Paintings of tomorrow viewed from today by Matthew F Fisher

Matthew F Fisher’s approach to painting is reverential. For Matthew, the ocean is a metaphor for the cosmos – vast, incomprehensible, terrifying and alluring. He returns to the same iconography of waves, gulls, crustaceans and the rising and setting sun again and again in his work, painting these motifs as a kind of meditation on life and the universe. Time is resoundingly absent in Matthew’s paintings; the ocean is frozen still and the laden sun hangs static and heavy in the sky. His style of painting has strong graphic cues that seem to render the chaotic orderly and knowable, but beneath the smooth saccharine colors is the disquieting understanding of this impossibility.

Nature has a strong sway on Matthew. He recently relocated from New York City to Los Angeles, and is fascinated by how the change of light, the presence of greenery and of course, the sea, have infused his work with a new luminosity. We chatted with Matthew about his studio practice, conceptual ideas and the nature of life as we know it. 

AMM: Hi Matthew! To begin, can you please share a few of the milestones – good or bad – that have shaped your artistic journey thus far? 

MF: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” Neil Young once sang. Maybe in an art career, it’s better to slow burn than go up in a blaze? My milestones have been hard earned over the past 18 years. The achievements that I cherish the most include being invited to Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY, twice, with two different bodies of work. I have also been honored with a Pollock Krasner Grant, an immeasurable joy. Last summer, I worked with Public Art for Public Schools in New York City to have a mosaic made of one of my paintings that was permanently installed in a Brooklyn elementary school. The thought that this piece will be on public display forever is deeply rewarding. I have also had my fair share of bad experiences with gallerists that didn’t pay on time, misplaced work, or were generally unprofessional and untrustworthy. I learn best by doing and failing. I have been blessed to have the opportunities to show again and again and continue to learn. And sometimes I fail again; but I always learn from my mistakes and success.

AMM: In a group interview for a recent show that you participated in, you describe using pink in your work as a “way to paint the most natural of subjects, the landscape, in an other worldly way”. Please tell us more about your approach to color and how this manifests in your art. 

MF: Color acts as the why to the what we see. How can the mood of a landscape change so dramatically just by the shift in colors within it? Color can tell you the time of the day, but it can also confuse that perception by appearing exaggerated or unnatural. I find painting to have a unique ability to not only distill, but also to expand what we see by how the subject is presented. These colors might appear unreal in our sense of now, but that does not mean they have never existed, or can’t exist. Our memory can play funny tricks, enhancing moments while at other times reducing them. Influenced by our current state, we perceive the truth to be what we see. I use color to help challenge that trust while providing a sense, or assumption, of familiarity through the imagery.

AMM: What appeals to you about the mediums you use most frequently in your work – acrylic and ink? Is it purely coincidence that they’re both water-based?

MF: Acrylic gives me the very freedom that oil paint constrains. As a young painter, I was never good with a quick grand gesture, a perfect brush stroke frozen in the sexiness of the oil paint that made it. Rather, I always noodled with the paint after I applied it, trying to concoct the perfect spontaneous moment. Acrylic allows me to noodle with the brush stroke without being lost in the lust of the oil paint surface. You have to earn that shine with acrylic. The creation of my work is very process-based: many, many layers of paint atop one another to create rich variety of color and optical texture. With the quick drying time of acrylic, it’s the perfect mend. My ink on paper drawings have the same approach of using layers to create a density of transparency. The richness and weight each work has is the result of the making, the act of painting that creates the image itself.

AMM: Your paintings are characterized by an overwhelming stillness. In them, the sea is rendered silent, a swooping gull static, a breaking wave frozen. This lends your work a slightly eerie tone, despite the saccharine colors. What ideas or concepts are you exploring in your work? 

MF: There’s something inherent about the universal that allows for it to become personal. On the other side of the saw, the personal isn’t always universal. I search to find that sweet spot of maintaining my own deeply personal meaning while hoping others will find their own interpretations. During a recent studio visit, the guest spontaneously opened up to me about her ayahuasca experience after looking at one of my paintings. This ultra specific reading was never part of my original concept, but that reaction, a highly personal response to the imagery I created, tickles me to no end. I strive to make works that meet in the middle – between me and you.

Matthew F Fisher, ‘The Psalmist’, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

AMM: What keeps you coming back to the subject matter that dominates your art?

MF: I still find humor in the landscape, the animals that occupy it, the cosmic ballet that surrounds it, and our deeply personal and flawed relationship as humans to our world. I jokingly refer to it as narrative art without a story. But there is a story, a story as big as the universe. A narrative so vast, so endless, where does one start to understand it? You stop and look, think, and relate what’s before you and to your current place in this world. The setting sun is something that has happened since the beginning of time; yet it still has the power to transfix us through its magic, beauty, our awareness of self, and the fact we know it will happen again, again, and again. These are paintings of tomorrow viewed from today.

AMM: There’s a strong graphic element to your work. Has your style of painting changed over time? What has influenced and informed your work over the years?

MF: How has it changed over time? I have learned how to paint (laughs). I have only recently, in the last three years or so, started to better understand how my paintings function as images. Through years of making and looking at my paintings, I now have an awareness of how my actions create a structure and how the eye reads it. This reduces a lot of searching for resolve while I paint, opening up more time and energy to explore and push the imagery. I know how to paint; I am now more interested in what to paint.

The graphic element has intrigued me for some time, mostly as an excuse to not talk about the AbEx gesture. Rather, you have to talk about the image that was painted, a square, a chevron, a circle. I am drawn to the colorfield painters for this reason: Kenneth Noland, Thomas Downing, Jules Olitski, Paul Feeley, Carmen Herrera, John McLaughlin, artists who made abstraction without the overt gesture. The mark, their mark, was allowed to become bigger than it was by just being what it is, a shape, a color, a line. I have always needed to paint something, and thus have been unable to paint nothing unless
I painted something.

The other great influence on my work has been getting to know so many wonderful painters who I respect as friends and contemporaries. I love painters who use paint, not like me, but in other ways, Elise Ferguson, Rob Matthews, Michele Hemsoth, Kyle Breitenbach, Nat Meade, Jim Lee, John Dilg, Ben Sanders, Gianna Commito to name a few. Although our relationship to surface and the property of paint varies greatly, these are artists who create an image through the belief that painting itself is all you need to make great work.

AMM: Before relocating to Los Angeles, you lived in New York City. Has the move had an influence on your art? In what ways are you influenced by your environment? 

MF: My paintings are of course indebted to the natural world, but I am not as interested in painting from life as much as I am in taking from it. Even so, being here in LA, with the sun so strong and the weather so consistently perfect, I have started to feel this unique sense of ‘light’ emanate from the work I’ve made here. In NYC it’s possible to remove yourself from nature: all concrete all the time, trains, tunnels, buildings. Here in LA, one can’t be so arrogant. There are palm trees, cactuses, rosemary, growing everywhere. Nature always finds you, its growth and presence, a reminder that we are not alone even when we are.

AMM: For all your paintings of the ocean, are you a water person? When you’re not in studio, where would we likely find you?

MF: When I am not in the studio, I am most likely with my family watching our son grow up. A true reset to life. I have never savored every second of every day as I do now. Being a parent slows you down, asks you to constantly take stock of yourself, and forces you to do better.

I spent a lot of time near the water as a child at my grandfather’s beach house on the ocean. I can remember going to bed each night to the sound of ocean waves crashing and waking up to the same sound the next morning. This was perhaps my earliest realization that

I am just a blip on this earth, that the cosmos doesn’t need me like I need it. There was also a mystery of what lurked beneath, the animals, tides, lost ships, or what was over the horizon and out of sight, Europe, Africa. It’s all so grand and small at the same time, a magical relationship between the ocean and the danger and the safety of land. Those memories are still a major influence on me today.

Matthew F Fisher, ‘Father and Son’, acrylic on canvas, 25 x 20 inches, Collection of Fidelity Investments, Boston, MA

AMM: What color would you say best represents you, and why? 

MF: Blue. It has the range from green to purple, to go from the lightest shade to the deepest of darks. It can be all of those while always being blue. Even my pink paintings, the anti-blue mantra, respond directly to that desire of being blue.

AMM: How long do you typically work on a painting? What’s your process of painting? 

MF: There’s no constant with regard to how long each work will take. Recently, a 20 x 16 inches averages around 6 weeks from start to completion. I am often working on one or two paintings at once. I find it hard to be involved with more than that, especially if the palette is radically different between works. I paint in layers, many, many, layers. Often the background is completed with several washes to achieve a seamless fade. Over that, the smaller brushes come out to create thousands of mini marks to contrast against that smooth gradation. Having used an airbrush in my work from 2008/09, I have no interest in using an airbrush now, of removing my hand via machine. I am drawn to the effects I can only make with brushes and paint and the density of process that is a result of the doing.

AMM: Where do you look for reference material? What sources feed your inspiration? 

MF: After years of making work that was solely based off of source material, I yearned for a way of working that didn’t require me to have a book in my left hand for the reference of an animal, beer stein, church, or landscape

I was painting. Most of what I paint comes completely from my mind. I have my way of making a wave, a sunset, I use the same motifs over and over creating new relationships within each painting. I can’t make the same painting twice, but I love seeing the differences between them. Recently, I have increased my vocabulary to include lobsters, crabs, flounders, and seagulls. Vintage dictionary illustrations are a nice way into this imagery, icons without iconography. Once I find myself painting the exact structure of an animal, more detail photographs are often required to help convey a sense of natural realism, even when it’s stylized. I make “post life” paintings that are deeply grounded in the living world around us.

AMM: What does your studio look and feel like?

MF: It’s a place where I can go and make a mess and leave it behind. My final paintings are clean, but there’s a sloppy process that is required to make them that way. The studio is where ideas can live and die. Regardless of outcome,

I learn from every painting I attempt. How to make a mark, how to create a structure, what is too much and what is not enough. The studio is where I make art.

AMM: Any new shows coming up? What’s next for you? 

MF: January 2019 will find my Los Angeles solo debut with Ochi Projects. After that, a show with Taymour Grahne in London, my first solo show in Europe. In between all of that, a group show with Robert Yoder at SEASON in Seattle this summer. I am super honored to be a guest at Pasaquan this fall in Columbus, Georgia, a residency through Columbus State University. And my son starts nursery school in September.

Find out more about the artist:

Text and interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.

Matthew F Fisher, ‘Summer Time’, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

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