PRINT January 2003

Matthew Higgs

THE 2001 TURNER PRIZE WINNER, MARTIN CREED, once said he made art so that he might better communicate with other people, because, ultimately, he wanted to be loved. Creed’s disarmingly honest rationale could equally apply to Mathew Sawyer, a recent graduate of London’s Royal College of Art whose gentle and unassuming, if somewhat melancholy, works have recently been seen in group shows in London and San Francisco. Materially, it has to be said, Sawyer’s art doesn’t add up to much. Almost comically pathetic—often little more than a desultory image accompanied by a brief (and often poorly written) explanatory text—his pieces describe, for the most part, his tragicomic, typically unrequited attempts to make contact with or have his presence acknowledged by others.

An untitled work from 1999 saw Sawyer purchase from the same fruit stall in a South London market a single Granny Smith apple every day for over a month until finally one day the owner of the stall anticipated his request, saying, “One Granny, isn’t it?” On being recognized and accepted within the “community” of the fruitmonger’s regular clientele, Sawyer had accomplished his mission: He belonged. In It’ll All Come Out in the Wash, 1999, Sawyer scribbled fragments of rock lyrics by such emotionally introverted acts as the Velvet Underground, Neil Young, and the Raincoats onto scraps of paper, which he then surreptitiously placed into the pockets or handbags of strangers he encountered in the street or on public transportation, with the vague hope that these messages—“Only love can break your heart”; “Sometimes I feel so happy”; and so on—might somehow resonate with their unwitting recipients.

A more recent work, Someone to Share My Life With, 2002, titled after a track on a Television Personalities album, evolved as Sawyer observed over a period of months his next-door neighbor’s nightly ritual of leaving his shoes outside his apartment door. One evening Sawyer kidnapped the shoes, taking them into his own apartment, where he painted a beautifully rendered swallow on each worn sole. He then carefully replaced the shoes in the hallway before anyone noticed they were gone. His neighbor awoke the next morning only to carry on with his daily routine, seemingly oblivious to Sawyer’s tender intervention.

In an earlier work, from 2000, Sawyer’s desire to be included, to be seen as part of a greater mass or social cause, was expressed by means of a stack of crudely painted wooden placards like those used in political demonstrations. Painted on the face of the outermost sign were the words NO TO BAD THINGS. Unable to decide which cause to support, lacking the confidence to make an independent ethical decision, or simply overwhelmed by the choice of evils to decry, Sawyer sought—out of desperation—to ally himself with all protesters and all causes.

For the last couple of years Sawyer has also been experimenting with songwriting as a kind of quasi– social/sculptural form. With his lo-fi band the Ghosts (imagine “Jealous Guy”–period John Lennon played over the telephone), Sawyer has taken the reluctant step—for someone so evidently shy—of performing his maudlin songs, such as “Haven’t Known Many People” and “I Know That You Love Me,” in public. Like the late Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader, who infected the sometimes sterile terrain of Conceptual art with unabashed emotion, Mathew Sawyer isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. As with the songs of the musicians he clearly adores (e.g., Robert Wyatt and the Television Personalities’ Dan Treacy), Sawyer’s works are at once uncomfortably personal and uncannily universal: After all, doesn’t everybody want to be accepted, remembered, loved (or at least have their existence acknowledged)?

Matthew Higgs, curator at the CCAC Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, recently founded the Oakland Wedge, his second publishing venture. His solo exhibition at Murray Guy, New York, opens this month.