Seascapes are a staple resident of many an art gallery. From Rembrant’s ‘Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ to JW Waterhouse’s ‘Miranda-The Tempest’, artists throughout history have been fascinated with immortalising the waves in their work. Peter Matthews has gone one step further. He doesn’t just draw the sea, he draws in the sea.
Matthews has travelled the coasts of the world, from Chile to Cornwall in search of inspiration for his art. His method is distinctly unusual, incorporating the elements into his creative process. This involves floating in the sea for hours, using pieces of wood to spread paper and canvas, onto which he draws and paints. Once he has returned to shore, his pieces are often laid out on the beach or in rockpools so that nature can continue to work. They are unique and difficult to describe, sometimes resembling maps more than any familiar art, and consist of ink, pencil and charcoal, as well as watery smudges and rust. He explains, “From an artistic point of view, I am interested in taking painting and drawing into new frontiers. My work is an interdisciplinary cross-over between painting, drawing, performance and sculpture. Being in the ocean, experiencing a creative dialogue of making something, is so different to being on dry land in a studio because my immediate world surrounds me in a state of dynamic change.”
“I have always been an outdoors person,” Matthews says. “I have always felt more in tune with life and myself when outside in mountains, beside the water, with nature.” Whilst surfing in Mexico in 2007, he experienced a near death experience, when he was hit by a rogue wave. He remembers the moment as epiphanic and describes being “utterly vulnerable and at the mercy of nature.” It was then that his relationship with the sea changed and he began entering it to paint rather than to surf.
With technology and social media ebbing further and further into our daily lives, Matthews’ art is an attempt to reconnect human with nature: “I am concerned with so much that is happening in the environment now. We are losing our foothold and becoming increasingly detached from the earth.” He adds, “Nowadays artists are making work about the ocean and landscape with a very different motivation than Turner had in his time. Artists are communicating about issues which are unavoidable and very pressing.”
The use of the sea in art has indeed become far more politically charged in recent years, through the use of new and creative mediums. Only last summer, York Gallery welcomed the ‘The Sea is the Limit’ exhibition which explored ideas of migration, dispossession and borders through the use of photography, sculpture, film and visual technology. Further afield, Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Icebergs’ was displayed in a refrigerated room in New York before arriving in Britain, and Lorenzo Quinn created ‘Support’ for the 57thInternational Art Exhibition of the La Biennale di Venezia to draw attention to the sea level rise that threatens the city of Venice.
When I asked which artists inspire and influence Peter Matthews, he responded: “Sometimes I go for some time without looking at any art, in terms of visiting an exhibition or reading about it. Travelling in solitude has the sense of purging oneself of what is sometimes a very fragmentary and fast paced way of living, for instance being bombarded with social media images. But I enjoy the intensity of walking around art fairs like Frieze London, or the romantic quiet reflection of works from the Old Masters somewhere like Tate Britain.”
I can certainly see the method in Matthews’ madness, despite the risks of losing paintings to the waves or catching hypothermia. His finished products are cartographic and delicate; they leave room for interpretation and thought, capturing liminal points between land and sea, human and nature, and his belief that working in the way he does allows him to reach further. “It all just seems to flow more freely,” he agrees.