Paul Matthews retrospective in Trenton.

A show of figure painting with powerful presence

By Victoria Donohoe

For The Inquirer

Posted on Friday, Mar. 11, 2011

Changeability and quality: They bring tension, excitement, and a crackling vitality to the Paul Matthews retrospective at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie. Spanning the years 1951 to 2011, the show features nearly 70 paintings by this Lambertville artist.


A Superior Show on the Emotional Life

By Edward J. Sozanski

The Philadelphia Inquirer

June 13, 2003

By far the best exhibition around is tucked out if sight in a featureless room at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton.

Paul Matthews of Lambertville, N.J., is a painter of considerable skill and profound insight. But instead of making him the headliner he deserves to be, the museum relegated him to the second floor.

The paintings do contain some frank nudity and some mild eroticism. But their uncompromising examinations of emotional life are a large part of what makes them so strong and so memorable.

Nudity isn't a motif for Matthews, but a way of examining intimate family relationships over several generations.

While he paints (in oil) in a style that effortlessly combines realism and expressionism, he doesn't construct narratives. He re-creates memories, and especially the way the mind constantly travels back and forth along a continuum connecting past and present.

For dramatis personae, he uses himself and his family. Usually the viewer isn't certain whether the scenes depicted exist in real time, in memory or in fantasy. All these possibilities seem equally plausible.

I don't think I've encountered another artist who pulls off this kind of temporal ambiguity with such aplomb, and to such powerful effect.

The 18 paintings re-create a typical life, as if in a time capsule. Viewers encounter birth, old age, death, the loss of a parent, the nuances of marital and filial bonds, and the passing of generations. Art doesn't get more basic than that.

Three canvases that read as a triptych confirm this judgment.

Family Matters depicts a family trio — father, son, wife — in what appears to be a bedroom, aloof from one another. In Ropewalk Road, husband and wife confront each other in a bare room with a view out a window to a river flowing by a wooded bank. And in Erwinna, the woman, clad in her nightgown with a dog for company, stands along in a similar room.

The existential tension in these paintings is almost unbearable. Yet Matthews isn't bleak, like Samuel Beckett, but psychologically penetrating, like Eugene O'Neill.

The exhibition catalog indicates that there's a much grander exhibition concealed in this room. Perhaps another museum will attempt it.