Discovering Abstraction in Cape Cod: Matthew Bielen’s ‘Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay’

Bicycle Fine Art, Feature Article

Matthew Bielen
Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay, 2017
[MB.12]
Acrylic on canvas
Dimensions: 48 x 60 in.
*Currently on view at Profiles at the New York Design Center at 200LEX, 12th floor

For the past five years, Bicycle Fine Art artist Matthew Bielen’s paintings have been almost entirely abstract in nature. While subtle views of seascapes and terrains are always noticeable at first glance, this painting, entitled ‘Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay,’ offers a unique insight to the cape’s storied history. While discussing his process in developing a new piece, Matthew shared that he does not draw or plan out his ideas. However, as he began mapping the surface of this canvas, a whole other story began to reveal itself. Beyond its reverence for lighthouses, Cape Cod’s fascinating history includes numerous sightings of unidentified flying objects. Matthew expresses his interest in this topic, saying, “I’ve always believed in the possibility of life in other galaxies or at the very least, secretive government operations that could explain UFO sightings.” As Matthew began his process of pooling paint and creating the colorful layers, “All I could see was the image of a flying saucer over Cape Cod Bay,” he remarked on art’s ability to imitate life.

Matthew Bielen
Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay, 2017
(Detail 1 of 4)

When Matthew began seriously producing art in his adolescence, his initial interest was in realistic drawing. Those familiar with his current work might find it surprising that Matthew’s first topic of study was the human figure, something that is not apparent in the works he creates today. While his style has developed towards abstraction and conceptual landscape, Matthew continues to draw inspiration from the world around him and his own personal experiences. This detail of ‘Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay’ in particular features visual evidence of this new direction, as the artist inserted a piece of a vintage, hand-drawn map of the Outer Cape that he found on the back of a restaurant menu. Blending reality with abstraction and tying it together by referencing a physical location, Matthew feels that “the winding, crawling roads and highways marked on the map easily lend themselves to the puddles and paint stains of the same quality.” This small detail marks an element of conscious intent in a painting mainly composed according to chance, and helps to ground the painting in reality without detracting from the playful nuance of its abstract nature.

Known mostly for his current body of work, Matthew paints almost entirely in abstraction; however, he attributes his technical prowess to his early undergraduate studies. Whereas many artists actively rebel against figurative work towards the end of their academic careers in favor of more liberal styles of self-expression, Matthew appreciates the time he spent learning about the human form. “Studying the figure academically took me a long way in terms of learning about composition, juxtaposition, negative space, and the marrying of marks,” he notes. Even though he has moved away from depicting the human form, he respects its study as a valuable teaching tool and translates the discipline and techniques learned into his current abstractions. Through the different forms of mark making, whether in paint or other media such as the road map, Matthew appreciates the varying tools and techniques he has attained through his early academic training.

Moving away from his figurative work while in college, Matthew was able to experiment further with other methods of self-expression, laying the groundwork for his later paintings. “When I finally broke away from representational figure work, I was allowed to put my own theory and way of seeing into my work,” he shared. His newfound love of abstraction offered a fresh perspective, which freed Matthew up to better represent his spirit on canvas; something he finds more intrinsic to abstraction than figurative work. In ‘Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay,’ Matthew experiments with material as well as concept.

Matthew Bielen
Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay, 2017
(Detail 2 of 4)

Matthew’s technical process of painting lends to the nature of abstraction. It was in 2012 that he really developed his current method of creating intimate and abstract paintings. Beginning this painting like his other works, Matthew pours pools of colored paint and then layers with white. The inclusion of the road map in this painting alludes to different marks reminiscent to drawing as well as his painting technique. Though Matthew has been painting for many years, he acknowledges that it is still in the medium of drawing that he feels most at home. Also, while he doesn’t plan to return to representing the figure any time soon, he acknowledges that there was a time when abstraction wasn’t on his radar, either–Matthew is willing to remain open to wherever his work takes him.

Matthew approaches his work in a non-traditional manner. As a result of his practice of pouring acrylic paint directly onto his canvases, chance plays a substantial role in the creation of his compositions. “The planning out of my paintings goes only as far as the color palette. The physical act of mixing colors with acrylic medium is the only pre-meditated portion of my process.” In ‘Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay,’ one can see the faint traces of the process, also revealing the subtle landscape of the coast. For Matthew, when creating a piece, it takes anywhere from three days (the minimum drying time) to many months of work for him to be satisfied with a piece. Taking a cue from the Italian master Leonardo Da Vinci, Matthew shared with Bicycle Fine Art that “I could work on a painting for the rest of my life,” relaying his philosophy that a painting is never truly done, only abandoned. In the end, it is for practical reasons that he has to call a painting “finished.” At a certain point, the painting needs to leave his studio and be seen. There is a definite value in letting a piece go, Matthew acknowledges. ”When I feel a sense of relief in my work, I know that it’s finished for me. Also, when I remove myself from a piece and think that someone else could be proud to have created this, then I know that I’ve done my part.”

Matthew Bielen
Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay, 2017
(Detail 3 of 4)

Simultaneously working on multiple pieces, Matthew creates subtly layered compositions in almost anthropomorphic pools of swirling color. Once the colored layers are dry, he comes back to the composition with white paint and “edits out” small sections of these pools. Sometimes the white is thick and covers up the bottom layer completely, like a dominating cloud blocking out the blue sky. Other times, the white is applied as a thin layer, allowing the underlying paint to shine through, but just barely. As shown in this detail image of ‘Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay,’ the use of masking tape allows Matthew to maintain some measure of control, whereas his brush allows him to shape specific forms, revealing the varying textures in the work.

The thoughtfulness Matthew achieves in his process also extends to his creative vision. Of his relationship with the style of abstraction, Matthew remarks: “I’ll keep doing this type of work until it feels unnatural to me, or there’s some type of resistance. There’s almost a code of ethics with art where you can feel when you’re not being authentic. I really believe that if you keep doing what feels right, no matter how desperate it can get, that the right people will see and appreciate your work.” His attention to “authenticity” governs all aspects of Matthew’s work, from conception to technique to creation.

Matthew Bielen
Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay, 2017
(Detail 4 of 4)

Though some of his other paintings are inspired by the New England coast and allude to its landscape, ‘Flying Saucer, Cape Cod’ focuses on the sky. Matthew says “The skies over Cape Cod are alive if you take a moment to look up.” His interest in the UFO and its relation to Cape Cod evokes the work of one of his favorite artists, Budd Hopkins. Hopkins saw a flying saucer on his way to a cocktail party in the 1960’s, inspiring Hopkins’ works and writing career. Matthew had a similar experience where he captured a small white object while taking photos of the night sky over the bay. Open to the idea of extraterrestrial life “after years of seeing strange moving lights high in the atmosphere over the Outer Cape,” Matthew translates his excitement over a possible UFO sighting into ‘Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay.’ In sharing this story, Matthew explains, “I associated the rounded form at the top of the painting with a saucer, releasing a widening beam to the space below.” His current style is particularly suited to the illustration of such an idea, as abstraction need not conform to prescribed reality but rather communicates the artist’s unique truth and life.

Matthew Bielen
Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay, 2017
On view at Profiles at the New York Design Center

Following in the footsteps of the American painter Andrew Wyeth, Matthew Bielen’s works are also characteristically related to their location. Whereas Wyeth became obsessed with depicting scenes from Pennsylvania and Maine, Matthew’s paintings capture the essence of Massachusetts in an abstract sense. “My paintings are intrinsically linked to Massachusetts in that they’re mostly inspired by my experiences living here,” he explains to Bicycle Fine Art, viewing his paintings as representative of his person, opinions, and feelings. ‘Flying Saucer, Cape Cod Bay’ offers intimate insight into an aspect of the cape with which many are unfamiliar, revealing Matthew’s close relationship with that of the north east coast. Because his background is inherent to his work, Matthew continues to use Massachusetts as a base of inspiration. He states that “Even if I were to move somewhere else, like New York City, I don’t think you could take those feelings out of someone.”

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Lisa-Thi Beskar, Art Advisor & Curator