MABO: the primacy of colour

swallowing it all whole inside a perpetually empty stomach, and got a taste for colour.

(Barbara Bourland, Fake like Me)

Do you see it, what is written;
In the painting lying hidden?
Secret message in the quilt,
Can you find it in this field?

(MABO / Matthias Bork, from The message in the field, 2019)

There’s an idea that MABO (Matthias Bork) has expressed in his works that I want to use as a starting point. This is partly because it’s deceptively simple, but also because it’s a good ‘place to stand’ when experiencing his works (whether in person, as with his exhibition Poetry in Colours last July at the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery at Niagara Artist Centre, or through social media). I remember overhearing this in conversation: Mabo indicated that, when asked that standard question about a ‘favourite colour’, replied that his favourite colour IS colour. I’ll add to that statement with one from Tom Thompson (taken from an excellent twitter feed, Tom Thompson’s Last Spring @TTLastSpring, which shares Thompson’s paintings and journal notes. It also strives to keep alive the genuine mystery of how Thompson died – or was murdered). Thompson’s words: ‘A painting’s power comes from differences of colour working together.’

I’d encountered MABO’s work in a number of exhibition spaces around Niagara (you can see a more detailed list of these at his site, including many in Europe. His biography is also available for your perusal there). A four person show at the Mahtay Cafe and Lounge (including artist Chris Reilly‘s primarily monochromatic abstracts) had a series of paintings by MABO that showcased his very vibrant approach to capturing people in linem form and shape, but all under the umbrella of colour.

From the Art Vision exhibition at Mahtay Cafe and Lounge, 2019.

However, the most recent iteration of his work that I experienced, which was at Niagara Artist Centre (NAC), is the one that immediately comes to mind. There were several works in the space that had both the singular frenetic, almost joyful, use of colour that is familiar to Mabo’s work, but a number of the works also seemed to reference art historical touchstones in painting. Two works brought to mind some of Jasper Johns’ almost formal, geometric works, with letters hinting at a larger concept. The colours bled and mixed together, sometimes gently and softly, other times like soldiers on opposing fronts. The concise text from the exhibition: “Known for his non-conceptual style, displays 20 of his recent original mixed media paintings, collectively entitled  Poetry in Colours. ​ MABO (Matthias Bork), born and educated in Germany, is descended from a family of artists as far back as 1850. A professionally trained baker, pastry chef, chocolatier and food stylist. MABO’s style may be loosely described as Abstract Expressionism, but its fluidity allows for soupçons of surrealism, pointillism and action painting, using a great spectrum of assorted media. ​Matthias Bork’s style is readily recognizable, with a distinct “MABO” identity.”

There’s a sense of the history of painting in MABO’s work: whether an expressionist flavour that is as much Gauguin as Pollock, or how, with the NAC exhibition, some hints of Jasper Johns or Hans Hofman could be detected. To get a touch more subjective than usual, in the decades I’ve written about and spoken with painters, I’ve noticed a tendency among painters with European ‘experiences’ to have a deeper understanding – which appears in their works – of the history of painting. Perhaps this is formed by how when completing my MFA, a fellow student – Eva Gershuni – was from Kiev in the Ukraine [or Kyiv, if you will], and her understanding of ‘modernism’ was completely different than that of some of the ‘other’ painters, who ‘saw’ only Emma Lake and ‘prairie modernism.’ Intersecting with this is that here in Niagara – perhaps because of our satellite role, to Toronto, Buffalo, or other major centres of cultural production, that are distant enough to be appreciated and influential, but not so close as to eclipse independance – I’ve seen many painters who appropriate and amalgamate variant sources into unique works. There’s a line from Frank Auerbach (I’ve been using this COVID isolation to read and research, so be warned) I’ll speak here, too: “Whenever Auerbach speaks of the old masters, he adds another caveat: ‘I could cover three pages with names and I would not exhaust the list. They have all affected me deeply. But although we may be stimulated by works of art we make our pictures from living sensations. The aim of the painting is this: TO CAPTURE A RAW EXPERIENCE FOR ART.” The capitalization is Auerbach, and coming back to MABO’s images, there is an immediacy: many currents have led to this work, but it’s best – it’s ideal – to contemplate it in the here and now. Further speaking in collage, as I like to do, a line from Jackson Pollock is also fitting to Mabo’s work: “Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t meant it as a compliment, but it was. It was a fine compliment. Only he didn’t know it.”

In focusing on Poetry in Colours from the DTMG at NAC, it’s not so much saying it’s the best work of the artist’s I’ve seen – though it IS my favourite experience of his work – but moreso as a good access point for his extensive practice. As well, the title – and the resulting format of the exhibition – are also a good example of MABO’s diverse practice. His own writings – and that of poets who inspire both his image making and work with words – were interspersed with the works, sometimes affirming what you ‘saw’ within them, other times offering gentle – or more firm – nudges towards another aspect of what you were experiencing, suggesting a different, or extended, interaction with the works. There’s an inherent contradiction there, between words and images (one I often strive against, or acknowledge, as a critic). Since MABO’s works have made me consider the history (or histories, edit as you will) of abstraction, another painter whose work and ideas broke intellectual and artistic ground must be quoted: “If one were to ask a painter what he felt about anything, his just response – though he seldom makes it – would be to paint it, and in painting, to find out.” (Robert Motherwell)

There’s strong older external references here, made anew with MABO’s hand: hints of Jasper Johns, with textures and symbols sometimes dominant, sometimes more subtle, emerging from the paint as you stand before the works. Hofman‘s intense use of colour also jumps out at you, holding your eyes, demanding your attention (in both these cases, MABO builds upon what has come before him, unlike the derivative arrogance of someone like Michael Adamson). It’s also intersesting to consider MABO’s work in light of how now, in Niagara, with the Gallery at 13th Street Winery, there’s been opportunities to ‘position’ many regional (I say as a fact, not as it’s so often used as a dismissal) artists within a larger narrative. I was chatting with Matthias recently about the shows there, where you can see large works by Nakamura or Chapman, resplendant in colour and line that expands upon the history of painting, as seen in the works of Saxe or Riopelle.

This sense of ‘history’ in MABO’s work, often in a confrontational relationship with immediacy or contemporaneous experience, is often the source of his aesthetic success. Painting has a rich history, and too often it is ignored, but often the better painters are aware of it, and it suffuses what they themselves make (another fine local artist, Geoff Farnsworth, and I were speaking of portraits from John Singer Sargant to Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida recently, and I see that now, in many of Farnsworth’s works). There’s an idea I return to often, from Solzhenitsyn: dwell on the past, and lose an eye, but forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes. I chose to interpret that not just as an historical warning in a larger sphere, but also in how we make and consume images, that again suggests that it is about seeing and experiencing what is in front of us, in a furious, fulsome explosion of colour and paint.

More of MABO’s art practice can be seen online, both at his own site, Instagram and with a variety of videos documenting his process. All images here are copyright of the artist, and provided by MABO (Matthias Bork), unless from NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) or the author. With the exception of the image from Art Vision, all are from Poetry in Colours, DTMG at NAC, July 2019.