From Meet a NYFA Artist, 19 January 2011.
Hi Matthew! What are some of the ideas or questions which most inspire you at the moment?
This is a tough question to honestly answer as I have a solo show with Heskin Contemporary through January 22. I am still in the process of digesting those works and thinking about what is next for me. I do know that the new work will remain close to some of the themes from this show: still life, animals, landscape and stacking of objects and of course a twisted sense of historical period(s). The one painting I want to do next is the one thing I didn’t do for that show: that is to simply place the horizon line dead center of the canvas. I like to challenge myself this way, find what I am not doing and do it. Allow for that formal decision to dictate the composition and then figure out what goes where. I also found a book of lesser known Aesop’s Fables, and love how simple his titles to these are: Two Crabs. That, the titles first and then the image, could also be the bases for a new body of work.
What do you most need as an artist right now?
That answer is always time. Time to be in and around the work, to get lost in the making of the work and not just the looking. Allowing the world outside you, complex and simple to enter the work through your making it. In the studio, the paintings paint themselves, you just got to stand in front them.
Can you describe your workspace or studio?
For the first time in awhile I am sharing the studio with a good friend, Matt Mahler. We each have half the space. In the past when I had more space, several finished works would be up at once as I worked. Constantly looking at them and thinking about them as I worked on the new piece. Now, the works are stored away in the racks so as not to get paint on them. Instead I have print outs of the finished paintings taped up to help me not repeat myself too much. I work almost always on one painting at a time; because it’s an acrylic paint I don’t have to worry about drying times and I can layer, layer, layer. At the start of the day, I will give myself a mental finishing line for the day, paint the back ground, or this animal, that key, and then your day will be over. In a good day, Market Place acts as the wind down to a long day of painting.
What does the concept of “nature” mean to you?
Because I use so many animals and plants set in a landscape, that term is both a noun and verb. I grew up in rural Michigan and spent many days outside in the woods and cornfields, fishing and watching birds. Nature to me is collecting those thoughts, of warm sunshine and distant worlds and experiencing them at once. It’s also another way to tell a story, one that takes place outside, in a world. Interiors, with their right angles and hard edges are very hard for me to get excited about. They don’t function as back grounds, rather as empty stages. And that’s very sad.
Are you aware of future viewers of your work while you are working? Do you have expectations for their experience(s) in viewing the work?
It’s hard, if not impossible to stay unaware. There was a time, before someone said “I like that” or “I’ll buy these” that those thoughts aren’t even in your head. You’re just doing what you want to do, what you like, because you like it. But once those words are said to you, how can you forget them? What made this piece more attractive then the others? Why did this sell and not those? If you think about these too long, or try to chase them, you’ll drown. For me, I just try to make myself laugh, at least once with each piece. And if you do the same, then I have touched a nerve or passion that can’t be explained in words, just sounds.
How would you say symbolism operates within your work, if at all?
In 2007 I made a conscience choice to select a few objects at first and use them over and over again. By doing so, these objects would start to mean something else entirely. No longer would they just be a stein or a candle, but they would be become an exact object. I wanted to let them do the talking, not me. That being said, there’s times and objects that have built in meanings for me. The animals would often be stands in for my cat and soldiers for myself. An unspoken relationship between the two, unspoken because we didn’t speak the language. But we knew what we were saying. A stein is a stein, but the more I use it, the more it can means.
What other artists or other individuals most influence you?
I tend to stay on this side of the pond, the Hudson River School and luminist painters of the 1860’s are always special to me. Their world was so new, to them, this land so vast and fresh, how to capture that feeling blows my mind. I am also deeply attracted to the paintings of Philip Guston, Brian Calvin and Bendrix Harms among others. Not for how they paint, but for what they paint: stories. One thing all these painters have in common is that use of paint to convey a narrative, one that at times is as big and universal as it is banal.
How has receiving a Fellowship this year (2010) affected you?
It’s a huge honor. I heard the term NYFA as soon as stepped foot here in 2000. Not fully knowing what it means or what they did, I knew enough to apply for it each year. “Send it and forget it” one artist told me, “Until you get your rejection letter and resend it again the next year. Just keeping doing that each year.” That was the best advice I got about the process and that’s what I did each year. Never did I expect to be noticed, but I had to keep trying. Thank you.
From The Old Gold, interview with Jon Lutz, November 2007
In Matthews first series, he worked solely with the bewildered and curious Neanderthal. He often planted a lone caveman wanderer within an honest homage to 19th and 20th Century American landscape painting.
Matthew’s current subject is the soldier. They are the more complex, yet equally ambiguous sons of the early man. Reverse Migration is an early example; check others out here. See below an interview with Matthew…
JL: Can you talk a little about what came before the caveman?
MF: The basis of my work from the last six years has been “historical”. Before the caveman, I was using images from old newspapers and books. I would make sure that I left the picture’s caption out so that the true “story” of the picture was lost. Not knowing my pop culture history, I finished a painting once and showed to a friend, “Oh, James Bond”. I had no idea.
JL: So, how did you stumble upon the caveman and decided to pursue it…why you seemed to have sort of paused with a specific theme for the first time?
MF: I can’t remember why I started painting the cavemen. Thinking back, perhaps it was for the same reason I started painting the soldiers. Both series where inspired by used books I bought after work on my way to the 59th Street subway station back in 2002. The used bookstore on 59th St. has a large table outside its front entrance. Each week they have different genre of book for sale: Cook, Art, Music, etc. One day I walked by and it was Science Books. Flipping through I found one that was about early man and purchased it.
JL: So you might say that the initial attraction was purely esthetic? What made you continue to paint them? Was there any attraction to the fact that were not pop or mass-produced culture image like James Bond? I mean, it’s not often that you pick up a magazine or newspaper and see a picture of a caveman, or a Napoleonic soldier for that matter. These figures are historical and heroic, but also exotic and mysterious. Is this what you mean by escaping cultural baggage?
MF: The caveman attraction could of been purely esthetic. I thought they looked interesting and I felt that I could make them do things that would create an exciting narrative. That’s the same reason I was pulled towards the soldiers. An image that is strange but not too strange.
There are a few reasons why I stopped with the caveman. One night, someone asked me if the paintings where “pre-man” or “post-man”. That blew my mind to the point I was unable to think about the work the same again. I made one more caveman painting after that. It had a crushed beer can in it to give the painting a post-man read. I was also tired of naked hairy, and finally, America went to war and I wanted to use subject matter that spoke of this horror without being in your face. So I went from cultural baggage to historical baggage.
JL: What were some of the other things that you were looking at as sources? Were there direct appropriations from theses sources or more subjective interpretations?
MF: The landscapes that I surround the cavemen in were lifted from the paintings I was handling at an American Art gallery on 57th Street. I studied these paintings up close and became familiar with how they handled paint: Homer, Heade, Bierstadt, and all of the other thousands of lesser known artist from the past. The two plus years I spent there further my art knowledge of that period in a way that no classroom could provide. The cavemen was a way for me to get past the culture baggage of the images.
JL: And the soldiers?
MF: Like the caveman, one day I walked past the bookstore and they had “Military Pamphlets” for sale. Within the pile there was a few that featured Napoleonic soldiers. Their uniforms where funny and ridiculously over-the-top so I bought them. The pamphlets sat in the studio for several months before I used them and started my current body of work.
JL: I’m curious about your attraction to American painting because this is certainly not the most popular genre that a contemporary artist would find themselves attracted to were you ever self-conscious about how the re-use of these precedents might appear? What role does irony or criticism play? Are they really an “honest homage” as I say in the introduction?
MF: My use of American painting was an honest homage. Several of my friends can go on for hours and hours about the great painters of Europe, and for me, I like that work, but it’s a little boring. I am more interested in the bastardizing of those great painters by the earlier Americans. I like the idea too that I am American and am pulling from our country’s history. But the main thing that excites me about this time period is the great weight of sadness that the work has in it. This landscape, so pure and lush, so beautiful, will in less then 100 years be torn up, divided up, and a Civil War will tear apart the country. It’s just one of the most fascinating time periods. It’s before the mass use of photography so all we have are paintings to tell the story.
JL: Some might assume that the sole man refers to yourself Do you find that you began to deal with autobiographical issues? The absence of women also suggests an autobiographical element. Why no cave-woman?
MF: Ah the women question. Honestly, I have trouble painting women. Maybe I get too excited; I painted one this year and she looked like me. I really want to paint nude women. There’s such a long history of that. I have done a few nude males, so I think it would be OK.
JL: To what degree does your everyday life enter into these works?
MF: Everyday is a strong part of my work. I feel that as an artist, the most important thing I do is look. I want my paintings to reference the real world. I have dozens of books in the studio that help me paint plants, animals, oceans, or landscapes with the most detail I can. Autobiographical issues have to be in the work (especially the earlier soldier works), but now they are buried. Now it’s more about this great photo of a stone fence I found. I should use that in a painting.
JL: In general, how do you go about incorporating the relationship between everyday interests (art, music, movies, lit. etc.) and your created, fictional world? Like a Bierstadt landscape, your work is kind of idyllic pastiche where the various elements take on a symbolic character. Are there specific examples where you take directly from real life? How do these appear in translation on the canvas?
MF: I want to bring together elements that make a good painting. It’s formal. I am no longer as interested in the American landscape as I was. Now it’s about finding interesting pictures. This creates European soldiers in front of the Rocky Mountains, next to a flower that grows in South China, with a mushroom that is native to North America, behind a sky that was outside my window that day. It’s a total mash up. The overall visual image needs to be as strong as I can make. The painting in the studio now has a mountain range from Chile in it.
JL: Am I correct that you also began exploring drawing simultaneous with the caveman? How have your drawings developed from the caveman to the soldier? What role does drawing play in you work in general?
MF: Drawing was not important to me for many years. It was something I could do at work so there are a few caveman drawings. I started it again when Shelley Spector asked me if I want to me in show in 2003. Drawing now is like an advance study for a painting. This year I have made only four or five drawings that are successful. I have yet to make a painting out of anyone of them. I love the magic of drawing, how one line can create space, how rubbing the pencil on one side of the line forms space, it’s just so simple and the trace of the artists hand is right there, not hiding behind paint, glazes, or brush.
JL: Can you talk a little about figuration in contemporary painting and how it informed your work (if at all)? Were there painters that your were looking at that might have helped to steer yourself into more detailed, dimensional figuration?
MF: Holly Coulis and Ridley Howard are very important to me. Earlier on, I felt I was somewhere in between them, a little subject matter from Coulis, a little styling from Howard. I enjoy looking at our work now, years down the line and seeing how far we have all grown from that point. Rob Matthews is the other artist whose work is saying what I want to. It’s more autobiographical then mine, but there is a strong narrative, one that is odd but not strange. The use of everyday is the work and how Rob goes about the business of drawing is so unique and exciting. I like to think in the end, it’s the image that is most important to Rob. It carries the story. The act of drawing is an excuse to make the image. I see Jim Nutt as the same way. You can certainly get lost in the great skill he has, but it’s the image that keeps you in front of his painting.
Other current painters that excite me are Brian Calvin, how he uses the figure as an abstract element to tell a story, a story that he might know the beginning or the end, but he nails the middle. Peter Doig for his use of the figure and landscape and how he paints. Alex Katz and Neil Welliver’s paintings from the 60’s and 70’s how that this work is ‘no excuses painting’ Here is what I paint, don’t like it? Find another painter.
When I am in galleries today, I fell a bit of an outsider. I don’t see many artists who are addressing similar issues or painting like I do. Artists such as James Benjamin Franklin and Robyn O’Neil are a few more who do that. I want interesting images, no matter how they are painted: Chris Vasell, Donald Baechler, Carrie Gundersdorf, James Seina, all make me excited to paint when their approach is as far from mine as can be.
Oddly, there’s a current trend of sculpture that is closer to what I want out of paintings. Johnston Foster, Daphne Fitzpatrick, Aaron Spangler, Mike Hein, Lawrence Seward all have the type of narrative and strangeness that is very hard for me to find in contemporary painting.
JL: You have now been working with the soldier for a few years What have you been able to do with them that you may not have been able to do with the caveman? What’s next?
MF: The soldiers have more of a universal appeal. They are not limited by their intelligence like the caveman. I found with the caveman, certain poses or props I placed with them, the work became too much about evolution, something I was uninterested in. With the soldiers, I don’t seem to have problems like that. As far as what is next? Everyone asks that. Right now, I don’t think there is a next. Rather, I want to add another body of work to these paintings. I don’t think I have to close up the soldier shop, I have worked too long and hard and they are finally getting interesting. If it were nude women, that would add a lot to the soldier paintings. Only time will tell.