Matthew Chambers

Some months ago I wrote down somewhere how often (or sometimes) I tend to momentarily fall in love with people I write about. It’s not a matter of outliving a pseudo-romance in the head—fetishizing a map of bodies or whatever else that parallels the lines of amorous intentions—but rather experiencing a genuine infatuation after having collided with the individuality of a total stranger. Introduced suddenly to entire worlds, unknown yet too absurdly familiar, how could we not crush humanly when we discover them in all their original transparency, in the end somehow always reminding us a little bit of home.

Speaking to American artist Matthew Chambers generated a similar reaction. As soon as our conversation began, Chambers did not pause to meditate the innumerable lives within the life we lead, each of his bearing ambition and excess in their own gentle and wakeful ways. The painter’s recent move from a restless LA to far-off Montana still finds itself in the process of settling, a short-lived—at times, certainly complicated—stage that allows a significant type of emotional absorption. After all, one’s past is most confronted when present within a different future.

Immersed now in absolute nature and its memoryless silences, the painter spends time with his canvases while catching up on existing more consciously; something he, and many of us, might have forgotten within these invincible pools of immediate and soundless expectations that tend to house in cities that are endless. His work, often thick layers of oil paint, suggest an erasure of boundaries. What matters most is the experience of the process. And not so much the outcome. Chamber’s unpretentious and—above all—frank sensitivity reflects within the arrangement of colors, none of which seem to follow a compromise of the external. When viewing his work, either flowers blossoming during the Montana Spring or his chaotic, yet carefully arranged, snippet-collages of former paintings, we exist alongside the many somewheres of Chambers himself, registering a temporary feeling of actuality. For whatever reason we are not asked to philosophize (in most of our cases, guess) a heavily-charged premise of academia. There’s a horizon of impulses, alive and curious. And sometimes that’s all we need.

What first struck me most about your recent exhibition Montana Wildflowers I Imagine I’ll See in the Spring at PRAZ was the intense sensitivity in every painting. The flowers felt absurdly male, almost immediately upon meeting them. They urge romanticism, a flower’s innate natural beauty exaggerated further. You also just moved from LA to Montana, that may have been an additional trigger wanting to intensify the experience of nature?

I had spent the last 12 years in Los Angeles and was ready for a change. I wanted to feel small in comparison to the landscape, and I wanted to see stars. At least for me, Los Angeles became the slaughterhouse, and as someone who is the animal/meat in this metaphor, I didn’t want to live in the slaughterhouse. It changes the art, it changes the conversations about the work, and it changes the artist. I looked around and Montana was my favorite, it seemed the best place for integrity. It’s beautiful here and I get to watch wild animals spend the same 24 hours a day as me.

I read this beautiful essay by Mary Oliver on a recent flight—seemed poignant: “Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart- to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again...those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go round , but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook- a different set of priorities... creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this - is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person should go off and fly an airplane.”

This last winter was my first in a while and I live pretty rurally, so -20F and 4 feet of snow on the ground is where the flowers in that show came from. I was thrilled with the silence. There was no external stimulation, just my imagination and the cold. They are romantic, I’m thinking about undressing this landscape that I’m just beginning to know. With a couple of months of hindsight, these flowers were me trying to playfully woo or court the landscape as well. Whereas my previous flocked floral works—like the one that Études chose—were about getting people to stand in front of the work and not feel that there was something they weren’t getting. The material of the flocking is key to their experience and doesn’t come across in photos. It's like suede or the surface of a tennis ball and sucks in the light. You feel really comfortable in front of these works—even my mother can describe them to friend. But the Montana flowers are, as you noted, quite male. You see brush strokes and reflections in the oil paint as opposed to the flat color of the flocking. My hand is present. If nothing else my work hopefully translates my energy, and that desire to cover spaces and barf out creation is certainly male. How problematic is it?

By discerning these particular works as masculine I didn’t mean to define them problematic. Not at all, actually. On the contrary, I find them quite moving and appreciate their frustration of publicly wanting to be desireable. I find them very human.

Well then, what a compliment. They’re such romantic overtures that I don’t see them as male, but this wooing is exactly what makes them male. They’re well intended though. And that frustration is definitely there. I’m trying to communicate to this new land, it’s tough.

This exaggeration of romanticism is interesting because it interprets a certain need for approval from the outside world, an approval to appear as sensitive enough.

Oh, that’s interesting. I understand that, I just run at my speed and volume.. I grew up pretty isolated, and have always been someone that likes to think my thoughts. I just wasn’t aware that my sensitivities were sensitivities—or a problem. They were just my compass and map. I guess that is just the trial we have to put artists through though. If you’re seeing my work for the first time you have to figure out if you trust me as an artist—find out if I’m a credible narrator.

I think I’ve never consciously thought about trusting the artist as a narrator (at least not in visual arts). It always seemed irrelevant, somehow. But maybe that’s not true either. Does trust matter?

Always for me and especially with art. One has to consider whether someone is trustworthy before asking for driving directions, and art comes with artist’s name as a precursor to the work. The artist is the iceberg and the objects are just what we see peaking out of the water, the iceberg is all that matters. I like to think about artists like Agnes Martin, those paintings mean so much by considering her story, it’s her commitment as an artist that I see in the paintings, but it’s my trust in her as an artist why I extend my time and effort to look to those paintings. I don’t see that in many artists. I’m looking at artworks to see how and why to push the boulder up the hill day after day.

To briefly touch upon Mary Oliver’s excerpt, and more specifically “Creative work needs solitude,” perhaps it’s mostly about the atmosphere that leisurely comes into place when spending time alone. It’s often here when all of our realities become most tangible. I guess we only face solitude with appreciation when we’re ready to examine truth.

Exactly, I have wanted to move lots of different places in my life, but it was always important for me to not be running away. Solitude is different than isolation. I wanted to move to ask those questions that needed more space. Art is a social exchange, it’s hard to unplug and make work without society. You said it well.

Solitude can do wonders for artists. It’s exhausting being surrounded within the same discourse, 24/7. While of course there are positive outcomes of being in the very center of the art world, the practice of an artist might shift in purpose and meaning as it’s somewhat impossible to not assimilate one’s surrounding. Especially when one begins an internal monologue of thinking “They do it better...”

Well put. I dislike that reference sets feel enforced in these communities. It provides a very narrow scope of consensus on what art is allowed to look like or how it should function, and then becomes hyper competitive within these boundaries. I tend to think of artists like satellites. They need to stay attached to the world just enough so these little “beeps” mean something to all the people back on earth. Seclusion allows me to talk to more people through my work. Inclusive rather than exclusive—my work is allowed to be humanistic because I have to push past my own experience. Being out here is very much to cut off those conversations and my awareness of others while I work.

You seem pretty content in Montana, are there things you miss from LA?

I miss friends, restaurants, skateboarding, and Latinos. Los Angeles changed drastically during my time there. It became professionalized and the art/culture line became increasingly blurred, rap music and comedy in Los Angeles became more progressive than art. I miss my early chinatown days. Everything seemed wild and possible. It became too expensive to foster the wild creativity that we romanticize from the ‘cool school,’ or Paul McCarthy/Chris Burden/Jim Shaw era. I mean, for all the shows I did, and how active I was I never had studio visits for a single survey show. None of the museums have my work or have put me in a show. I never even had a museum curator ask to come by the studio in the last decade. It really didn’t matter I was there. I have much better art conversations when people come to visit me and there’s no cell service. So the things that I define myself by, and the quality of life I wanted—part of this is about age too—weren’t/aren’t there anymore.

I’m waiting to see what I love in the city as I go back as a tourist though. I can only imagine I’ll find some wonderful things that my routines kept me away from.

You title basically all your work, something rather unusual than usual these days. The choices are also quite specific, at times possessing a kind of diaristic quality. Like, ‘My own failure to appreciate poetry,’ ‘Our Small Party’ or ‘Beyond This Hour.’ Where do these titles come from? Does memory ever play a role?

The titles are the parts of the art that I get to keep, my theses, I realize that my paintings exist mostly as images, whereas the titles probably come from memory and stay there. It’s how I learn things, I find these titles—even if I borrow them—through my studio practice. The titles are usually pruned jokes or metaphors that I think about while sitting and working on the paintings, but often are generated outside the studio. They’re short cuts to questions I ask, but probably more intimate and obtuse than I realize.

The language specifically sits somewhere in between Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts,” Jean Baudrillard’s “Cool Memories” and Robert Bresson’s ”Notes on a Cinematographer.” They’re democratized lessons, in which each of my ‘questions’ gets equal billing.

Considering the overall scope of your work, there seem to have been somewhat larger transitional phases within the subject-matter. At least going from portraying naked men—as shown at a previous exhibition at UNTITLED—to pencil-drawings of mascots, to these flowers at PRAZ.

I still make all the same work, even the juvenile stuff. Subject is really open for me. I have multiple conversations going at the same time. My exhibitions of the last few years have grouped works, but my practice is as wide as I can get it. Dealers have a fiscal pressure to run their exhibitions and their art fair booths in a salable manner and the breadth of my practice doesn’t monetize well, it looks scattershot. I realize that I don’t need to show everything. Some of the conversations/bodies of work are in very different arcs and I have been trying to let each take the time it needs and try and contextualize them within my practice when it makes sense. I'm working on 2 films. I run a skateboard company. I do a gallery/artist space. I write texts and interview other artists. I’m remodeling a house. I make editions and make tee shirts. It’s a lot of different worlds and a lot of different trojan horses and that’s my practice.

Do you paint everyday, at specific hours where within a particular atmosphere comes into place?

I definitely paint everyday, but it's less fixed to a schedule than in Los Angeles. The work that I do for myself, the art-therapy aspect of my process has definitely changed. I make drawings with my snowblower or drawings on the road with my bicycle, dumb things. The work I do for others, the things that get presented are usually made in the studio but I don’t keep banker’s hours. I just walk around all day and work on my different projects. I definitely construct schedules, but I just don’t have one here yet.

Living in nature must have taken your artistic practice back to its origin, it existing primarily for yourself again. There’s spontaneity and a sense of purposelessness.

Definitely, it feels like I’m a kid again. The spontaneity feels terrific, it’s a very safe space for me to be creative.

You also produce some type of snippet-collages, made from former paintings. It’s interesting how there’s the chaos of so many multiple entities while arranged in a specific order.

They’re ripped paintings. At first I made all sorts of patterns and chaotic works. Over time I’ve just become more formal and ascetic about them; I didn’t want to think about composition anymore. The monochromatic ones are a flocked surface and I wanted them to look like acoustic walls, specifically jazz club walls. These walls that hold these wonderful stories of all these terrific skilled musicians and wonderful nights. I wanted that same atmospheric comparison in the studio while I worked on other paintings, so I began hanging them in their while I produced other pieces. After some time, they become these works that fetishize the studio when someone hangs them.

In terms of your collaboration with Études collection, how was it to collaborate with a clothing brand, having your works suddenly projected onto fabrics worn by humans? Did the work itself somehow change for you?

It’s really fun. It’s like seeing kids draw your band name on their notebooks. It’s a shadow of myself that I haven’t seen before. Dissemination larger than myself. I think about the objects I make and the experience of seeing them, but never about them being part of a larger lexicon.

Études canonized a painting. And I love seeing all these different types of fabrics move. Études is the best. The work didn’t really change for me, but the colors have been on my mind much more as I work on current things.

I can see how the very instant of people (basically) wearing your work establishes a visceral proximity between human experience and art itself…

Oh yeah! I love that people can touch the image, and that their perspective will shift in relation to the image. I love that Études used so many different materials so the physicality is different in the every piece. The way I see it, the more time someone spends with a work, the less they’re out there ruining the world. So if I can make works that can provide a “pause,” then I feel good.

Conversation with Matthew Chambers, NYC, August 2017. Interview by Lara Konrad. Photography by Études Studio.