Meet Montreal artist Manuel Mathieu

The Haitian-born painter on finding a niche between the abstract and the real.

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Detail from Anonymous Birthday Girl by Manuel Mathieu

One of Montreal’s rising young artists, Haitian-born painter Manuel Mathieu, has recently returned to his adopted city after a stint in London, where he spent the past few years earning an MFA from the prestigious Goldsmiths College. In addition to his work there, Mathieu has recently exhibited in solo and group shows in Paris, New York, Miami, Brussels and Montreal.

His paintings, often massive in size, are characterized by a sense of tension between abstraction and reality, with the immediate impression made by his striking lines and colour palettes giving way to surreal and emotionally challenging glimpses of human and animal faces and bodies.

“My paintings keep transforming the perception we have of them as we stay with them a bit longer,” Mathieu says of his work. “The abstracted elements start to relate what we as subjects can read in them and different pareidolia phenomena [the mind recognizing familiar patterns — such as faces — in places where none exist] start to activate in the layers between the defined and undefined.”

Mathieu knows a thing or two about transformations. He began to explore painting and installations as a teen growing up in an artistic family in Haiti. The experiences of forging his identity as a black, Caribbean man across very different locales has informed his artistic practice as he explores themes of identity, memory and existential irony.

“I turn myself to history and the power structures that are trying to define me,” Mathieu explains. “Making work about the world around me is a way to get closer to understanding it. I experience knowledge through art like a dust of freedom. My work informs me about the world and plays a big role in how I understand myself.”

Manuel Mathieu, self portrait
Manuel Mathieu, self portrait

After a traumatic injury in 2015 that nearly cost Mathieu his life, his approach to art changed and he embarked on an ambitious series called One Future, addressing the painful history of Haiti’s suffering under the Duvalier regime — an era that ended when a popular uprising ousted the dictator in 1986, the year Mathieu was born.

“When I got back in the studio after I almost died, I asked myself ‘What if this was my last project, what would it be?’ This attitude generated my show One Future.

“I try to give shape to the transformational. I am interested in this state of forever becoming. When it comes to my subjects, they are in a perpetual state of becoming, fighting not to become their environment or being swallowed by its abyss.”

For Mathieu, in life as well as in his painting techniques, this means finding those elements that can survive chaos by adapting to new realities.

“I deal with found images like structures,” he explains. “I destroy them and through different techniques like scratching and frottage, I try to make them reappear again. In a playful way like a thaumatrope [a toy that produces an optical illusion], I alter the relationship between the subject and his environment.”

Since his return to Montreal, Mathieu has been keeping busy in the studio with tentative plans to exhibit work in this month’s Papier Art Fair at Arsenal, plus shows scheduled in Brussels and London.

Although it’s been a jet-setting few years for Mathieu, he’s happy to hang his hat in Montreal for the foreseeable future.

“I am in Montreal for a while,” he laughs. “It’s dead cheap to produce work here.” ■

Manuel Mathieu’s work appears as part of the Papier Art Fair at Arsenal (2020 William, Division Gallery booth), April 21–23