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2008 - 2015

NeverNeverLand is the title for a body of work exploring children’s memorials.


One dictionary definition of Neverneverland is a utopian dreamland; this could refer to an idyllic afterlife one might expect and wish for dead children. This utopian spirit/next world is embodied physically in the memorials consisting of toys, cuddly bears, candles, cards and so on.


Using the ideas and origins of Peter Pan and essentially the Lost Boys, NeverNeverLand is a place somewhere between heaven and earth. The Lost Boys are children who have fallen out of their pram and if they are not claimed in seven days they are sent to the Never Land forever and do not grow old. The Lost Boys are a simple metaphor for dead children, epitomising the idea that all children who die young will invariably remain a child regardless of time passing.


Through the fixed and motionless images of painting I aim to represent the child’s changeless state. Although in contrast to this changeless state, Memorials have a sense of transience and entropy. I present the child’s memorial using a shifting painted language where natural weathering and deterioration are mimicked through use of paint.


The painting is devised in relation to the Memorials own characteristics i.e. toys, colours, composition etc. in a bid to individualise and bring a sense of personality portraying the child.


The paintings subject, characteristics and composition create an indefinite categorisation sitting somewhere between portraiture, still life and Landscape. This indefinite categorisation references the indeterminate nature and difficulty with accepting a child’s death.


The aim of the painting is to capture an intimate appreciation of the memorial, expressing an otherworldly yet beautiful found strangeness, akin to a forgotten memory. The painting celebrates the universalising truth that is deeply ingrained in all people and cultures; the power of human connection.

Matthew Atkinson: Subsisting and Insisting


Matthew Atkinson’s current work is a continuation of his extensive exploration into entropy, a condition that is exemplified by Nigel Cooke (an artist who influences his practice), as occurring when:


                  …human constructs and natural processes have collapsed into each other through neglect or other kinds of changes.


Atkinson identifies this cultural-natural ambivalence, as at its most precarious/challenging when we experience it under our feet at gravesides and reflected in the ageing processes of the manmade-floral assemblages that are placed in front of tombstones.


Atkinson’s paintings open up a dialogue that addresses the ideology behind the construction of child graveside shrines: a dialectic that is often prevented from occurring because of the abrasive words ‘death’ and ‘violence’. This is also compounded upon in regards to the death of the young who tend to be considered by society, as having been taken before their time. The graves depicted in Atkinson’s paintings are described by the artist, as denoting that the children are subsisting through their parent’s refusal to except their demise. The objects on the graves become an extension of the child, a trace of their former life and one that insists in creating a perpetual state of melancholy. However, in some cases the burial sites have become monuments and the child commemorated precisely so they could be mourned. Nature has taken its toll on many of these unvisited or untended graves (due to the parents’ death, old age or acceptance) and the manmade assemblage of (often) plastic objects and teddy bears look forlorn and weather-beaten in the paintings. The condition of commemorating in order to avoid confrontation with death is therefore, juxtaposed with those graves that exist precisely to insist eternally. The result of this is paradoxical, as the graves that are less maintained or dilapidated seem to be inscribed on the mind for longer: they seem to insist that the observer should take a responsibility for the child’s remembrance. 

This collective guilt and responsibility is epitomized in the tragic case of, Baby P: a child whose domestic injuries were not acted upon by social services, a failure that ultimately resulted in his death. The site where Baby P’s ashes were dispersed by his biological father became amassed with childhood memorabilia. The public responded with a sense of guilt, perhaps procured by the knowledge that their society had not protected this child, combined with the self-reproach that they are living on when one of their young is not. It is a sense of helplessness that hesitates to confront the main issue of our own responses to death and the need to relieve the weight of responsibility from our shoulders.     


In recognition of this symbolic reaction to death, Atkinson employs the use of children’s bed sheets and paints over the top of them: in order to create a layered effect in which the background is always insisting upon his interpretive brush strokes. The sheets are selected to signify the ideological nature of the ‘Disneyfied’ shrines and the mourners’ subjective message that the children are merely sleeping. This notion of subsisting is also apparent in the romantic literature that inspires Atkinson’s work:


 ‘Between two worlds life hovers like a star’ (George Gordon Byron)


The title for the series of paintings, Never Never Land echoes this notion of virtual existence, as it infers the childhood story of Peter Pan, who along with his ‘Lost Boys’ lives forever. However, it simultaneously implicates the darker realization of this ideology, through the title’s link with Michael Jackson’s notorious fairground. A site of controversy that is read, as being either a place of violence or an ideological environment created by Jackson in order to recapture his ‘Lost Boy’, his youth. 


This ambivalence is continued through the contents of the graves that Atkinson chooses to represent. Many of the graves are surrounded by childhood memorabilia, fairies and cherubs etc. that have no religious content. However, in one of his paintings Atkinson depicts a teddy that the mourners have tied to a cross. This in contrast has a direct correlation with the image of Christ on the cross and symbolizes the wish for the departed to have gone to a better place. The eerie recognition of a families grapple for spiritual comfort is also highlighted in Atkinson’s silk paintings. The silk is deployed as a translucent, fragile skin that invokes the vulnerable and temporal nature of life. Behind the silk screen you can just make out the wooden cross structure of the stretcher, which Atkinson has simultaneously concealed and revealed, in order to hint at the spiritual hope that offers and haunts many grievers.


These systems of veiling and exposing are also at play in the noisy surface abstraction that you first encounter on viewing the paintings. The series of works are visually bombarding and the set of ‘Disneyfied’ paintings challenge us to read their components against the backdrop of the bed sheets. However, Atkinson describes this as a strategic method that requires the viewer to contemplate the works in order for the components to reveal themselves: a process that perhaps reveals more about the viewer than the subject matter itself. It highlights the limits of human perception and empathy, which are typified in Graham Harman’s theorizing of Heidegger’s Tool Analysis. Harman describes that every entity (object, animal or human) is experienced by humans, as either a tool or broken tool.  Strangers mainly appear to us as tools, as they are synonymous with and exist within the background of the wider network of things. Members of our family or friendship groups appear to us as broken tools, for we see them when they break down (vulnerable, emotional and therefore identifiable) and they become the co-ordinates that we use in order to navigate ourselves through the wider matrix of systems and entities. Perhaps the mourners are conscious of this limited perception and this is what triggers the creation of their often dramatic child memorials. They do not want their tragedy to blur in with the everyday milieu but request people to recognize that they are a broken tool: vulnerable emotional and identifiable. In recognition of this, each of Atkinson’s canvases represents an individual grave and encourages the viewer to empathize with the child and his/her family. But when the series are experienced together they hint at the visual competitiveness that occurs within the mass grave sites.


The stretches that Atkinson works on are structured to be at the height of an adult, a sobering reflection that the west expects a child to reach maturity and a life-expectancy that is coded into western society precisely because it is privileged in its technological and welfare advances. It is perhaps this recognition that the children were cheated, which exposes the value we put on certain lives. In light of this, Atkinson’s paintings appear allegorical and are actually revealing the underside of this belief: those lives that aren’t commemorated.  Judith Butler highlights that the ability to commemorate the dead is a site of politics; pointing out that Afghan-American citizens were refused the right to place obituaries’ of their overseas relatives in American newspapers. This inability to commemorate or mourn causes melancholia but instead of restricting this emotion and vulnerability Butler asks us to utilize and implement it, in order to create a strong ethical conscience for others. This is because to:


         …foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration is to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way. (Judith Butler)


Atkinson’s eerily constructed and ambiguously agnostic paintings, challenge us to reflect upon and enter into a dialogue concerning our universal vulnerability and empathy: rather than to find ways to deflect and postpone it.

By Kirsten Cooke

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