By Rachel Kahn
I met Mathew Borrett at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition last month, sitting in a booth surrounded by drawings one could almost literally lose oneself in. Fittingly, Mathew Borrett was awarded Best of Category for Drawing, and had run out of business cards before I got to his booth. He found time to sit with me in his studio and discuss his detailed art in detail. What follows is Part I of the two-part interview.
MONDO: For the sake of the readers who haven’t seen your work before, how would you describe what you do?
Mathew Borrett: Drawing, in pencil and ink, and almost exclusively from my imagination. Typically really obsessively detailed, architectural-type subject matter, based on lots of things: dreams, childhood, or often just whatever I find fascinating and interesting.
MONDO: So, when did you get into art and drawing?
MB: As soon as I could make marks with crayons; since I can remember. Though I never really seriously thought of becoming an artist; I was quite intent on becoming an architect for a long time, which may explain a few things — I guess maybe I’m a frustrated architect. But then I had a roommate in college who was in the architecture program, and he always referred to it as “archi-torture.” So I think maybe I’m happier to be an architect in my imagination. I get to do more exciting projects, I think.
MONDO: You’ve done some illustration work as well as your personal work, right?
MB: Actually that was what I was trained for — I went to OCAD for Illustration.
MONDO: Were you focusing on technical illustration?
MB: No, in some ways I didn’t get back to drawing until after I left school. I think when I went to college for illustration the focus was a lot more on assignments and trying to communicate certain ideas so it became less about what you personally wanted to express. And I experimented a lot with different techniques and didn’t do anything remotely like I do now. I realized afterwards that I didn’t draw anymore for my own enjoyment like I used to — you know the kind of drawing that I would want to be doing in math class in high school, doodling in my notebook or wherever. So I decided to throw out everything that I had been doing up to that point, because I had kind of stagnated, and decided to just start scribbling, and just drawing and doodling, and in some ways I consider the work I do now to be really involved doodles.
MONDO: They definitely make me think of drawings from back in math class, things that just spread out on the page.
MB: Yeah. Ideally I like to draw kind of organically. Sometimes I’ll have a plan, but if I plan too much it feels like I’m just a slave to some idea.
MONDO: Do you work with a grid or a ruler at all?
MB: Um, not really — sometimes, for the larger pieces, I’ll do a very widely spaced grid, but it typically will just fade out while I’m drawing. Even though they look precise, they’re really very kind of loose and wonky all the time, without any precise perspective. This piece, The Hexemeticulator — this is the largest drawing I’ve ever done — it was the most planned. But in such an overarching way that there was a lot of room for play within the idea. And with it, I actually did a little bit of 3-D modelling on a computer to kind of get the shape and perspective because I thought it’d be useful, but I don’t know if it was even necessary. Other drawings I pick a place to start and I just kind of go.
MONDO: There is a very consistent angle to a lot of your work — that’s an exceptional part of it.
MB: Yeah, a very isometric, draftsman-like, removed kind of perspective.
MONDO: So had you studied architecture for a while before going into illustration?
MB: No, not really. I took a couple classes in high school. I do a lot of 3-D graphics, they’ve kind of been part of my day job for a while, so I do think three-dimensionally, and quite literally in my drawings a lot of them are cross-sections of an imagined place.
MONDO: When you’re looking at art or at other things, where do you get your inspiration? What turns your brain on?
MB: Nature. Anything. Lots of things. I love to just go for walks around the city and really look at places. I think we tend to just pass through our surroundings a lot without really paying any attention to them. So I guess my environment, whatever it may be, has a strong influence. Like, I went on a long road trip, a few years ago, down to the southwest U.S., so I just started drawing all these kind of desolate road landscapes and rocks, stuff like that. It seemed like a natural process of whatever I see I process and it finds its way into my drawings.
MONDO: How do you come to your titles?
MB: Either I don’t know what a drawing is about, or I have no idea what I could possibly call it. I often won’t even title a piece, or I like to be playful or quasi-poetic with the names, or hint at some kind of story, like it might be an illustration in a book.
MONDO: So they’re largely after the fact?
MB: Very much so. And often just out of feeling like, “Oh, I guess I should name this,” because people will want to know what the names are. Although it does add another dimension to it.
MONDO: Some change very drastically upon reading the title. There’s a sense of anonymity to a lot of it, especially your room drawings, that really lends itself to that kind of titling and that kind of reading.
MB: I can kind of be mysterious and put any title I want, really.
MONDO: When I look at your art, I start seeing references to a lot of different kinds of theory, like thought theory — do you put that there? Or do you trip over that sometimes?
MB: I do. I don’t really consciously try to express philosophical thoughts with the work — it just kind of naturally pops into my head with it. I haven’t really read a lot of philosophy, though I did read a book called The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard — that was a really cool book. I think I’ve always had a strong sense of how a place feels, especially as a kid. And I don’t so much now, but I used to have a dream life that at times felt more extensive, somehow, than my waking life. I would see things far more vividly in dreams than through my eyes when I was awake. I often try to capture those sorts of feelings, where I feel like a place in a dream is a living thing somehow or that a forest or a city’s got some kind of consciousness to it.
MONDO: Okay, let’s go into materials for a minute — do you have a favourite pencil, a favourite kind of paper?
MB: Lately I’ve been drawing with these technical pencils (just HB technical pencils, partly because I don’t have to sharpen them) so any paper that accepts pencil nicely seems to work. I’ve been working on illustration board recently, because I like something a little rigid, and the ink drawings, the older ones, I was doing on printmaking paper. I’ve gotten to the point where I like a setup where I can just walk into the studio, sit down, and start working right away without doing a lot of preparation. Leading up to the Toronto Outdoor show I started working on this piece here in pen and ink, it was a little bit slow and laborious and it wasn’t working for me, so I kind of abandoned this when it was 90 percent finished. I will get back to it, but I switched to pencil, because pencil just feels so natural. I don’t feel any pressure around working with it, it’s very forgiving, I can erase things if I need to, whereas with something like pen, there’s really a level of anxiety that goes along with it, because you kind of have to roll with it if you mess up.
MONDO: Do you do a lot of under-drawing?
MB: Yeah, I kind of do it in bits and pieces, in keeping with letting things grow like doodles. I’ll kind of sketch ahead with a lighter pencil, and just plan out a little bit ahead of time, and then sort of fill it in with detail. With The Hexemeticulator I had a very broad idea and I knew what the shapes were — it’s quite different than the other ones, it’s more designed.
MONDO: The Hexemeticulator is really surreal to look at in person. When you see it online you see the details and you think, “Oh it must be huge!” — and it is big — but it seems completely impossible that you made all those tiny little marks.
MB: Yeah, I think in the execution of the pieces, I have to keep it interesting trying to make different kinds of marks or really playing with different kinds of lines, and that got to an extreme in this piece because I think I did hours and hours and hours of pointillism in the sandy area. I kind of played with it, but it was pretty crazy. So to really have some fun and challenge myself I had these two little lines coming down here and basically except for the little floating bits there is one continuous line that I basically worked around each side until they connect down underneath. Kind of crazy, but fun!
MONDO: I was going to ask if you had fun.
MB: I do! Well, I do and I don’t. Some pieces are a struggle! Working on one for the Toronto Outdoor, I really struggled with it. I kept thinking “Oh, this is terrible, what am I doing this for, this is so laborious,” and I wasn’t having fun. So a lot of it is trying to keep it fun within the framework of something that’s going to take hours and hours and hours to finish.
MONDO: You have an incredible precision; have you always taken this approach or is it something you kind of grew into?
MB: I think it comes naturally to me. It doesn’t feel like hard work to be precise and detailed at all. I find it hard to be loose and leave something alone, and I admire artists who can dash off paintings that have a lot of energy to them and look good.
MONDO: You’re designing spaces, and they’re spaces that, especially in terms of the perspective, feel very real, very believable, and very tactile. Is that something that you look for when you look at art?
MB: Yeah, absolutely. If I see a painting at a gallery one of the first things I do is go right up close and look at the fine-grain details, and if I don’t see any detail on a certain level of magnification I lose interest, somehow. An overall image can keep my attention for a certain amount of time, but I like to be able to fall into something, which is why I get a lot of inspiration from Nature. You know it’s just got layer upon layer of detail; it just keeps going and going and it only stops when you can’t see any farther, and you can get a magnifying glass and look even closer, and there’s just worlds within worlds within worlds.
MONDO: When I saw your work at the Toronto Outdoor the first thing that came to mind were some Borges short stories I’d read where he writes about the idea of the infinite. I think that’s something I see in your work. Do you think about the infinite a lot?
MB: Not really, no. It’s just something that I feel is a reality. I’m glad that I grew up in the country actually, in a place where you can actually see the stars. It’s something I really miss — and I forget about — living in the city. These ideas of the infinite, I don’t really feel they’re my own thoughts; I do get this feeling when I’m working on a piece or coming up with ideas that I’m kind of channelling something. I can’t explain it any further.
MONDO: That kind of describes the spontaneous process.
MB: Yeah, it’s something contained within that. The Hexemeticulator, for example, I had three weeks or four weeks before a group show and had to do a piece for it and I was kind of stuck, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I knew I wanted to do some kind of interior or cave-like thing, and I was in my old studio here down the hall, and I was having a nap, just dozing on a couch, and literally, that whole idea just kind of popped into my head all at once — in outline. I guess at the time I was looking for ways to integrate a lot of different ideas. I don’t have any examples here, but for the work that I used to do, I used to paint on plywood. I did these very iconic shapes — basically that whole cored-out shape in The Hexemeticulator; that shape exactly, now that I think of it — and I would do these very geometric kind of pieces, but I had totally dropped that, and so this piece was kind of a way to integrate my drawing, which I’d started, and those more overarching geometric kind of ideas, as well as the designing using different tools.
To be continued… please check back for Part II next week.