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Interview: Inspiration and Art Making

Here's a reprint of an interview originally done for Writeca magazine in Rome.

Pacific Dream Floating Painting by Matt Story

Matt Story Pacific Dream Floating oil on panel 60 x 40 inches

1) Matt, where do you find inspiration that helps you creating such spectacular pieces of art?

Thanks, Davide, and thanks for taking this time. I’m flattered to be a part of it.

My inspiration has always been the Great Masters. I wanted my life to be related to that historical discourse of painting in some way and to further it in my own life. I remember standing at the Getty in front of one of Titian’s Penitent Magdalene’s, as a boy, and thinking, nothing could be more worthy of a life than to learn to create even one thing as beautiful and moving as this. To strive to emulate the tremendous skill and virtuosity of past painters is hugely inspiring.

On a more specific level, I’m inspired by classical forms and putting them in modern settings, to depict extreme lighting conditions that are new to painting, and in some way to blur the line between photorealism and impressionism.

2) In regards to your underwater paintings: Why water? Does water have a specific meaning to you? How did that idea come up?

Water is an amazing metaphor for the deeper self. When I paint a woman suspended under water, I see her as gliding through her own self awareness. Her movement is a journey through her own life, her self. Many of my images depict the body of water fading off behind and below the figure into a gradating darkness, into “the abyss.” Surely the depth or bottom of it is death. But she floats always peacefully toward the surface, toward the light and the air—not unaware of, or ignoring the dark, but enjoying the buoyancy of her life despite it. Each “diving down” is a foray into the deeper self, with its risks and fears, and each emergence is a re-birth, a cleansing, a baptism.

But water also has a fun playful side. We all share those memories of fun and relaxing summers at beaches and pools, immersed in joy. Our first sensations occurred to us while floating in a warm, nurturing maternal pool too, so the similes are complex.

And on a technical level, painting underwater scenes is a perfect setting for painting the classical, female form. As you know, the female nude a fundamental subject of figurative art and goes back at least as far as the “German Venus” of 35,000 years ago. And of course, censorship of the nude probably began the day after that! The Council at Trent didn’t even wait for Michelangelo’s death before having Venusti begin painting over the genitals on The Last Judgement figures. (Of course, he did it only under the threat that the frescoes would be destroyed otherwise). And as a young artist in the U.S., I quickly learned that my nude studies would never be casually exhibited in such a fundamentalist and stultified place. So, I pondered, how can I paint the figurative nude in a less-charged but natural setting? Viola! The scantily clad swimmer. Is it new? Yes! I can paint figures in exaggerated poses never painted before, because the postures would be so unnatural out of water (and my fore-bearers had none of my advantages of seeing underwater). My models take on a beautiful and unexpected fluidity when floating weightlessly.

Also, the lighting underwater is spectacular, chards of refractions, color distortions and prismatic effects. I’ve always been drawn to this “extreme lighting”, even in my cityscapes depicted at night in the rain, or landscapes in the snow near dark. Of course, extreme lighting was the coinage of Rembrandt and Caravaggio, though in more somber, almost dichromatic palettes. And they probably used mirrors to concentrate the sunlight and create extreme effects.

Finally, I love painting images that seem at once abstract and photorealistic. I get this in the underwater environment, the distortions, the prismatic colors and strange depths of field.

3) In regards to the landscape paintings: How does the process evolve? Do you take inspiration from photos, or it is just all in your mind already?

More and more there is less and less in my mind already Davide! (laughter) My impetus regarding landscapes is to use the way a camera sees as a narrative to tell a different story. I wanted to show the landscape deliberately distorted by the photographic process as a way of heightening our awareness of the place “without our existence.” In my cityscapes at night, I’ve emulated the camera’s long exposure where the human figures are blurred slightly across the otherwise sharply focused architecture and wet pavement. For me, it emphasizes our ephemeral nature, that our constructions and cities will last far longer than our own ghosts. And in my “barren landscapes”, devoid of people, I envision the slight movement of tree branches as a gentle blur against a setting otherwise unperturbed by us, and indifferent to our observation.

I always work from photographic source material, though never a single photograph. I frequently find a location, then spend a good deal of time documenting it in different ways, with different equipment at different times of day. I will then spend a great deal of time manipulating the photographs or sketches (in both the electronic format, such as in Photoshop, or by hand, by tearing, wrinkling or marking up printed images—a technique used by Francis Bacon). I frequently end up with an amalgam of imagery in one digital file which I then use as a starting point for a full scale painting. In the case of landscapes, the imagery changes significantly during the painting process, whereas, with underwater imagery, I make virtually all editorial decisions before I begin with paint and panel.

4) Matt, you say on your website that you studied art in Western Europe. What cities and regions did you visit? Would you recommend an artist to go and study in Europe for a while? Is Europe a must-go destination for an artist, given it’s filled with so much art?

I was born in a provincial area in the middle of the United States. It was akin to being born a dolphin under a bush in the Sahara desert. Ironically, my first real exposure to European art was, in a local oil-baron’s collection there, to the French Academy painter, William Adolphe Bouguereau’s The Shepherdess.

William Adolphe Bouguereau’s The Shepherdess

I was awed by his highly refined École technique. I say it was ironic because, from there, Bouguereau seemed utterly sophisticated. Yet in retrospect, he is thought to be a cliché of provincial Paris compared to the cosmopolitan avant-garde of his generation, the impressionists. Even today, however, he reminds me of what is both good and bad about figurative realism. (His draftsmanship was flawless and classic, but he put his models in absurd, studio contexts thinly veiled as mythical settings. His compositions were detached, accidentally unreal and awkward).

During college I seized the opportunity to study summers in Paris and then Berlin. I traveled extensively through Europe loitering long in the museums of London, Amsterdam and Munich as well. But the greatest hole in my training is that I have no protracted study in Italy. I say its my greatest lacking because paradoxically my greatest influences are surely the Italian Masters (all seen outside of Italy!) Moreover, my maternal grandmother is first generation Milan!

Though I studied art and design and worked for years as a designer and illustrator, I would say that I’m “self-taught” as a painter. I am, frankly, skeptical that one can teach painting. For me, no amount of pedagogy is going to transmit it. Yes, the masters all had long apprenticeships, but they were grinding paint and straining linseed oil. Representational painting is about seeing, and about developing ways of seeing differently and then expressing that insight. I believe you can only learn to see, by looking. Looking at what, you ask? Looking long and hard at what you believe needs seeing. Where to start? Look at how other painters and sculptors expressed what they saw. Seeing is not trivial. It is not something everyone who has eyes can do. It is a skill that can be developed, that is learned but perhaps not taught. As da Vinci said, “Painting is of the mind.”

For me, if there were only one great repository of representational art, it is the museums (and churches) of Europe. I know its ethnocentric, but I have a western European heritage (Irish and Italian, in my case). Its my culture. I’m currently in Santa Fe, New Mexico studying native American art and its frankly alien to me. Just as is primitive African or aboriginal work. (This alienation also extends culturally inward, to the American expressionist work bulging from New York’s white-walled temples.)

So, all cultural apologies aside, and not withstanding the fact that there’s an incredibly valuable repository of work in eastern traditions, a painter of my ilk must go to Europe to learn anything first-hand. And yes, there is great work in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. to the extent that the current empire has usurped the effluence of European masters. But go to Europe and you don’t get, say a traveling exhibition with a few lesser de La Tour’s in it, you can stumble directly into the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome to gawk at the works of the original chiaroscurist [Caravaggio] in their original setting!

5) You indicate you are inspired by Titian and Caravaggio. Are there any other old masters that inspire you at all? What about contemporary artists? Any fellow artists you follow at all?

Yes. Many influences, none more than Caravaggio. From the early period, Titian, Van Eyck, Dürer, the inevitable Michelangelo, Bernini and what little is left of da Vinci’s work.

Bernini Prosperina sculpture detail

I grew up immersed in books of these works and still I learn something new every time I study them. From the middle period (Baroque/Rococo) Caravaggio, Velasquez, and Vermeer particularly inform my technique. From the early 19th century, Ingres’s handling of flesh and Courbet’s handling of the female nude, and Rodin. Renoir and Monet are, I think, very influential to me in the use of color as almost an abstract consequence of seeing. For landscapes, I greatly admire Constable and Turner.

Modern masters are hard to come by because representational, and especially figurative work is a step-child in a post-modern world. Thankfully, Lucian Freud didn’t die in obscurity, his work is brilliant and arresting and shows that the simple human form can suddenly be new and startling.

Lucian Freud's Naked Man painting

I don’t find myself consistently influenced by contemporary (representational) artists otherwise, but I do simply enjoy the painters Jeremy Geddes, Mark Ryden, Donald Roller Wilson and sculptors Kate McDowell and Kris Kuksi. We all signify (I hope) that representational painting and sculpture is forever new.

6) What's in store for the future Matt? Where is your art heading? Any upcoming exhibition, perhaps overseas? Anything else for the future?

I’ve sold a lot of my original work this year so I’m painting like crazy going into Art Basel in December. I finished last year painting in the South, I’ll finish this year painting in Santa Fe, New Mexico and within the next few years I plan on more time in New York and the East and then a very long stint in Europe, particularly Paris, Madrid and Rome. I’m also setting up a print studio as to begin offering limited edition prints of my work directly from my website later in the year.

Longer term, Its paint paint paint. I am completely energized by my current idiom and feel I’ve only begun to develop my understanding of it. Each time I break through, I immediately glimpse a deeper aspect still eluding. Lucian Freud said, “The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and ironically, the more real.”

Red Flight Afloat painting by Matt Story

This article reprinted with the permission of Davide de Prossimo and Writeca Publications, copyright 2014.

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