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1995.57_Mathew Jones, Big Painting

Mathew Jones

Big Painting (RIOT # 1: DEAD) 1995
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
4 parts, 300 x 300 cm overall
First Monash University Acquisitive Art Prize 1995
Monash University Collection

Mathew Jones’ synthetic polymer paint on canvas work, Big Painting (RIOT # 1: DEAD), 1995, spreads across four touching panels, two stacked on two. Four letters, glaring red, engulf each of the square panels while blue and green paint circle the perimeters of each letter and fill their holes. The compartmentalised letters press, touch and stack on top of each other in a scene of coupling, proximity and dependence.

It is generative to approach Jones’s painting, and his wider practice, as identifying with queerness, rather than as. With implies relation, solidarity, recognisability, mutual care and experience while importantly creating room for critique, cynicism and subversion through acknowledging nuanced histories, contexts and politics. Jones’s critique focuses on the ways that hetero-patriarchal and conservative values play out in both mainstream society and queer politics. He describes his work as exploring both an ‘allegiance to gay politics and my dissatisfaction with it’.[1] Jones’s practice holds complexity and contradiction. His work holds anger at government inactivity towards AIDS and mourning for those who suffered a premature death because of it. Jones holds these emotions with a sense of criticism of empty gestures of queer inclusion and tolerance, and wariness of the assimilation of queer love, politics and embodiment.

Since the 1960s, in response to gay and trans liberation struggles and the ongoing AIDS epidemic, queer organising, activism, academic discourse and politics has had to reckon with rhetorics of infiltration and contagion that have actively sought to keep queer people socially and physically apart and isolated from each other. Even in moments of separation, isolation and loss, we have had to find ways to stay connected to community. While in relation with each other, the four letters of Big Painting (RIOT # 1: DEAD) are also in conversation with a series of works by other artists. Beginning with American artist Robert Indiana’s Love from 1966, these works share the same aesthetic and design—a four letter word, one individual letter in lower case italics, similar typeface and an overall red, blue and green palette.[2] Indiana’s oil on canvas painting was later made into the polychromed aluminium sculpture (1966–99) that has become a prominent tourist attraction in New York City. On the tilted ‘o’ in Indiana’s work, David Getsy notes, ‘we have no problem reading the word love even though that ‘o’ is not like the ones we’re told are proper. Even though this ‘o’ is a deviation we still accept the ways it contributes to love’.[3] Jones’s work must also be read in relation to the painting AIDS, 1987, by Canadian art collective General Idea; Australian-Chilean artist Juan Davila’s Love, 1988, which references the name for AIDS, SIDA, in Spanish; and the American activist collective Gran Fury’s Riot, 1988, which breaks from the colour palette to use gold, red and black. From LOVE to AIDS and SIDA to RIOT and Jones’s DEAD, these works not only share intimacy through their aesthetic composition but through their shared histories and the ways they responded to ideas of contagion—including that of each other’s practice.

Jones often mimicks signs, images and slogans from gay and AIDS-related publicity campaigns ‘to express some kind of critical distance from them.’[4] He says, ‘My work is contextual in the sense of responding to the physical nature of the space, the history of the space, what other work is being shown at the time’.[5] From the evocative use of titles (here, with the word RIOT in capital letters), to letters and parts of letters, words and parts of words, the presence of language and text in abstract art has a long history of being questioned as being too representational. The presence of language in art questions what is rendered recognisable, perceivable and knowable. Jones explores the ways that queerness is both refuted and appropriated—often both at the same time. Big Painting (RIOT # 1: DEAD) continues to be a site of relation, agitation and refusal in the contemporary.

Spence Messih is an artist living and working on Gadigal land (Sydney, Australia). Their practice speaks broadly to sites of pressure, power structures, materiality and language and more specifically about these things in relation to their own trans experience.


[1] Mathew Jones, quoted in Colin Hood, ‘Exploding Architecture’, RealTime, no. 4, Dec–Jan 1994–95, p. 24.

[2] Interestingly, the first version of Indiana’s Love, made after his break-up with Ellsworth Kelly, spelt a certain other four-letter word that began with ‘F’.

[3] David J. Getsy, ‘The Possibility of Queer Abstraction’, Des Moines Art Center, 10 July 2019, YouTube video, from 24 minutes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSvkKa3OrRM.

[4] Jones, quoted in Hood, RealTime, p. 24.

[5] Ibid.