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 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….
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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