Interview with Matt Kleberg
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Matt, can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist?
I grew up in Fort Worth and spent lots of time around a family cattle ranch in South Texas. I spent a lot of time outdoors hunting and fishing, but was always the kid who could draw. At home I poured over western art books- mostly Tom Lea and Frederic Remington, but just down the street were the Fort Worth Modern and Kimbell Art Museums where I saw Caravaggio, Ellsworth Kelly, Velazquez, Manet, Anselm Kiefer, Agnes Martin, etc. I remember seeing a giant clunky David Bates painting of a bird in a swamp called “Night Heron” in the Modern, and it seemed totally out of place next to the Clyfford Stills, but I loved that it was there. I related to the subject matter. That painting was an entry point—it permitted me to project myself into the other work in the museum.
Not long after that, I started painting lessons with an artist in town named Ron Tomlinson. I was 13 and he was a very patient, encouraging teacher. That developed into more of an apprenticeship, and I painted in his studio until I left for college.
Can you walk us through your creative process and planning stages for the final paintings?
Anything can spark an idea for a painting, but recently it’s been little architectural moments encountered around my neighborhood in Brooklyn that have fueled new things in the studio. If I see something on my walk from apartment to studio, and I’ll take a quick iPhone pic. There’s a boarded up building across from my studio in the Navy Yard, for example, and I’ve taken the same pic ten times. I liked how the whole building felt flat with shallow little recesses where the windows should have been. I always keep a sketchbook on me and a few others in my backpack, so if something like that sparks an idea, I can make a drawing right there in the street or look at an image later and make drawings in the studio, on the subway, over coffee in the morning, whenever. I might draw twenty slightly different iterations of one idea until something clicks. If it clicks, I’ll take a stab at a painting.
I have seen photos of studio walls filled with drawings, do you work both preliminarily as sketches as well as final small works? How do these relate to the large-scale paintings?
I draw to record ideas and to work out variations on a theme. They are meant to be low-stakes, not too precious. Painting is always in the back of my mind, but only a fraction of the drawings wind up as painting studies, so the drawings are mostly their own thing. I have shown them a few times, but usually installed like my studio, with several hundred pinned to the walls together at a time, taken as a whole and not fetishized one by one.
How does the practice of drawing exist in your daily life? Do you draw/sketch often?
All the time, every day. Most of them are pretty lame, but sometimes you stumble on something that surprises you.
Can you speak to the surfaces of your paintings and how you hope a viewer will engage with them?
Yeah, the surfaces are really important to me. If you’ve only ever seen paintings digitally, they look super graphic, but in person and up close they can be pretty rough, with lots of layers of paint and boogers and wobbly lines. I actually like that breakdown between the photo and real life. You have to experience them in real time and space to appreciate them as made, touched, imperfect objects.
You work primarily in oil stick on canvas for the large paintings—what media are used in your smaller scale drawings and works on paper?
Mostly oil stick on paper or pen on paper. Sometimes crayon.
I feel lucky to have seen your work in person and the tension between the roughness/texture of the surface and the precise delineation of the forms is so visually engaging. How do you maintain such control with a medium like oil stick? What drew you to this material initially?
The rough textures come from revisions. I think it’s a byproduct of parenthood. Before our son Waylon was born, I might sit in the studio for a week deciding whether some part of a painting should be blue or green. After Waylon was born, time constraints in the studio made me more decisive and I would just make it blue without stewing so much. Then of course you realize it should have been green after all, so you paint over the blue and the painting starts to accrue more layers, a sense of time, a record of bad ideas. That said, I don’t buy into the “real paintings are thick chunky overworked battlefields” myth. If a painting works in one go, that’s great.
As for my control, I don’t know, maybe it’s a personality thing. I was initially attracted to the oil sticks because they felt more direct than a brush, more like drawing. The paintings were following behind the drawings, so a similar touch felt right.
Your previous work was figurative and featured cowboys, though abstract forms made their way into the compositions. How did your current series evolve over time?
I grew up around a family cattle ranch in south Texas, and the cowboy paintings were a way to locate myself within the family mythology, and because I am not a cowboy like the five generations before me, there was a both fondness for and distance from that narrative. The older figurative work tended to feature some iconographic subject, front and center. It was cowboys for a while, then birds, then bottles, etc. There was content at stake in all of those, but eventually the subjects started to feel interchangeable and I painted them out. That frontal, central space basically became the subject, and the paintings evolved into more architectural, stage-like spaces where the “actor” or the “action” was implied but not depicted.
Are you using any reference material to inspire your current abstract compositions?
Sure, lots of things find their way into the work. Lately I’ve been looking at architecture and signage around my neighborhood, Mexican and Turkish textiles, Byzantine and Sienese painting, and Dr. Seuss.
Are there any overarching themes that you keep returning to in your work?
A painting starts to get interesting in the studio when it can contradict itself but still, if only just barely, hold together. Empty yet full, static but active. That kind of oxymoronic tension is important to me.
Another big theme is the potential aura that art can have, that mysterious electric charge, and the fragility or limitations of that charge. Making paintings feels like alchemy, attempting to elevate the mundane. I’m interested in that as subject matter, this marriage of high and low, like the mechanic shop with an overly ornamental facade or the fish market with the elaborately arched gate.
What artists have you looked at the most over the years? Who are you looking at now?
Too long a list, but my pantheon would as least include Matisse, Marsden Hartley, Fra Angelico, Martin Ramirez, Morris Louis, Diebenkorn, Louise Nevelson, Eddie Arning, Per Kirkeby...
The best show I’ve seen recently was Alfredo Volpi at Gladstone 64. Blew my mind.
As for people working right now, these days I am really excited about Jordan Kasey, John Finneran, Michael Berryhill, Keltie Ferris, Patricia Treib, Becky Suss, Eleanor Ray, Alicia Mccarthy, Erin O’Keefe, Todd Bienvenu, Ryan McLaughlin, Matt Phillips, Julia Rommel, Matthew Fisher, Nathlie Provosty, and about 100 others.
What have been some of the biggest influences on your life and your work thus far?
There is an amazing cookbook written by Robert Farrar Capon, who was also an Episcopal priest. He devotes an entire chapter to looking at an onion and goes on and on about how mysterious and glorious it is. His enthusiasm for the mundane makes me want to paint.
What is a typical day like for you?
I get up around 7am when Waylon gets up, drink a gallon of coffee and read the news, then head to the studio around 9:30 or 10:00am. At the studio I’ll drink some more coffee. If work is in progress I’ll take stock of whatever I did the day before, make some drawings and tinker with paintings until I have enough mojo to make bigger moves. If I’m starting something new, I’ll get right to it. I’m usually packing up by 7pm, wishing the day was longer.
What type of studio scenario do you need to get work done? Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? What are absolute necessities in the studio?
The only necessary scenario is time. It can take hours of sitting, looking, picking my nose and drinking coffee to get to a place where I have something constructive to add to a painting. My studio is in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It’s an industrial space that still is primarily dedicated to a custom printing business. I have windows looking out over the water to Manhattan, but you have to stand on a mini-fridge to get the view. My wife Liz and her collaborator Tal Gilboa have a studio just next door, so sometimes Waylon comes to the studio with us and we pass him back and forth when he isn’t napping.
I sit in a chair in one corner of the studio, as far away from works in progress as possible. There are usually a few hundred drawings pinned to open wall space. I have a bookshelf loaded with books, a mini fridge full of beer and doublestuffed Oreos, and work table stacked with oil sticks. That’s pretty much it.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
The roof leaks a bit, so I’m always a little distracted when it rains.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Some of the original Southern Gothic writers and their disciples have been really huge for me- Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Barry Hannah as well as more contemporary writers like Jamie Quattro and George Saunders. Their stories can be hilarious, super dark, wildly beautiful. So often their characters are haunted by the past, compelled more by who or what is NOT present than by what is. I think George Saunders’ story “CommComm” is a great example.
Lately I’ve been slogging through some theory recommended by friends, Jean-Luc Marion’s The Crossing of the Visible and Anne Friedberg’s The Virtual Window. I also finished George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo recently and would recommend it to anyone.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
I always listen to something in the studio, especially podcasts and books on tape. I just listened to Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway and House of Broken Angels , and the Leonardo da Vinci biography by Walter Isaacson. My podcast list is too long to mention.
That said, I’m starting to think I work better to music. Right now it’s Hiss Golden Messenger, Jason Molina, Parquet Courts, Dirty Projectors, Bill Withers, Townes Van Zandt, and lots more sad country, haha.
How important is the place where you live to your studio practice? This could include geographic location, city, neighborhood, community, etc.
After a few years of commuting to a studio in Bushwick, I now work only a few blocks from my apartment. I think walking to the studio affected the work in a really dramatic way, but it was totally accidental. I started to notice quirky little architectural moments around my neighborhood that I previously blew by on the bike or missed altogether on the subway, and those details popped up in the work.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
The difference between painting and illustration is illustration explains and painting asks.
What is one of the biggest challenges to being a working artist?
This one is tough—I feel pretty lucky to spend time in the studio. Finding affordable space is definitely a challenge, though. New York is a great place to be be in community with other artists, but it’s expensive.
How do you view social media and how has a particular platform impacted you as an artist?
My only real social media activity is on Instagram. My feelings about Instagram are similar to my feelings about art fairs—both are terrible contexts to really experience and appreciate art, and yet both contexts allow people to discover art and artists who might never otherwise cross paths. Instagram is good at connecting dots, but it is no substitute for sharing real space with a work of art.
Besides art, what are some of the things that interest you or that you enjoy the most?
Outside of the studio I’m a rock climber and a mezcal evangelist. In another life I’d like to work on the movies. My favorite pastime is driving around the ranch in south Texas.
Do you have any news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
If anyone finds themselves in Albany, TX, there is an amazing little gem of a museum in a former jail building called The Old Jail Art Center. I have a show there through May 12.
I have a group show at Barry Whistler Gallery in Dallas that opens April 7 and a two-person show with Erin O’Keefe at Morgan Lehman Gallery here in New York opening April 19.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!
Of course, thanks for having me!