Art critic Sebastian Smee on the art of Matt Coyle

21 May 2024

Matt Coyle has long been one of Australia’s most original and captivating artists. The work he has been making over the past five-to-ten years convinces me that he is in the midst of a major breakthrough. 

Based in Hobart, Coyle has been making images of almost mind-bending sophistication for more than 30 years. For a long time his medium was pen and ink. Using a language, rooted in photography, of deep shadow and raking artificial light, Coyle used exquisitely honed hatching techniques to compose images of deep oddity and astonishing daring. His compositions were mesmerizing in their use of perspective, their sophisticated compositions and all-round complexity. The imagination informing his pictures seemed to hinge on sites of excavation or disturbing, night-time discovery. Wraith-like strains of narrative pinwheeled out from each picture, but nothing was ever explicit. All was at once mysterious and exact. To look at his drawings was to feel instantly connected to deep veins of uncanniness.

Since about 2016, Coyle has increasingly turned to media other than pen and ink. A series of portraits from 2016-17 in gouache and ink transformed human heads into bewitching, toxic, peaty landscapes reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s “Bogland” – an “unfenced country/…. that keeps crusting between the sights of the sun.” Seen up close, they were constituted by clotted accumulations of encrusted gouache, with dimpled, craquelured surfaces and bitumen shadows. Other Coyle works combine paint with ink and colored pencil. He has also occasionally employed found objects, even making installations from model houses and piles of earth. 

Several more recent paintings in acrylic, which Coyle refers to as “Inner City Landscapes,” have smoother surfaces. But Coyle’s choreography of sharp, shadow-based modelling and flat aerosol spray paint make them ravishingly strange. Using a discarded diorama retrieved from a tip and repeatedly photographed from different angles and in different lighting, these haunted compositions evoke a gutted or bombed-out building. Broken forms are silhouetted against the light, creating new shapes that call out to an imagination made freshly susceptible by colors that seem at once sweet and artificial. The resulting pictures are masterly, with shades of Piranesi, Thomas Demand, Glenn Brown and the Giacometti of “The Palace at 4 a.m.”

Coyle can make the fleshy, tactile sensuality of paint seem either abject and disgusting or (because filtered through photography) distant and affectless. In ways that take the imagination straight back to childhood, he plays suggestively with ambiguities of scale and degrees of reality and artifice. He makes images whose meanings are porous and exposed, surpassingly strange and never exhausted.

Sebastian Smee
Art critic, The Washington Post
June, 2023 

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