air. Every visit to Taos brings back those memories, but my attraction is not only nostalgic. I could very easily see myself living in the mountains in a few years.”


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