Fan Mail

Fan Mail: Mathew Zefeldt

For this edition of Fan Mail, Mathew Zefeldt of Vallejo, California has been selected from our worthy reader submissions. Two artists are featured each month—the next one could be you! If you would like to be considered, please submit your website link to with ‘Fan Mail’ in the subject line.

Mathew Zefeldt, Before It's Too Late 2.

Dripping paint shows us that paint is there. Love of paint often draws in the painter to deliver impasto effects like icing on a cake. Decorating a cake is not far from Mathew Zelfeldt’s paintings; they contain a vocabulary of elements that are repeated and varied, and he’s created a bunch of delicious things for our consumption. Elements of a painting displayed on a pink background show disparate items in “Things and Stuff”, looking like a ready-to-assemble sculpture. Zefeldt’s images are large, often about his own height, so that the planes are worlds (or windows to another world), filling up the viewer’s space.

Mathew Zefeldt, Things and Stuff.

As a group, the works build a repetoire of characters and events, providing a kind of alternative history like the kind of place found in Flatland, a Victorian-era primer on dimensional perception. Flatland develops the social structure and environment of a universe kind of like ours, but populated by 2-D geometric shapes. Used as a tool to examine its own times through obvious metaphor, the text is still living today as it playfully examines our limited capacity for imagining increasing dimensions of reality.

What are the available dimensions of mind? In remembering a dream, there is a sense that time is layered on itself and people, events, places take on multiple identities. Multiplicity adds meaning that singular identity cannot. Sometimes characters are generalized forms and take on an idealized nature, a simplification that allows for multiple readings. “Small mutliples reveal, all at once, a scope of alternatives, a range of options,” design visionary Edward Tufte says in his book Envisioning Information. Possible worlds are compressed into one; the spectrum is broken apart.

Mathew Zefeldt, Head Face.

There is some repulsion to all these rainbowed compositions. Form is rendered somewhat formless, to disturb the viewer’s preference for perfect gradation in comprehending space. But the effect of light on planes is illustrated eccentrically and this new kind of light is fun to understand. Tufte says “Pure, bright or very strong colors have loud, unbearable effects when they stand unrelieved overlarge areas adjacent to each other…” and that “…signal enhancement through noise reduction can reduce viewer fatigue…” in Envisioning Information. Zefeldt’s tactics seem to run contrary to Tufte’s theories of good design, at least in limiting the palette, but I wonder how Tufte would respond to this work (though design is not visual art, there is essential overlap as they operate on the same sense). Painting that is undulating and disturbing to elegance is part of the content conveyed. There is some bombardment of color in “Head Face” and other paintings that is relieved by the clean edges of form.

Zefeldt’s painting may not be offensive to Tufte. There is a smoothness to Zefeldt’s rainbow palette and a simplicity of form that brings clarity. Tufte notes the capacity for “small spots of intense, saturated color for carrying information” in contrast to a dull background. Though Zefeldt does not bring us such banality, his backgrounds allow for a complex and textural form to be present as the foreground figure. Tufte wants us to “escape flatland” in design, for data to be a rich and complex experience without feeling burdened by detail or attentive to unnecessary elements of design that bother us rather than enrich content.

Mathew Zefeldt, Cube Painting.

Zefeldt describes his “Cube Painting” as a “core sample” from a paint mountain in this video where he explains his forms almost as characters of a fantastic world. In Flatland, the “transient charm” of color became uproarious to social structure and obscured status. “Distinction of sides is intended by Nature to imply distinction of colors” becomes the slogan of new color-culture. The result is that the old colorless ways, the renaissance of the ways of seeing (The Arts of Recognition) that resulted in a robust geometric understanding were obscured by color and began to be lost. And so it is, when a new art comes about, an old art has lost its vitality, context, and meaning.

Our contemporary context is graphic design, graffiti, and photography, displacing the conservatory approach and realism in general. Photography, especially as a means of socialization, has backed away from realism, sensing that you look a lot hotter when the lines of your face take on a chiaroscuro effect or yellowed 70s blur via instagram. Realism is an asset, for example, when you are trying to capture the flight of birds, but abstraction lends itself to a multiplicity of meaning that is essential to art.

We are all permeated by the public arts of graphic communication and advertising and still, the fine artist in his studio might try to depict his unique vision. Zefeldt, instead of getting caught up in personal experience, seeks to pull together chaotic detail into unified structures. It is not inaccessibly unique, but generally luscious, and a fun world to enter.

Mathew Zefeldt is an MFA graduate of University of California, Davis and new Term Assistant Professor of Painting and Drawing at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. In 2012, he had a solo show at Michael Rosenthal Gallery titled Trying to See the Thing in My Head and exhibited in group exhibitions at Marin Museum of Contemporary Art (Novato, CA), Illges Gallery (Columbus, GA), Pro Arts (Oakland, CA), Artifact Gallery, (Davis, CA), and Vermont Studio Center Gallery (Johnson, VT).