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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

A brush with nature: Artist Matt Ryder on capturing the UAE's hidden beauty 

The 37-year-old takes us through how he captured changing light to paint colourful, protected UAE landscapes that few people ever see for his new show

 ‘Choppy waters’ is the finalised version of the sketch ‘Study for choppy waters’. Courtesy Matt Ryder
 ‘Choppy waters’ is the finalised version of the sketch ‘Study for choppy waters’. Courtesy Matt Ryder

When you walk around the galleries in Dubai’s hip Alserkal Avenue, you tend to see a lot of bold contemporary art. Challenging conceptual works and large abstract paintings fill white, neon-lit rooms. Matt Ryder’s defiantly traditional landscape and seascape paintings couldn’t be more different, which, in a funny sort of way, makes them the most radical things here. They are skilfully executed and aesthetically pleasing, qualities too often disregarded by the contemporary art world.

“This is the kind of painting I love and I’ve always felt it’s missing from here,” says Ryder, who is largely self-taught. “But globally there has been a big resurgence in representational painting. I think people now want to have something in their homes that they can appreciate and understand.” Which is not to say that the 26 oil paintings in Scape, Ryder’s second solo show, are straightforward – they, too, hold secrets that only reveal themselves over time. But they stimulate us visually, rather than theoretically.

Broadly speaking, Scape is divided into three sections: landscapes, skyscapes, and seascapes. Though the palette for each of these is different, the theme is light and the effect it has on colour. “I wanted colour to run through the show,” says Ryder. “You start with the vibrant yellows of the landscapes, through to the blues and purples of the skyscapes and then out into the greens and darker blues of the seascapes. It opens with something bright, then gets a bit grittier.”

The landscapes, particularly, are transformed by shifting light. In Jebel Hafeet climb, for example, a vibrant blue sky and harsh sun has almost whitewashed some of the boulders, which hum and sparkle; in Jebel Jais early morning light, meanwhile, the rocky mountain is gloomier, more foreboding, even blackened in parts.

 ‘Jebel Jais early morning light’ depicts gloomier mountains. Courtesy Matt Ryder
 ‘Jebel Jais early morning light’ depicts gloomier mountains. Courtesy Matt Ryder

In order to capture these fleeting moments, when the changing light is redefining a scene, Ryder creates rough sketches in oils – no more than splashy representations, really – en plein air. These are often painted incredibly quickly; Ryder tells me that there have been many occasions when he has been driving along, seen a certain light that excites him, pulled over and started painting.

From these sketches, Ryder then paints a much larger canvas back in the studio. Some of these hasty studies are exhibited in Scape, which allows us to better understand Ryder’s techniques. “It’s interesting to show the process,” he says. “These sketches give you a sense of what was really there. I know this is what I was seeing – that’s why I paint outside.”

This is perhaps best illustrated by a pair of seascapes, Choppy waters and Study for choppy waters. The compositions and colours are largely the same, but you can sense an energy in the study that has been subtly sanded away in the more polished final painting. “I did the study in a few hours,” says Ryder. “I didn’t overthink it, I just wanted to get everything down. Some of the brushwork is very loose.” He concludes that there is a rawness, a certain ferocity, in the study that didn’t make it into the final painting.

An artist revealing their method is always a risk, but it pays off spectacularly here. To my mind, Choppy waters, with its iridescent foam and gloopy impasto, is in no way diminished by the study; the two paintings complement each other beautifully and illustrate the different skills required when working en plein air and in the studio. “The studies become standalone pieces of work,” says Ryder.

The artist Matt Ryder captures moments of changing light through rough drawings. Courtesy Matt Ryder
The artist Matt Ryder captures moments of changing light through rough drawings. Courtesy Matt Ryder

Ryder, 37, was born and raised in the United Kingdom, but has been living in the UAE for 12 years. When he arrived, he began working for an HR and recruitment firm, while running a small caricature-painting business on the side. But after being made redundant, he decided to become a full-time artist. It was a trip to Ireland’s wild east coast, however, that piqued Ryder’s interest in landscape painting. “Ireland is so important to me,” he says. “It’s where my passion for outdoor painting comes from.”

Because of his work, Ryder knows better than most the hidden beauty spots in the UAE. He now hopes that Scape will introduce others to the more rugged side of the country that is often forgotten. The landscapes in the exhibition, all of which are of the region, are a distant cry from the busy urban spaces we associate with Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “There are protected areas all around the UAE that nobody sees,” he says. “When you actually get out of the cities, it’s incredible. Ras Al Khaimah is stunning and Fujairah as well.”

 ‘Jebel Hafeet climb’ shows rocks almost whitewashed by a harsh sun. Courtesy Matt Ryder
 ‘Jebel Hafeet climb’ shows rocks almost whitewashed by a harsh sun. Courtesy Matt Ryder

But painting outside in these locations is not without its difficulties. “Flies are an issue and the heat is a major problem. I can only really go out early in the morning and late at night” says Ryder. “The sun comes up and goes down so quickly, you get such a limited amount of time to create the painting.”

And Ryder’s desire to capture nature on canvas has landed him – and his long-suffering wife – in plenty of precarious situations. When Ryder heard that there was a storm due to hit Kite Beach in Dubai, he knew it might create lively conditions for a seascape painting. “I just thought, ‘I’m going to get on a wave,’” he says. “It was so windy and my wife was down there holding everything, so it didn’t blow away. We must have looked like a right pair.”

When it all comes together, though, these obstacles are quickly forgotten. At one point, as we wander around the gallery, we stop in front of Jebel Jais Early morning light. There is a brief silence, while our eyes scan the icy blue sky and brindled rocks. After a moment, Ryder tells me, “It was so hazy that morning, so blue. I just sat there patiently thinking, ‘This is going to clear, this is going to clear.’” He pauses again, before adding: “Then it did. And it was just beautiful.”

Matt Ryder: Scape is at FN Designs, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai until October 20. For more, visit www.fanndesigns.com

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