Coming off Tottenham Court Road, screens, devices, gizmos, you plunge with relief into a street of unexpected, probably miscalculated art galleries, restaurants that change their pitch every time you pass, a pair of narrow, secret alleys, twittens everybody knows, the relief of that, the pub, the slope down into Newman Passage, the opening sequence of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a puddle of bloody neon, awkward stone setts, smokers in doorways; and then out, immediately, into another world, Newman Street. Black leather, chrome, complimentary coffee. Film, television, advertising. Bikers with packages. Phones bleeping. A post-production house, cineContact. There is the usual cheese-grater voice-box; you whisper a name and someone inside hits the buzzer, releases the door. It’s like the clammy interrogation of Soho, reconsidered urgency, loss of nerve. The printed card in my pocket depicts a stack of scarlet container units, a pylon, a purple sky. An invitation to an invisible art manifestation: Lost Memories by Emma Matthews. ‘Very elegant, very Paul Klee,’ the punters say. Rusting English metal, from somewhere down the A13, near Rainham Marshes, rendered as a grid of delicately balanced reds and pinks, with just enough green to cancel the headache.
This, so often, is how it works; synergy, they call it. You scratch my back. Matthews is a film and television editor of reputation: peer-group respect rather than disposable celebrity. She has contributed to some of the better documentaries: James Ellroy, Anita Ekberg, Eric Sykes, watershed BBC2, air-hostesses and desert roads, midnight fodder on Channel 4, the real lost memories. She likes to use old film, degraded archive footage, and to have it reshot on tape, fed into her slim box of tricks, run, over and over, until it reveals its form. The new technology that speeds and simplifies the white-glove days of glue and acetate and celluloid pegged out like razored laundry has changed the nature of the game. The architecture of film has been displaced, but faster is not necessarily easier: it is like knitting with light. Emma Matthews reached the point of wanting to go back to her original training as painter and fine artist. CineContact like showing art, part of the buzz, the mood of the moment in London: intertextuality, pleasure and profit. The tedious limbo of the corridor, the waiting-room, the outer office, is also an opportunity to take in complimentary product. A gallery is anywhere with wall space and a price list. It doesn’t have to be a white cube or a turbine hall, an old chapel or a revamped industrial unit. Corporate operations are generous with their holdings: Jim Dine figures you glimpse from an arcade, secured by thick glass and ever-vigilant surveillance systems, large pieces by major names lost in Edenic atria, pastiches and approximations in side-streets and obscure courtyards. Art is the climate. If you aren’t being shown, walk into Tate Britain and hang your own work on the wall, making sure you have a photographer in attendance.
Photography, so they say, is bereavement. The small Emma Matthews paintings draped along the corridor in cineContact are blotches of unstable colour that breathe and tremble. Many of them are derived from films on which Matthews has worked, frame pulls that catch her quick eye: a road at night, a building, the tail fin of a car blurring against a smudged field. She’s a motorway Palmer factoring elegies to corrupted innocence. The images glow like windows lit from within, a warning light on the dashboard seen through layer after layer of gauze. This is the memory aspect: roads turning into rivers, grafts of fresh colour on a sliver of landscape that would otherwise fade into the fog of amnesia. Matthews, it seems, is keener on luminescence than structure, the burn of red through a mantle of blues and blacks. There is a residual dissatisfaction with the headlong progression of film or tape, the requirement to shape narrative, when, all too often, narrative is redundant. The pull is towards dignifying the moment, poetry not reportage. The artist’s early work, after Wimbledon Art School, was ‘icon-like’ (so she tells me), flat, hieratic portraits built up with washes of glaze, floating colour. Before that, at school, she remembers constructing an idealised, three-dimensional family group: father, mother, three children and dog (‘I was in love with the dog’), from stiff, grey sugar paper.
Now, decorating this post-production house, with its couches, desk, telephones, are these framed memory panels (like production stills from a film nobody has seen). But whose memories are they? Has she visited these places? Or are they known, at one remove, from Matthews’s work as an editor? She adjusts the selected video pull, picks out the detail on which she wants to concentrate, grades the colour and makes her print. She treats the raw image with bathings of oil. There is a PVA primer, then paint, then scratching, erasing, more paint (which bleeds seductively over the edge of the frame). The paintings exhibited in the corridor have broad white margins, mounts, frames: dense colour becomes a peep-hole. Sunlight flashing on pebbles beneath a fast stream. John Clare, in ‘Recollections after a Ramble’, writes of sitting by the banks of a river and thinking: ‘If I tumbled in/I should fall direct to heaven.’ The wet colour is hazy, soft; it does its best to subvert the over-emphatic actuality of the borrowed original. Memories are elective, not involuntary. More like dreams or reveries. Matthews isn’t implicated in the first heat, the accident of being there, but that is of no importance. Remaking memory, she remakes the past. Our truths become her fictions.