Pareidolia, the brain’s tendency to find familiar patterns or images in the visual world, wasn’t always understood as a natural cognitive function: finding a human face in the passing clouds was once considered a sign of losing your mind. Staring at the work of the Haitian-Canadian painter Manuel Mathieu, who lives and works mostly in Montreal, is often like having that instinct teased. What at first appears to be a haunting field of steamrolled, amorphous shapes resolves into images of tenderness or brutality: the melting figure of a mother clutching her child (Rempart, 2018), a man on the brink of public execution by firing squad (Numa, 2017), or President Kennedy’s head blown open across the hood of a limousine (Zapruder/313, 2016). Viewers’ first reactions might be to distrust their senses, and to question whether they’ve invented whatever latent images Mathieu has buried in his canvases. The artist makes paintings about history, memory, identity, and power. And about Haiti, almost always. He looks at his birthplace—its political history, its residual tensions, its traumatized subconscious, its self-imposed amnesia—as a prism through which he interprets the world.
Mathieu was born in 1986 in Port-au-Prince, eight months after uprisings ended a violent thirty-year dictatorship. His maternal grandfather was a colonel in Jean-Claude Duvalier’s regime; several members of his father’s family were among the tens of thousands killed under the successive reigns of Papa Doc and Baby Doc. As a teenager, Mathieu passed the time hanging out with his cousin, the artist Mario Benjamin, who makes ominous portraits of Black faces materializing from the shadows. Benjamin’s house was stuffed with catalogues and back issues of Art in America, in which Mathieu discovered some of his early artistic influences: Bacon, Tuymans, and de Kooning, whom he read about obsessively. He was charmed too by the artistes de la Grande Rue, with whom he hung out at night, as they upcycled the city’s jetsam into sculptures that explore spiritual aspects of Haitian life.
Mathieu’s works spring from an archive of found photographs and JPEGs, but the source images have been annihilated through techniques like scratching, frottage, drawing, and dripping. “I use the structure of the image or subject as a reference, but I naturally drift from it,” he told me in a February phone interview. Once he’s satisfied with whatever he’s made, he mutilates it, abrading the canvas by rubbing and scraping off layers of paint, then reintroducing impastoed snarls of muted color. As a result, these figures, adrift in their anonymous settings, appear to be constantly mutating, in flux. “I only paint what changes me,” Mathieu told the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat last year, during a public conversation in conjunction with the artist’s exhibition at the Power Plant in Toronto. What this means, I think, is that he doesn’t take his subject matter lightly. He is interested, he says, in “narrational voids” from Haiti’s revolutionary history—scenes that he renders with expressionist gestures, planting them in a zone between abstraction and figuration. Are these bodies emerging from the canvas or being erased from it? Are they calling attention to themselves or parrying our gaze?
In 2015, while studying at Goldsmiths in London, Mathieu was hit by a motorbike and nearly killed. He suffered a concussion and a fractured jaw, lost his short-term memory, and had a black eye for eight months. Over time, his injuries healed, but the headaches lingered and his memory never quite snapped back. He began a series of paintings that connected the scars his body still carried with the traumas of his homeland, illuminating how history can continue to disfigure the present if we refuse to confront it. He made a monstrous portrait of Duvalier’s ex-wife, Michèle Bennett, on their $4-million wedding day (Bennett, 2018); another of a Duvalier-era prison sometimes called “Haiti’s Auschwitz” (Fort Dimanche, 2017). Cultural materialists might refer to these moments as residue, fragments of the past that loiter in the present. I think Mathieu, in his numinous way of speaking, would call them “soul wounds.” Art that depicts atrocity often risks spoiling itself with sensationalism, but Mathieu doesn’t try to transcribe reality. He paints the aftermath, interprets the feeling. He says he works in a world of sensations. “The real challenge with trauma,” he tells me, “or the mechanism of not looking at our trauma, is that we lose the tools to face it. And so the colonial agenda continues.”
But trauma isn’t his only focus. When we spoke, he was preparing for an April solo show at Kavi Gupta in Chicago (another is scheduled to open at Matthew Brown in Los Angeles in June). The Chicago show’s theme, he said, is desire, and he’d have liked to name it “How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired,” after a 1989 novel by Dany Laferrière, had the author allowed it. The new title is “Negroland: A Landscape of Desire.” (The apparent reference to critic Margo Jefferson’s book Negroland: A Memoir was accidental.) He started exploring ways of articulating desire during a residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. Experimenting with scorched fabric, he ended up with Resilience: A Landscape of Desire (2020) and Ouroboros (2020), which both include large panels of cotton the artist has burnt and left tattered. “Desire is something that can be very fatal, and, at the same time, it can be very generative,” he says. “I want to talk about our ephemerality, about fucking, about cumming, about birth, about death. It’s important in our experience as Black people that we have a certain elasticity on our existence, and that it isn’t just about our survival.”
This article appears in the May/June 2021 issue, pp. 68–69.