Showing up: In conversation with Matt Haywood about the importance of being open to process

Working from a studio housed in a 150-year old refurbished barn outside Detroit, Michigan, Matt Haywood has given himself over to the process of painting rather than the finished product. For Matt, each canvas and brushstroke offers the excitement of possibility, the new, the infinite. Guided by impulses and intuitions, Matt makes experimentation his only rule. “I’m not really afraid of messing up,” he says. This fearlessness has liberated him to explore widely and develop a wildly unrestrained practice that ranges through varied, gestural and dynamic visual languages.

A constant in Matt’s work is a returning to the subject of landscapes. In a wryly titled painting The World Needs Another Landscape Painting Like I Need a Hole in my Head, he gives a self-referential nod to the challenges of locating one’s practice in this classical tradition. But Matt has found fertile creative ground in this genre. Verging on abstraction, the scenes in Matt’s paintings are expressive; an explosion of marks and colors. The quality of his brushstrokes gives the painting an urgency and energy that’s difficult to ignore. While the works maintain a connection to the representational with recognizable features emerging through the busy surface detail, Matt’s process is informed by an expressionist approach. Less reproductions of physical scenes, the landscapes in Matt’s paintings represent interior phycological terrain.

Recently, Matt has been producing a series of works exploring the compositional parameters of a window frame. A poignant symbol for these times of lockdown, we spoke with Matt to find out more about these paintings and his work more generally.

portrait by Dominique Natasha Hinestrosa

AMM: Hi Matt! Have you been painting during the pandemic? How has it affected you creatively?

MH: I’ve definitely been painting during the pandemic. Things were pretty normal at first but as time went on, I found my anxieties regarding the state of domestic and global politics surfacing in my studio while the act of making work itself has seemed like an indulgence at times considering what some people are up against right now. More recently, I’ve found myself more compelled than ever to make work in spite of, or in reaction to everything that’s going on in the world. It’s certainly forced me to take a deeper look at what making art means in general.

AMM: The window frames that appear in many of your recent paintings feel a bit like a metaphor for lockdown. What are you exploring with this framing device?

MH: I can’t say that the metaphor was directly intended, but can’t deny that it might be there, perhaps it found its way to the surface subliminally. At its most rudimentary level, the window frame device is a formal tool I’ve been using to satiate the eye spatially. I don’t really create work with a specific metaphor in mind from the onset but am very interested in the way emotional or metaphorical content surfaces as the work develops. This discovery process is part of what is so compelling to me about making work.

Two Vases, oil on canvas, 26×33”

AMM: You’re not afraid to take a risk in your painting. Please share some of your thoughts and approach to experimentation in your art.

MH: I’m very wary of creative processes that are too consistent, planned, or calculated. Processes that rule out too much of the potential for creative impulse don’t really interest me so I tend to not have a plan for what will happen in the studio before I arrive. I simply show up and let impulse carry me through the day, and often late into the night and early morning. This way of working can be incredibly frustrating but it’s never boring and it’s often magically rewarding and full of discovery. It doesn’t get better than leaving the studio feeling like I’ve discovered art again, so I try to work in a way that allows me to grow and learn rather than worrying about maintaining a sleek and consistent façade through a uniform practice. I’m very concerned with the way art becomes commodified and the role artists play in that commodification. I’m always a little worried of imprisoning myself inside the wrong set of variables, and inadvertently making variations on the same painting over and over again when the magic just isn’t there the way it would be for a true genius like Morandi for example, who could really make a tiny set of variables infinite. In my nightmare scenario I imagine paintings being made like sneakers, each conceived the same way through some genius proprietary process exclusive to the brand, just in different color options per market demand. To me, the work in the studio is the real reward, the painting itself is the ghost of that activity, it’s a material thing of course, but what it means to me and the world is not. Finally, the image of that object represents the memory of that studio activity. With this attitude in mind, I never really see a painting as a precious thing, it’s no more valuable to me than the blank canvas it once was, and in all honesty, it’s sort of less valuable. This way of thinking lets me move forward without being worried about messing up or making the wrong move, freeing my hand, mind, and my overall trajectory.

Orange Sun, 2020, oil on canvas, 16×20”

AMM: The compositions of your paintings seem to highlight the act of looking (and by extension viewing the painting). How do you explore the various permutations of this in your work?

MH: Great question. I think I read something Degas said about the magic of painting happening in this blank state of mind or better yet, as he put it: “state of eyes.” Despite him being a notoriously prickly character, I relate a lot to his ideas in this regard. There is no emotional or narrative objective until the very end of the work where an idea that I can’t refuse might present itself. That being said, I would stop well short of considering what I’m doing formalism. I do build on groundwork of formalist non-thinking thinking perhaps, so, by extension, the nature of looking and the act of looking itself becomes a major part of the content of the work. I’m very interested in the nuances of how paintings operate. I get caught up in thinking about the nuances of what makes a painting compelling to look at or easy to pass up, the absurdity of turning a flat surface into a void that you look through, why we look upon the surface of some paintings and through the surface of others, and how a combination of this effect can be utilized in order to make optically and psychologically compelling work. 

AMM: Let’s speak about landscapes. Your wryly titled painting The World Needs Another Landscape Painting Like I Need a Hole in my Head is a pretty apt summary of this classical genre. What keeps you interested in landscapes and how have you found your space within this tradition?

MH: I love landscape painting. The absurdity of creating the illusion of an infinitely deep space on a flat canvas is so, so, absurd but it’s possible. In my early twenties, I was fortunate to do a semester in Italy doing the whole plein air landscape painting thing. When I was living in Seoul, Korea I often painted plein air on the rooftop of my workplace on lunch breaks, and a little later in my twenties, after being fired from a graphic design job I absolutely loathed, I went on this sort of ridiculous solo month long camping retreat into a remote forest at the base of Mt. Hood in Oregon, where I had no cell signal or human contact. I painted the landscape from life practically all day every day when it wasn’t pouring rain. I didn’t really make many paintings I loved until the very last two days of my stay, when I made some monotypes using the back of my enamel dinner plate as a matrix. During that time, I read two pretty clinical books about the history of American landscape painting and learned about its relationship to both religion and science, and its attempt to accurately capture light representing religion, flora, fauna, and geology representing science. Some of these ideas seemed just so ridiculous and outdated, and have stuck with me in an odd way. I haven’t painted plein air very often since that trip aside from a few times in Los Angeles. I’ve come to see it as sort of a sport-like activity rather than a deeply artistic one, although it certainly can still be done well by some, and is always a wonderful way to absorb nature. I’ve really come to love landscape painting in a completely new way. I recall Degas being quoted saying something about a good landscape painting really only requiring a bowl of soup and a night inside the studio and I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more. The memory of the landscape is inside all of us and through varying studio techniques you can let it out. This can be a more true version of landscape painting, it certainly is for me.

AMM: Your paintings have a wonderful energy that comes in part through your gestural brushstrokes. Please tell us about your approach to mark-making and the materiality of your work?

MH: I try not to be too precious with a painting. I’m not really afraid of messing up because I honestly don’t have a specific objective. I don’t draw lines then fill them in and I never have any photo reference or specific plan, everything is internal, therefore my hand and mind generally roam free. Despite the work ultimately being relatively representational, the marks come from a pseudo-expressionistic place. I think the energy comes from not really having a plan and indulging impulse both mentally and physically at the same time.

Sirens III, 2020, oil on canvas, 26”x26”

AMM: What’s your relationship with colour? How do you approach this in your work?

MH: I don’t have any particular logic, or loyalty to any method when it comes to color. I used to be a pretty serious observational painter and I think a lot of my understanding of tonality remains from that way of painting, but I’ve been able to free myself of a lot of the strict dictates of painting directly from life. I tend to aim for a general feeling of warmth in my approach and try to make a lot of chromatic push and pull happen. 

AMM: The sun pops up in many of your paintings. Please tell us about this and other recurring motifs in your work.

MH: The sun motif is certainly recurring, as well as a growing set of other identifiable imagery such as cartoon-like logs, sirens, and most recently the window frame motif. The sun is particularly prevalent though. In a formal sense it provides a tonal and chromatic high point, it has the power to connect the foreground of a picture to the deep unreachable space in an image, and metaphorically it provides an energy source for the painting and plays a big role in determining the image’s cadence. Other recurring imagery like logs are a somewhat comical gesture relating a lot to my ideas about landscape painting and the intervention of man in the landscape, while also acting as a formal tool to help guide the eye in a spatial sense.

AMM: This year you’ve been making collages. How does this sit alongside your paintings? What are you enjoying about working in this medium?

MH: The collages have been an incredible way to quickly arrange a composition with few material resources in the comfort of the office or dining room table. They have been a way to learn and experiment rapidly, but also exist as valid independent works. The domestic motif in them relates somewhat directly to the surroundings where they’re made, so, they’re helping me get back in touch with the part of myself that’s connected to direct observational painting in a new and fresh way — which has been really exciting. 

Pink Sun’s Ghost, 2020, oil on canvas, 12×16”

AMM: On Instagram you’ve shared a few images paying homage to George Braque. Are you influenced by his work? Please tell us a little about how you anchor your work to art history?

MH: I’ve always felt an incredible connection to Braque’s work and from what I know about him, his sensibility as a person. He’s someone I feel like is so dismissed as this almost sidekick to Picasso in Cubism, who now only exists in the crusty yellow pages of some unsold book in the art section of the used book store. To Picasso, Cubism was sort of a passing phase, a lot of his ideas borrowed from Braque, who, to me, really is the embodiment of Cubism, which I find to be sort of misunderstood or generally loathed as some failed experiment to represent something in multiple dimensions at the same time. This understanding being only a partially accurate take on what I think Braque was doing with his so-called cubist work. My very favorite painting in the US is Braque’s Artist and Model at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena (which I find to be a sadly under-visited museum by young LA artists) that painting being tied only with my other favorite, Bruegel’s Wedding Dance at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The way Braque could work on a painting for years and years and years yet end up with something fresh, remarkably dynamic, and not at all overworked has always been incredibly inspiring to me. I’m convinced I could look at a Braque painting all day, every day and never tire of it. My personal approach lately has been a little more expedient than I have been in the past, but I do have paintings kicking around in the studio that I’ve been working on for more than eight years with no end in sight, and pretty much anything I have going in the studio isn’t really safe from being reworked until someone else owns it. In short, Braque played the long game in a way that I find to be profoundly meaningful and inspiring.

AMM: What ideas are you currently exploring in your work?

MH: The window frame motif in the collages and paintings have captured my interest lately, and I’m still sorting out what it means exactly, but for the first time in a while I have a loose objective coming from the collages that I take with me into the studio. I’m trying to sort out how to relate my old dedication to observational work with this more off-the-cuff approach I’ve come to, and how to translate the collages into paintings without copying them directly and losing their original vitality.

AMM: Do you have any studio rituals? How do you focus and feed your creativity?

MH: I don’t have much of a ritual or routine, but I find myself most creative at night once most of the normal chatter of the world has died down. I’m definitely a night owl. I find simply showing up in the studio is the best way to get going, even without inspiration, even without a plan, I just show up, sweep the floor, maybe organize a little, and the inspiration might come, if it doesn’t, at least I’m setting myself up for the next day, but trying to confront the studio daily is important even if I don’t paint every day. Not painting, is part of painting, and I’m mostly over feeling guilt for not having brush in hand fourteen hours a day like I have in the past.

AMM: What does your studio look and feel like?

MH: My current studio is a section of space shared with a wood shop inside a Victorian era barn on a farmhouse property outside Detroit, Michigan. My mother and late father (who was a high school woodshop teacher and freelance carpenter) lovingly restored the farmhouse over the course of my childhood. The barn itself is such an incredible and inspiring example of architecture and I can’t help but continually wonder about all of the activity that’s occurred inside it over the past 150 years, it’s hard to look at the rafters without wondering in awe about what a terrifying feat it must have been to raise the towering structure with technology being what it was back then. I also keep a small studio behind a small artist run space called Gallery ALSO in Los Angeles, of which I was a founding member. Since lockdown began I haven’t been back to that studio unfortunately, but the fresh air and space available to me in Michigan has been great, especially after spending my entire adult life away, after moving to Chicago for school, then Seoul, then Portland, Oregon, then Los Angeles, it’s been great to be around my family in my home state, especially during this time.

Paisley in Purple, 2020, oil on canvas, 26×33”

AMM: When you’re not making art, what are some of the things you enjoy doing?

MH: I’ve been spending a lot of time playing and recording music lately, especially during quarantine. It’s an incredibly fun and cathartic way to stay creative without the same expectations I might put on myself as a painter. Other than that, I love camping, renovation and woodworking projects, and spending time with my wife and our dog Sharkie. 

AMM: What are you watching, reading, listening to right now?

MH: I don’t typically get too into TV, but I just came off a pretty serious binge of Ozark which is incredibly violent, and full of compelling if not very redeeming characters, providing a great temporary distraction from the horrors of real life. I’ve been listening to a lot of John Prine and was incredibly saddened by his recent passing. I always keep a good collection of short stories around, and have been reading Nelson Algren and Raymond Carver lately. I’ve also been trying to get through Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man again for a minute now, and find it oddly therapeutic to just read a few pages here and there without trying too hard to connect the dots. I’m really interested in the stream of thought approach to making art and it’s certainly an iconic example. 

AMM: Do you have any advice for other artists during these strange and difficult times? How have you been keeping productive and feeling connected?

MH: I would say, don’t worry and don’t hurry in the studio. There are plenty of things in the real world to worry about, especially now, but the studio or whatever place you can carve out to make work should be a sanctuary, so make time to get there, it’ll most likely make you feel more centered and useful in whatever else you’re up against in life. Call your friends and family, don’t just text, I definitely need to work on this too, but it always puts me in a better place.

AMM: Despite everything still being so uncertain, do you have any projects coming up? What’s next for you?

MH: I’m working with a friend to create a platform in which we hope to help connect great art with buyers, with percentages going both to charity and to the artist. We’d like to create a sustainable way for underrepresented artists to raise money for a good cause, while sustaining their practice, and bypassing current art world gatekeepers. More simply, we’re hoping to make selling art into a form of sustainable protest.

Find out more about the artist: www.matthaywood.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Long Shadows from a Lost Civilization, 2020, oil on canvas, 12×16”