Beyond the Trees Simon Mathers

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11 September – 22 October 2016

‘They were fucking in the grass. Both half believed that they were no longer lying down but standing up and walking as they fucked; towards the end they began to run through tall wet grass. He had the further illusion that others were running towards him.’ (1)

A hot sticky English summer night. I’m crouched low behind a bush. In the near distance, down a country lane, I see a few men surrounding a parked car, headlights on. They are peering into the windows, shaking their fists. They are shaking their fists not in anger but in pleasure, not in the air but in their pants. I step out into the night, the gravel crunching under my step. I’m off to join them, to partake in this rendezvous of sorts. As I get closer I can see that the windows are covered with steam; perspiration, sweat. The other men pay me no attention, or very little. They are concentrating on something else, the car. As I peer through the moisture, the beads of sweat dripping down the windowpane, I see two bodies moving rhythmically. Up down, up down; on and on they go. As my eyes become accustomed to the light I gain focus. I see a man and a woman. She is bent over the backseat of the car and he is giving her a ‘good old rogering’: ‘warm leatherette’ (2). I suddenly realise what’s going on around me. These men peeping in on sweaty, writhing bodies through steamy car windows are the voyeurs and the two inside the car are the exhibitionists. Tonight they are out ‘dogging’. I no longer wish to partake is this sordid affair. I panic and make a run for it, back down the road, back through the trees and eventually back home.

What is ‘dogging’ you may be wondering? In England it means engaging in public sex, usually in car parks, country lanes or any designated ‘dogging hotspot’, while others watch, masturbate and generally have a good time. It’s like watching Internet porn except that you’re really there, either partaking in the action or just being a voyeur — but I suppose that even if you are just watching you are somehow explicitly involved in the scene, for without the voyeur there can be no exhibitionist. And what’s this got to do with dogs? Well, the name could refer to the act of two dogs “doing it” out in the open for everyone to see without a care in the world. Another explanation could be that it derives from ‘taking the dog for a walk’. Imagine a man going out with his dog on a nice summer evening and ‘accidently’ stumbling upon a couple having sex in the bushes. Instead of making haste from the scene, perhaps he chooses to stick around and spy on them from another equally conspicuous bush. But perhaps the couple having sex knows that he’s there watching, in fact that’s precisely what’s turning them on! You can be sure that the next time that man takes his dog for a walk, it will be near to those same bushes.

Although public sex and exhibitionism takes place in a lot of countries, dogging is a somewhat English phenomenon. For me it is synonymous with the car. ‘Dogging hotspots’ are often situated in out of the way places where the only means of getting there is by car. Growing up in a small town in the countryside meant that country lanes, woods, lay-bys and car parks out in the ‘sticks’ were often the sites of these sexual encounters. Sex would often occur inside the car (I could imagine in winter especially) or just close-by. Being of a similar age and also a country boy, I’m sure that Mathers has the same associations around dogging as me.

You may now be thinking, ‘what a bizarre subject to depict.’ But look at the history of painting, at all those Nymphs frolicking in Grecian landscapes and you soon realise that it’s not that weird after all. Beautiful Nymphs or nymphomaniac girls from down the road, what’s the difference? In fact, in most depictions of the idyllic, pastoral utopia, nudity is often prevalent. Usually the scene is one of an orgy with all sexes (including the classic half-man half-goat Pan) getting drunk, playing music and fondling one another. In his contemporary ‘adaptations’ however, Mathers never paints such scenes in their totality; there is never a group of men watching the action unfold. We are just given fragments, glimpses of possibilities. A lonely man atop of his car bonnet, stark bollock naked, just waiting happily for what might happen next. In choosing not to paint everything that one would normally encounter when out dogging, he inadvertently involves us, the viewer, into the scene. We now become the voyeurs looking in on the exhibitionists; we by proxy complete the scene.

To say that dogging is the ‘subject’ of these paintings could be in fact misleading. What Mathers paints are rather the fringes of this sub-culture: the trees, the parts of cars, the faces looking back at you from rear-view mirrors. Yes, there are some that are very explicit such as Car Parking and Casual Spots, but even here the male figure has disintegrated into a mere form no longer recognisable; actually could it be some kind of dog-man? Even his handling of material, the paint itself and his technique, seem to exist on the verge of collapsing; residing somewhere on the edge of illegibility and clarity. The sprayed, slick backgrounds are juxtaposed with thick, gluey paint that lends the works texture and ultimately confuses our ability to read them as flat images. It is the flatness that creates distance in the work and the impasto effect that brings it back to the forefront, into our reality.  In this way the paintings reflect the culture of dogging itself; a group of people that exists on the margins of community and legality, precariously situated at the crossroads of what is deemed to be acceptable or not by society as a whole. Take Not Talking to Strangers but Watching Instead for instance; immediately we are drawn to this figure painted in thick oil paint, a smoking, spectacle wearing, big hat adorning, eccentric old man driving his car fast out of nowhere. But just look beyond to the smooth, seemingly abstract landscape that envelops him, turn your head and then you might begin to see the ordinary countryside scene: the parked car by the side of the cottage, the river slowly flowing along its path. Despite the colourful and playful rendering, there is something sinister to the scene: what is he driving away from, what has he left behind in his wake; and why has the scenery been upended like that?

Mathers’ paintings speak of stories that are to be unravelled by the viewer, and the exhibition as a whole holds an endless potential of narratives for us to imagine. Having begun life in London, the works presented at Canopy have been completed by the artist during his two-week residency in Brussels. Now the scene is set: the trees, the suggestive gazes and what resembles two concreate park picnic benches mangled together to form the shape of car; it’s all here, waiting for us to dream up our own fantasises.

(1) Berger, John. G. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 1972. p. 205
(2) A reference to the song Warm Leatherette by The Normal (1978)

— Richard J. Butler

Simon Mathers (b. 1984, London) lives and works in London. Recent exhibitions include Human Condition at The former Los Angeles Metropolitan Medical Center, Los Angeles; Silleteros at Kinman Gallery, London; Rare Collisions of Purpose at Boetzelaer Nispen Gallery, Amsterdam (all 2016); The Funnies at MOT International, Brussels (2015).