Texas-born painter Matt Kleberg was, in the early stages of his artistic career, initially drawn to imagery of the American South that figured in his experience of the world around him—cowboys, long-horned cattle, small birds and antlered skulls. Although his colour-palette today remains saturated with the earthy reds and vivid floral hues of the Texan landscape, his compositions have since evolved into undulating, abstracted forms consisting of bars and stripes, archways, multiple frames and radiating shafts of light. The influence of Byzantine architecture, as well as medieval and Renaissance art history, is clearly perceptible in Matt’s repeated visual motif of arches. These curved doors or windows invite the viewer to regard the paintings as thresholds or borders, as though by stepping through them we might experience a new kind of perception. The space beyond these entranceways, however, is left open, the destination ambiguous. It is in this explicit embracing of mystery and paradox—doors that lead nowhere, or else onto an ungraspable endlessness—that Matt articulates his own preoccupation with the inherently contradictory and unfathomable nature of human existence. Having grown up with religion and studied theology at university, Matt discerns in art an appreciation for the tension between the known and the unknown, the subjective experience and the objective truth.
His works express this paradox, too, in their occupation of a space between consummate, geometric models of perception and more organic forms. Matt’s lines and shapes are not executed according to precise mathematical measurements, but by means of the hand and eye alone. In this, his paintings gesture towards some perfect, overarching pattern, but the means of expression remains firmly grounded in the realm of human defection. Indeed, it is in the compositional defects—a thickening or deviating of the line, a scratched or scrubbed surface, an asymmetrical alignment of forms—that Matt grasps the wonderfully imperfect nature of embodied human perception.
Having exhibited in both his native Texas and across the states, Matt is now based in Brooklyn, New York. Here, he discusses with us his working environment and creative stimuli, his love of artist Frank Stella, and the inspiration behind the intriguing titles of his paintings.
AMM: Hi Matt! From a family history of ranching in Texas, how did you find your way into a creative life? Have you always been an artist at heart?
MK: I was born on the ranch and worked there over the summers growing up, but I also mostly grew up in the city, in Fort Worth. I spent and still spend lots of time on the ranch—it’s my favorite place—but I can’t pretend that I am a bonafide cowboy or anything. I can do all the ranch hand stuff, but the cowboys who have worked the ranch for generations are the real deal. That said, the landscape of South Texas certainly informed my gut aesthetic. Lots of earthy colors—browns, greens, dusty reds—punctuated by really wild bright colors—cadmium scarlet sunsets, fuschia cactus pears, green jays and roseate spoonbills.
My parents aren’t especially arty, but there were always art books around the house, mostly Western and Southwestern artists. I loved looking at paintings, poring over Frederic Remington and some of the Texas Modernists like Tom Lea and Otis Dozier. I could always draw, I always took art in school and when I was thirteen I apprenticed under a great painter in Fort Worth named Ron Tomlinson. It also didn’t hurt to grow up a few blocks from three great museums- the Amon Carter, the Kimbell, and the Fort Worth Modern. So right in the neighborhood I could see Frederic Remington’s Dash for the Timber, Caravaggio’s Cardsharps, and monumental stuff from Clyfford Still and Morris Louis.
AMM: You gained your first degree at 23 and returned to college some years later. How did you find the move from Virginia to begin studying again in New York and all that it entailed?
MK: I did my undergrad at the University of Virginia and stayed in Charlottesville after graduating. That’s where I rented my first studio and began showing. I did portrait commissions to pay the bills- painted people’s grandkids and Springer Spaniels and things like that. I hated the commissions but it allowed me to be in the studio full time. Also, the paintings I was making on my own time were big, iconographic figurative paintings, so the portrait work wasn’t completely unrelated. After a few years I was showing enough to quit the kids and dogs, but eventually I felt the work needed to shift. I saw graduate school as an opportunity to slough off any rules I had given myself in the studio and make tons of crappy paintings. Going to Pratt for my MFA got me to New York where I was surrounded by art and artists.
AMM: You have degrees in Art and Theology. At one stage in your life you had thought of entering a seminary. Has the study of Theology influenced your current practice, and if so in what ways?
MK: I grew up in church and was always drawn to big questions. As a kid I assumed there were answers to all the questions and I set about reading as much as I could to sort out all this complicated human condition stuff. The tricky part was trying to deal with all the paradox and contradiction that characterizes all religious traditions. I remember asking big tough questions to my counselors at church camp, and when they couldn’t answer they would pass me off to the leadership, and when they couldn’t answer they would pass me off to the camp director, and he would tell me not to worry too much about it.
I thought studying theology and going to seminary would provide more of those answers. All the while, I was painting and studying art. I found that doubt and contradiction and paradox were like the foundational pillars of art appreciation. Answers aren’t the point. Art is at home with mystery.
Paradox, doubt, contradiction, mystery—those are still the animating forces for me in the studio. That tension is necessary for good painting. For what it’s worth, I can better appreciate as an adult how religion makes room for mystery. Communion or the Eucharist, for example, is totally weird and beautiful and mysterious.
AMM: Your earlier work was mainly figurative with abstract elements; now the figures have gone. Can you talk to us about the evolutionary phases your work has been through?
MK: There were lots of cowboys, birds, bottles, skulls, etc. At a certain point, the figures started to feel interchangeable, just plugged in. When I painted them out, what was left was that space previously occupied by a subject. The paintings became all about framing that space and they started to feel more like stages, sets, facades. More and more architectural elements showed up and my immediate surroundings in New York began to directly influence the compositions.
AMM: What are the broad themes you wish to explore in your work?
MK: In some ways the paintings are about painting, or at least traffic in old painting tropes. Painting as portal or window versus painting as flat, dead-end surface. Painting as picture versus painting as object. But all those questions can function as metaphors for real life matters. I mentioned doubt and paradox earlier. Lately I’ve also been thinking about how the paintings operate as both invitations into their space and barriers to entry. That contradiction is at the heart of our immigration debates in the US right now. The southern tip of the ranch is less than an hour from the Texas-Mexico border. The border is a very “charged” space at the moment. I try to work towards some sort of “charge” in the paintings too.
AMM: Arches are a repeated visual element in your paintings. Can you explain how the viewer might see and experience them, perhaps as portals or doorways opening to other scenes, or possibly as closed niches where the observer can fill the imagined space?
MK: I think you nailed it. The arch is an ancient form, it’s a beautiful form and maybe it’s the curve that makes it feel more human shaped and inviting. At the same time, one of the recent paintings is titled Blind Arcade which, in architecture, is a series of arches that don’t lead anywhere, purely ornamental. I’m into both reads.
AMM: In your contemporary art works you often seem to portray more traditional architectural forms, some with an almost Byzantine feel. What is the conversation your contemporary work is having with such historic forms?
MK: Those forms are all still around us—that multi-paneled painting Blind Arcade is a direct quote of the arched windows on the building next to my studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard—but I also just like the weird space and forms in some of those historic painting traditions. I love the Byzantine, late Medieval, and early Renaissance painters.
AMM: What role does drawing play in your art making process?
MK: The paintings come out of the drawings, but the drawings are also their own thing. I draw every day, either recording something I’ve seen or workshopping an idea that has been bouncing around my head. I’ll draw the same motif dozens of times with very minor changes, looking for some combination of elements that just feels right. If something really clicks in a drawing, I’ll give it a go in a painting. Inevitably the painting is never really loyal to the drawing, and that’s a good thing. I want to leave room in the paintings for discovery and revision. One big difference is color—the drawings are mostly black and white, so all the color decisions in the paintings happen on the fly.
AMM: You use mostly oil stick on canvas in your larger works. What are the benefits for you of working with this medium?
MK: Their touch is closer to drawing than painting with a brush. Lately the sticks have also allowed me to build up these scumbly, static-y textures by dragging each layer of oil stick lightly across the surface. You see flecks of all the previous layers underneath and that really changes how you experience a painting from three feet away versus thirty.
AMM: How would you describe the surface of your paintings to a viewer who is not able to see your work in person? Why is the surface texture of the work important to you and why is it best to appreciate and experience your art work up close in person rather than only digitally?
MK: Haha, yeah, most people probably see the work online and never in person. In photos they look super graphic and clean, but in reality they are more painterly, wonky, boogery, smoodgey. I rarely measure anything and I don’t use tape, so no line is ever perfectly straight either. I never set out to make geometric abstraction, so it’s important to me that some remnant of the hand is evident. They are physical and they relate to the body in scale but also in surface. Bodies have boogers and so do the paintings.
AMM: How do you plan for a new piece? What are the creative phases in its development?
MK: Over the last few years I have developed a sort of vocabulary of forms—stripes, arches, niches, fans, beams, etc.—and new forms are always being added. The drawings recombine those forms and also reflect others I encounter out and about. After lots of iterations and reiterations in the drawings, I’ll stretch a canvas and see if the composition can hold up as a painting. (…also see earlier drawing question)
AMM: We really enjoy your use of color; it is a very powerful device in your paintings. Please tell us about the way you work with color.
MK: I like when the color harmony holds together, but just barely, so sometimes that means putting two colors together that really don’t play nice and letting another part of the painting harmonize more clearly. I work intuitively—no system or theory—but that also means I rework paintings all the time. There are lots of ways for a painting to fail—maybe the colors are too resolved and comfortable, maybe there is zero coherence and logic to help navigate. The ones that work find a place in between.
Anything can prompt an idea for color though. I will pause a show that my two year old son is watching to take a screenshot if some color combination seems interesting. I also have twenty pictures on my phone of the same “For Rent” sign painted on a door near my studio. Whoever wrote it first painted this amazing pale sea-foam green blob over a dusty blue-gray garage door, then painted the text in transparent greeny-gold-raw-umber over the sea-foam. It’s so good and I keep trying to get that vignette into a painting.
AMM: It is said that your work pays homage to Frank Stella. Did he or any other particular art movement or artists influence your work?
MK: Yeah for sure—I love Stella. I actually wrote my Master’s thesis interpreting Martin Ramirez’s work through the context of Stella’s collection of essays “Working Space”. There are lots and lots of other artists in my pantheon though – Ramirez is there, and so are Marsden Hartley, Fra Angelico, Matisse, Duccio, Eddie Arning, Roger Brown, Kenneth Noland, Diane Simpson, and a hundred others. I’m pretty omnivorous when it comes to influences and heroes.
AMM: We love the titles of your paintings. Any favorites? How do you come up with such imaginative names?
MK: Haha, thanks! Some titles I borrow from whatever I’m reading or listening to at the time. I read a lot of Barry Hannah short stories and have repurposed some titles like Mother Mouth, Water Liars, and Through Sunset Into the Racoon Night. Others are little word plays like Catapult Catacomb (a catapult ejects things outward, a catacomb is where the bodies are buried inside….get it? Haha). L.L. Bean Boudoir was the title of a painting that came about after seeing a vintage L.L. Bean sweater advertisement in an old magazine. Full Force Gale is a Van Morrison song. Double Bacon Balustrade is a painting that looks like two strips of bacon standing up like columns. My favorite title, Crunch Crunch Slam Slam Dinky Dinky, was borrowed from the closing line of a Parquet Courts album review. I think the critic was trying to describe electric guitar sounds…
AMM: Can you name some of your peers whose work has been inspiring for you, and explain briefly why?
MK: I love the physicality and structure in Julia Rommel’s paintings. Nathlie Provosty’s work makes you keenly aware of your body and your surroundings—you have to walk around them to take them in, and sometimes it seems like you hear the painting more than you see it. Michael Berryhill makes paintings full of heart and humor, and he’s such a great colorist. Erin O’Keefe creates wild spatial/flat tension in her painterly photographs. They are beautiful but not easy. She and I actually send images of in-progress work back and forth to each other. I love the hyper real but slightly off interiors of Becky Suss and domestic scenes of Nikki Maloof. The architectural textile vibes from Rebecca Morris. I could go on…
AMM: Can you tell us about your studio? Do you like to work in peace or do you listen to audio books or music? How do you organise your day?
MK: I listen to a zillion podcasts and books on tape. If I’m just starting a painting, I need to zen out or groove a bit more and I’ll listen to music. I tend to work on several things at once but that usually means one piece is the primary focus and several others are to the side, simmering. Those could be nearly done and waiting for one last move, or they could be on the brink of collapse and will soon be reworked. Any wall space that doesn’t have a painting leaning against it is typically covered in drawings.
I get to the studio around 9:30am, sit in my chair and stare at the previous day’s work for a bit while listening to news podcasts and drinking coffee. I will oscillate between tinkering with paintings, checking emails, and drawing in my chair for most of the day. If I’m deliberating about a major move on a painting, it usually takes most of the day for me to build up to it. For some reason, my boldest painting happens post-afternoon coffee, when I know I only have a couple hours left to work. I leave around 6:30pm to cook dinner and hang with the fam.
AMM: Is there a part of being an artist that you have ever struggled with? What has been the most enjoyable part of art making for you?
MK: The hermit vibes can get hold because I’m definitely a people person and wish I saw other art friends more often than at openings and occasional hangouts. That said, I have to be alone to do the work, and I love the work. My wife has to remind me to eat lunch—otherwise I’ll work straight through the day and forget to eat.
Showing work is the greatest joy and worst form of torture. I make these things in my studio and can’t wait to share them, to see if they have the same effect on anyone else that they have on me, but then the show ends and you are left grasping for some sign that it ever happened in the first place—did people like it? Did anyone write about it? Can I pay rent? Does the work matter? Those are the old insecurities bubbling up like heartburn. In the end, I really love to make paintings.
AMM: How important are art fairs in getting one’s work out there?
MK: I’d like to say they aren’t that important, because they are pretty shitty places to encounter work. That said, it was showing a couple paintings at an art fair after grad school that led to my first New York show, important gallery relationships, early collectors, and some press. None of that was expected, and I don’t know if it would have happened otherwise. Now, of course, Instagram is such a force that the fairs aren’t as necessary. What you really need is for one single person who isn’t you or your mom to really, really believe in the work.
AMM: When not creating how do you enjoy spending your time?
MK: I grew up hunting, fly fishing, rock climbing…anything outside. Lately I’ve been learning to surf and it’s like a drug. I’ll go out and get punished but can’t wait to get back out for another session. Liz and I love to see art and music together. Our son Waylon is two, so we also spend a lot of time at playgrounds.
AMM: What’s next for you on the horizon?
MK: I have two shows that started in September. One is in Richmond, Virginia at the Reynolds Gallery, opened September 6. The other is in New York City with Hiram Butler Gallery in collaboration with Gemini at Joni Weyl, opened September 19. After that, Erin O’Keefe and I have a two-person show in Amsterdam in February or March.
Find out more about the artist: www.mattkleberg.com
Interview by Maria Zemtsova, text by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Mag.