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.)