The youth of the nation have always possessed an affinity for the life of the American Western cowboy. Boots, spurs, horses, bandanas, and the overall image of the cowboy is something increasingly romanticized and dreamt about as other exciting career paths replace the cowboy as an inspiration.
However, the watercolor images that William Matthews produces in his exhibit, Trespassing, which is newly on display at the Denver Art Museum in the Dietler Gallery of Western Art are timeless. Though the artist is not a cowboy himself, as the title of the show suggests, Matthews is able to engage the audience with the life of a modern cowboy candidly from the perspective of an outsider looking in. Contrary to the ideas held in relation to the nature of life as a cowboy, the artist is able to embody what this lifestyle actually entails without unnecessary romance: hard work, community, and anonymity.
Matthews is a watercolor painter who began his career working in graphic design for Warner Bros. and Capitol Records while living in Los Angeles. After returning to Colorado, Matthews ran a graphic design studio until 1990, when he decided to take on painting as his full-time career. It is evident that the artist is heavily influenced by graphic design through his excellent understanding of composition, use of negative space and attention to detail. Matthews also includes text in some of his most recent work, a technique he hasn’t applied since the early years of his career as a graphic designer.
Neutral brown watercolor paper sets the stage for Matthews’ photorealistic pieces in Trespassing. Each painting takes advantage of this, and is enhanced by the muted shade of the paper. The artist incorporates the paper to create negative space that alludes to hillsides, backgrounds, and even a part of the subject matter at hand, seen in such works as Doctoring (1988). The brown of the paper’s creation of space is a delicate reminder that each piece is a painting crafted with the utmost attention and care, rather than a photograph as one might assume at first glance.
William Matthews was profoundly influenced vy the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. This was his first encounter with real cowboys from the Great Basin, which includes areas in Utah, Idaho, Oregon, California, and a majority of Nevada, who would later become the primary subjects of his paintings. Matthews’ depiction of their daily practices as real-life cowboys allows viewers to understand the immense amount of labor these cowboys exert, along with feelings of struggle, accomplishment, and kinship.
Matthews brings these ideas to life in Branding Arrangement (2014), a piece construed of 35 individual square paintings, each of which illustrate a different aspect of the branding process. A wide variety of subject matter contributes to this piece, an exploration done by the artist of angles, space, and movement. The cowboy hat is an icon seen in many of them, shrouding the face of the man behind. This unifies the piece and suggests that there is a human being underneath every one of the hats. However, each sacrifices his identity for the greater good of the community, seeing that every task is accomplished, every expectation met.
To see more of William Matthews’ work, take a scenic drive up to the Denver Art Museum where his exhibit is beautifully displayed. Matthews’ pieces were just unveiled on Nov. 23 and will remain there until May 17, 2015.