Naked Truth

When Paul Matthews paints from a model, and he is looking at, say, the lips or an eyelid, the model will suddenly touch that part of her face, as if to relieve an itch. This convinces the artist not only that ESP is real, but that what he is trying to touch with his brush is intangible. “The spirit is saying ‘catch me if you can’; and I’m a sucker for the dare,” writes Mr. Matthews in the 230-page catalog to accompany his 60-year retrospective on view at Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum, through April 17.

Sixty years! That’s quite an oeuvre. So large, in fact, that Ellarslie Director Brian Hill has devoted a solo show to Mr. Matthews, the first in the museum’s history. Paul Matthews: Retrospective 1951-2001 is on all three floors of the museum. And if that’s not enough, there’s an overflow exhibit from the retrospective through April 23 at Swan Creek Galleries in Lambertville, where Mr. Matthews has lived with his wife, Lelia, since 1984.

In the past decade, Mr. Matthews has had major exhibits locally at the New Jersey State Museum (2003, focusing on his paintings of his father), at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa. (2009, with a focus on landscapes) and at the former Riverrun Gallery in Lambertville, where he told recent life stories in narrative paintings.

Here, assembled in this retrospective, we see all his themes together, and can appreciate the different styles Mr. Matthews has mastered over the years. “He’s not afraid to be bold with color,” says Mr. Hill. “He can be abstract and realistic (in the same painting). It’s so great to do a show of this magnitude.”

“I’ve been torn between realism and expressionism ever since I started painting, and I try to combine them,” says Mr. Matthews in a phone interview.

In a show like this, we can relive the artist’s youth, beginning with a self-portrait from 1971, when Mr. Matthews was a handsome bright-eyed and bearded young man. We can see one of his earliest paintings, done when he was a freshman at Kenyon College in Ohio, of a Matisse-like tree, or the red brick house in a Trenton backyard from 1954, when Mr. Matthews held a brief stint as copy boy for the Trenton Times. Though done before his training at Cooper Union, these early works hold up well today.

There was a time in his life when Mr. Matthews wanted to be a writer, and so he went to London for a year and a half with his new bride and tried the writing life on for size. But with a father who was editor at Time magazine, Mr. Matthews encountered too much criticism. So, instead, he found his voice as an artist and took a path that made all the difference.

His paintings tell many narratives. The patriarch of the tale is his father, a strong, domineering figure and a workaholic. In one of the paintings, the editor, wearing a starchy business suit, sits at his desk at Time while two naked people stand behind him — a sleepy-eyed little boy and a woman who looks as if she doesn’t know what to do next. These people are not just bereft of their clothing; their souls are exposed. “Anything to get his attention,” says the artist, now in his 70s.

Despite the neglect the son may have suffered, he clearly adores his father. In an essay to a catalog of his portrait work, Mr. Matthews writes: “… I sought him out, pursued him, courted him, attempted to know him, fight him, survive him, love him and, eventually, come to terms with him. I wanted to depict him as honestly as I could…”

Born in Princeton, the younger Mr. Matthews lived here until he was 9 and the family moved to New York City. When Paul was 16, his mother died and he was left to live with his aunt and uncle Marjorie and “Buzz” Cuyler, in the Barracks on Edge Hill Street in Princeton. “It was just vacations and holidays,” says Mr. Matthews, who attended boarding school in Connecticut at the time.

Meanwhile, in London, the elder Mr. Matthews married Martha Gellhorn, a war correspondent and the third (ex) wife of Hemingway. That marriage lasted 10 years. One of Paul Matthews’ writing attempts had been a personal account of Hemingway.

A 1978 portrait of Mr. Matthews’ father shows the older man playing solitaire. In it, Mr. Matthews acknowledges his father’s aloneness in an intimate way.

Perhaps the painting with the largest impact is the one placed in the front hall, “If Not You, Who?” Painted in 1996, it shows an old man riding the Lexington Avenue local. Next to him is a beautiful young woman in a barely-there top, cradling a child’s head in her lap. The 50-by-64-inch canvas has signs at the top of the subway car – a woman in a bikini, a view of the mountains, Smoky the Bear cautioning, “If not you, who!”

Old men and beautiful young women, scantily clad, often with children or pregnant, are recurring motifs for Mr. Matthews. “It’s an old man’s syndrome,” he says, “drawn to younger women, clinging to life.”

“My current paintings are an attempt to record and even resolve the inner emotional conflicts that living my life to this point has produced in me,” writes Mr. Matthews. “I am trying to combine in one painting two opposing elements that tell the truth about me. I have never aspired to ‘cool’ – always ‘hot.’ The result, I supposed, might be called a kind of expressionistic figuration.”

How does Mr. Matthews get his feelings onto the canvas? “With brush and paint,” is the quick response.  “Sometimes I have no idea, and sometimes it comes out of the subconscious – it’s scary and exciting and very mysterious.”

After Mr. Matthews’ mother died of cancer – a major trauma in the lives of the artist and his three brothers – it took many years before he could put those feelings down. “She was far more present in our lives than our father. It was a profound change and took years to assimilate and understand.”

It took Mr. Matthews 10 years to realize he was angry about it. “But who was I angry at? God?” Does he even believe in God? “It’s more that I can’t not believe. Atheists annoy me – they have an arrogance that they know about our origins. It’s not knowable. My idea doesn’t conform to a religious idea.”

Painting helps him process emotions, particularly those that are hard to talk about.

Clouds are another theme that recurs in the artist’s work: crisply painted landscapes or open windows or doors that reveal an outdoor scene, a landscape in the wild. These landscape views hint at Mr. Matthews’ other life.

During two-thirds of the year he lives in Lambertville, where Mr. Matthews mostly paints deep psychological portraits, but the other half year he lives in the Adirondacks and paints dramatic clouds and landscapes. A visitor to the Adirondacks seeing his work exhibited there might never guess that it’s the same artist who paints in Lambertville.

And yet, upon closer study, it is the same artist. “See the symbolism here,” the artist once said, pointing to a phallus-shaped cloud. One can also see the undulating shapes of human figures in the rocks along the Ausable River.

The nudes don’t sell as well, but he can’t paint the landscapes fast enough to keep up with demand. “Everyone wants a cloud painting,” he says. “It’s still a challenge to do a good one, but I want to concentrate on figures in the time I have left.

“Landscapes have an overpowering beauty, dauntingly so,” he continues. “So, while tempting, it’s chutzpah to paint landscapes. I love doing the river ones; I always do them en plein air and it’s such a wonderful experience to be out there on the river, with no one else there besides the occasional fisherman. I think of the spot on the river I’ve painted over and over as my outside studio, with Mergansers or a heron flying right over my head.”

Paul Matthews: Retrospective 1951-2011 is on view at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, 299 Parkside Ave., Cadwalader Park, Trenton, through April 17. 609-989-3632; An overflow show, running concurrently, is at Swan Creek Galleries, 34-36 S. Main St., Lambertville, through April 23. 609-397-4587;

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