by Tessa Zettel

Aaron Aryadharma Matheson
Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight
23 May – 15 June 2024
Liverpool St. Gallery


Then the letting go


Monday mid-morning and we’re at church. It’s a compact old one, on top of a hill in a leafier pocket of Sydney’s inner west. Aaron Aryadharma Matheson is here most days to work on his paintings, slow and effortful. I know this because I have the studio space next door, an identical annex with single arched window and white-painted bricks. Like mine, Matheson’s is a workspace that declares itself unequivocally: jars and tubes of paint, rolled canvases and crumpled rags, a couple of artist monographs holding up a projector, meditation cushions, a worn copy of Emily Dickinson’s verse. Tacked to the walls are studies on paper yet to be translated into larger works.

In a cardboard model of Liverpool St. Gallery perched on a plastic tub, miniature versions of the pieces now on their way to exhibition dance together, telling a watery story. The first we encounter are figurative. At full scale, Dawnies: The Legend of the True Cross reaches by name towards Piero della Francesca’s 15th Century fresco series, its bronzed crowd gathered to witness the glory of Dawn Fraser Baths rather than the miracles of the Holy Wood. In a twin Dawnies: Love Undying, bathers bask in the ennui of another middle-class sun-drenched afternoon. At the waters edge, a muddy brown wraith slouches, still forming, not quite a part of the faintly post-impressionist fugue.

Matheson has had two previous shows at the gallery since being picked up in 2020; this time several canvases are accompanied by their original studies. Painting for him is a kind of unearthing: images arise spontaneously from quick sketches on site, offering clues for larger compositions that then, over months or years, need to be laboriously figured out. Usually kept, his studies are a way of holding onto that process when the paintings are gone. Sharing how they come about brings ambivalence; the artist, like any good arcanist, does not wish to give too much away.

With the tide, breathing space.

There is a lot of space around. Most of the paintings are framed with gaps at the edge and patches of canvas peeping out. The Waves is swirled sunlight flecked and choppy, swimmers bobbing between cloudy grey and emptiness. These pockets of white speak to how the illusion is made but also a host of other things or no-things, from philosopher and mystic Simone Weil’s notion of decreation, to breath itself.

Matheson is a swimmer, committed to daily immersion. Movement supported by water is important and a point of contact with what is beyond oneself. Calliope draws the mythic to a single figure at Clovelly, standing posture echoing Cezanne’s 1885 bather, and before that Rembrandt’s, left leg slightly forward, hands to hips, head tilting down. Her form is half emergence, not of this realm, in parts transparent with what surrounds her. The study from which it derives is one of many Matheson made at this Sydney beach during Covid lockdowns, an intertidal time-space of heightened intimacy. Invoking the Greek muse of epic poetry, said to be the mother of the Sirens, came after she had taken shape larger than life, dripping lines of violet and blue beneath a coolly radiant sun.

Dickinson writes, in one of the artist’s favourite poems: “This is the Hour of Lead – / Remembered, if outlived, / As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow – / First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go”. These lines refract through the exhibition, tracing a flow that pools in The Letting Go—an attempt to address the amorphous space between things, that became instead its own water body­—and seeps back with The Bounty, where the Shoalhaven River blends golden into the hills around it. Getting out of the way is something Matheson has had to (and continues to) learn to do, for his paintings but also existentially. Swimming helps of course, and formal meditation practice, in the studio as much as a shady riverside idyll at Bundanon on Yuin country, alive with multispecies abundance and legacies of extraction and dispossession. If painting is only a silvery surface, something we dream ourselves into, the question becomes what we are prepared to see.

Following colonial pelagic currents, Matheson moved from Cornwall via London to Sydney almost two decades ago. Like many before, he felt the light and warmth of this place, its ‘hour of lead’ sink into and transform his way of experiencing the world. In the next years he would be diagnosed with the neurological condition MS and ordained as a Buddhist. Both increasingly lead towards recognition of impermanence, the flipside of the unimaginably vast ungraspable. One final work, The Immeasurable, is a stripped-back imagined scene that for me entirely unreasonably conjures the dramatic monument to Walter Benjamin on the rocky coast of Portbou, where he died fleeing Nazis. Its title points to a key Buddhist teaching, the Bodhisattva vow: an aspiration to end the suffering of all beings, everywhere. Finding a route from that impossibly infinite promise back to the body, to the present moment, is another way of saying ‘Forever’s gonna start tonight’.

This feels like swimming again, held with gentle resistance.

Adjusting to life with MS has gifted Matheson more tangible awareness that we are none of us ever in control. There are assistants involved to help stretch and move canvases, and he must concentrate when working standing up to avoid a fall. Waiting and being receptive is now everything, and everything takes a lot of time. Potter Edmund de Waal writes that naming a work is “the start of letting it go, making a space to start again”. These things are a practice, what Matheson calls his forever project. It is for Dickinson too, a breath separating spirit and flesh: “I tried to think a lonelier Thing / Than any I had seen – / Some Polar Expiation – An Omen in the Bone / Of Death’s tremendous nearness”.Always and again, then the letting go.

by Tessa Zettel | 2021 | Uncategorized