Interview with Mathew Borrett

Line Gallery: How does your own life experience contribute to, or influence, your work? Where do you draw inspiration from?

Mathew Borrett: I grew up in a rural environment, with not a lot of other kids around. We had some woods on the property which bordered on a marsh inhabited by beaver. Of course this made for a wonderful playground. We had a big old timber barn built in 1899. I didn’t fully appreciate how lucky I was to grow up living in such a setting. The only thing was I’m allergic to horses and hay and whatnot, and there was plenty of that around. This meant that during allergy season I would take refuge in my room, safe from pollen and dander and other sniffly stuff.  I couldn’t resist building the odd hay-bale fort, but I didn’t have the self-control to resist rubbing my itchy eyes, which resulted in having to go sooth them with a cold cloth, hay-fort abandoned (these were often elaborate, multi-storied hay-bale forts).

Thankfully my grandmother had supplied me with a large pile of lego over the years. I even had some hand-me-down lego from the 60’s with faded colours and warped plastic. I think I can still remember a rough inventory of all my lego even now. I had it all systematically organized. I built lots of castles and spaceships and sometimes robots. A couple of times I was so proud of my creation that I would grab a pad of graph paper and some markers to draw instructions for how to build it again.

When I wasn’t doing that I would spend a lot of time on my commodore 64, playing video games and making art with it. I was always drawing or building something, exploring the woods, or playing in the barn. Idyllic circumstances to develop my creativity.

Another major source of inspiration is that I have a highly active dream life. At times, I’ve felt like I inhabit a dream world as vast as the physical world around us. In addition to the real house I grew up in, there were countless dream version of that house, some of which were bigger and fancier, and many others that were in some state of ruin. Often there were basements below the basement.

LG:That is really intriguing about your dreams where there is a basement below a basement. Your work definitely reads as imagined worlds – rooms within rooms, endless cities and labyrinthine structures – but I am also drawn to the potential psychological implications of how your work might be interpreted.  How do you hope your work will be read?

MB: I hope that a viewer will be able to put themselves in my spaces. To that end I’ve avoided adding any figures of any kind to inhabit the rooms, so the viewer is free to imagine themselves inhabiting them if they choose. Some people find them claustrophobic, others want to linger. The detail draws in the viewer, though I’ve also seen it repel the odd person. I enjoy the combination of the creepy and the whimsical. Perhaps this boils down to wanting my drawings to be haunted in the same way that my dreams locales often feel haunted. I hesitate to talk about how much dreams inspire my work, since its almost a cliché and boring to listen to, but it can’t be understated. There’s a kind of magic vitality there that’s almost impossible to put into words, and images can only hint at it. So yes, its possible to read a lot into the work psychologically speaking. There are definitely themes of security/insecurity playing out. In some ways, when I did the room series, I started finding them confining and became more interested in open, expansive spaces, though these have not been as compelling to people.


LG: Your drawings are incredibly meticulous. How do you think you came to approach drawing in this way? What is your working process like?

MB: Could just be I’m a bit OC about it. An elaborated nervous habit. A drawing tic.

I suppose there is a paradox in the way I work. On one level I’m always being very deliberate with my lines. On the other hands I’m kind of mindlessly doodling, building up lines and letting details emerge as if I’m examining an imaginary space with a microscope. The only limit is the level of detail possible with any given tool. I can get pretty miniature with 005 fineliner. I find there is something almost psychedelic about it.

Sometimes I’ll plan out a drawing beforehand, and sometimes it grows organically like a doodle, and often somewhere in between. I don’t like to draw directly from life. I see the value in doing it, but find it intellectually boring.


LG: In Sleeping with the Window Open you have included two digital drawings. Can you speak to how these drawings were created?

MB: I basically create digital 3D models for the objects in those drawings. These models can be either simple or extremely complex things in their own right. I treat this stage as sculpture basically, except that it’s virtual. Then I set up lights and set up a virtual camera to render the scene. That’s one aspect. The other is that I slap all sorts of hand-drawn line work on the model like wallpaper. I can build up layers of line work with a semi-mechanical process that mimics what I do by hand while drawing. I can easily spread a hatchwork of lines over large areas which acts as a kind of underdrawing. At this point I could print out the results and draw directly on the print, or draw on it digitally. I can go in and further elaborate areas by hand like a regular drawing, or erase areas, or just leave them be. I use a Wacom cintiq tablet which lets you draw right on the screen, which is much the same experience as working traditionally.

It’s a very powerful tool, but there are pitfalls. It is easy to lose sight of the overall drawing by zooming in and fussing with tiny details that barely show up in the final printed image. It’s like being able to shrink yourself and draw with a tiny little micro-pen. Also, the process is not strictly linear as I’ve just described. As long as I stay in the digital realm I can go back and do more modelling, or slap on more line work wallpaper, patch it in and continue drawing. That too can be dangerous, since when you’re kind of a perfectionist like I am, you could tweak things forever.


LG: What has driven you to expand your practice into the realm of the digital?

MB: I work extensively with digital art tools in the visual fx industry. I’ve been making computer graphics since the days when the process was more about programming than drawing. So I suppose it is only natural that I’ve tried to integrate the computer into my toolset. Part of the motivation is to help speed up what can otherwise be an extremely labourious process when done with regular media. I want to be able to produce much larger ideas that might take a year to draw with a pencil in a theoretically much shorter time. The only problem is that working digitally means I can do bigger more complicated things so I don’t see an increase in output, kind of the same reason why the computer revolution hasn’t led to everyone working three-day-weeks…


LG: What are the differences between working digitally versus working directly with the hand and paper?

MB: The use of the digital poses a set of problems. Part of the benefit is also the problem. Yes, its powerful and you can do amazing things, but at the same time it eliminates many of the constraints that make using traditional media special. There’s no worry of smudging the paper, and you can edit most of what you’ve done easily. It can be tempting to weed out all the imperfections, and perfect things aren’t as much fun. It definitely lends itself to being more conceptual.

It’s easy to get lost in a digital miasma and feel like you don’t have anything tangible to show at the end of a day’s work. It’s very much experimental right now, but I find it compelling enough to keep trying to integrate digital tools into my drawing. Though sometimes, I crave grabbing a big dusty chunk of charcoal to draw with.


LG: Why do you think drawing is important in contemporary art or as a practice?

MB: I suppose most forms of drawing are very immediate, which I think is an important way to channeling essences and ideas. At times I’ve found it very therapeutic, especially when I relax and let myself scribble (which is rare).


LG: Are there any drawers you have been looking at recently? Are there any Canadian drawers we should check out?

MB: I’ve recently been looking at the work of British artist Paul Noble, whose work is very similar to mine in many respects. Beyond that, I honestly haven’t been paying that much attention to the fine-art world lately. I see a lot of visual fx stuff through my job, including concept art. As for Canadian drawers, I enjoy the work of Daphne Gerou, Liv Bonli and Sarah Kernohan. Luke Siemens has done some fun, crazy drawings.


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