Matt Small has been painting stark, vibrant portraits of young people for years. Combining gestural strokes, a spectrum of colour, piercing focus and found materials, his commitment to amplifying the volume for the voiceless has come to define his practice, and a new set of works for his show Precious is set for viewing at Nelly Duff Gallery this Thursday, September 24th. It comes at a moment that feels particularly poignant: Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, global health concerns, economic fears and discrepancies about how to best take care of each other, and ourselves, are abundant. It’s all very present.
“This show is about our young people,” Small tells me on the phone when we spoke last week. Small feels the weight of these past few months and we discuss in depth how his work is poised to resonant particularly well, but the point he keeps coming back to is that despite the immediacy and intensity of 2020, so much of what he’s concerned with isn’t new – it’s always been there. “We’re at a tipping point,” Small says, “but there’s always sort of a social political reality to this work that I’ve been making. We need to do more than just nod at these subjects, and be part of the solution.”
“Precious revolves around ideas of what we value – what is our value, what are we looking at, and what do we hold dear?” For Small, and for many, the answer to that is our young people and their future. It’s no secret that when it comes to representation for people of colour in the arts, the industry is failing forward. As Small found success in commercial galleries and art fairs like Moniker Art Fair, he saw clearly what was missing – representation. “My work is about giving these kids the respect and time they deserve in real life, demanding it on the canvas or on repurposed pieces of metal. It’s a forever-more.” In looking at his large-scale portraits, one sees possibility, colour, recognizable and soulful features filled in with shapes that have the capacity to change and are boundless. Small’s work asks you to be present in a way that alters and opens a sense of future for more than just ourselves, honing in on the now to give clarity to what could be. Yes, his work resonates now as we face a moment of collective trauma that increases our sense of connection and empathy, but this work, and Small, are part of a much larger conversation that extends before, and beyond, this year.