For the intrepid art lover on the lookout for something different or unusual in the local art scene, you generally have to be adventurous and get off the beaten path. Emerging artists who have yet to land their first big gallery show have to be creative when looking for walls to hang their work. This is why so much of the best work from young artists in Santa Barbara can be found in places where we go out to dinner, enjoy a glass of wine, or get our morning coffee.
Artist Michael Matheson has fully absorbed this lesson and has taken over two of these spaces simultaneously, with shows up at The French Press on State Street and Municipal Winemakers in the Funk Zone. Matheson’s work is a testament to the value of these alternative spaces in the Santa Barbara art ecosystem. As with so many ambitious area artists, Matheson’s art education began at City College, where he discovered an intense interest in printmaking and spent his time developing experience in a variety of printmaking techniques. From there Matheson moved on to Art Center in Pasadena, where instructors like the Clayton Brothers, Esther Pearl Watson, and Jason Holley encouraged his interest in folk art, Americana, outsider art, and other American iconography.
In The French Press, Matheson has a collection of watercolors that take their aesthetic inspiration from traditional tattoo flash art. These works are primarily black and white with small pops of color, depicting an eclectic mix of botanicals, gemstones, animals, and other ephemera that bring to mind the big-top carnivals of the 1930s but with a contemporary twist. On the opposing wall, there is a couple of mixed media works where Matheson shows off his considerable draftsmanship skills. In each, a meticulously rendered pencil drawing (one a horse’s head, the other an antler) is centered over the top of a stencil from a doily and surrounded by much more roughly drawn compass roses. The juxtaposition of drawing styles here helps to emphasize both the artist’s interest in history and handmade craft that are at the heart of this work. In its entirety, this show represents one of the finest examples of the lowbrow art movement that Santa Barbara has seen in quite some time.
The second helping of Matheson’s work at Municipal Winemakers is a remarkable series of still-life woodblock prints. Here again the artist has brought together his unique mix of traditional craft and specific historical references in a fresh, contemporary package. Most of these pieces feature an ornate, double-handled central vase filled with the same thorned botanicals that can be found in work at The French Press. The intricacy of the geometric designs on these vases is astonishing and masterful. These pieces are installed in the small conference space in the interior of the tasting room, with one very notable exception. In the main room hangs a five-foot-tall print on cloth; the vase here is stuffed with enough flowers to make the great Dutch still-life painters of the 17th century proud. If you needed an excuse to have a glass of wine at Muni, this piece alone is worth the trip.
Both shows will be up through the end of August, and Matheson says he will be curating shows at The French Press for the foreseeable future, so expect interesting things to be found there in the months to come.