Interview with Matthew Grabelsky for “Jungle Train”

Thinkspace is pleased to present Jungle Train featuring new oil paintings by Los Angeles-based artist Matthew Grabelsky. Raised in New York, he uses the subway’s underground world as the setting for his hyperrealistic painting technique that possesses a penchant for the surreal.

In anticipation of Jungle Train, our interview with Matthew Grabelsky discusses the creative process, audiobooks, and what would be a very boring art film.

SH: How do you approach starting a new body of work? What inspired this exhibition?

MG: This one was very organic. I have a running list of ideas for paintings I want to do. I started off by picking a few that really excited me. Then, as I went along, I added more than I thought would fit with the work I had already started. 

SH: Last year you moved your work off of the subway, and onto the streets of New York. Do you think you will move your subjects to other cities of significance in your life?

MG: Yes, I have definitely been thinking about that. I’ve been playing with a lot of ideas in my head but I want the evolution to be organic. I find that my best ideas come to me when I’m not actively trying to come up with them. My concept is that these characters started on the subway and then go out into the wider world. I certainly want to do paintings set in different locations in New York. I was born and am currently living in Los Angels and so I expect that my characters will make it out to LA at some point.

SH: Is there a particular piece in this exhibition you feel really challenged you? If so, why and what makes you proud of this piece.

MG: Yes, the largest painting in my show (30 x 48 inches) features a father and son standing on the subway platform at the Museum of Natural History station. They both have red panda heads. The father is dressed in a dapper suit on his way to work and the boy is dressed for school with an outer space-themed shirt and holding a red panda stuffed animal. There are a ton of complicated details in the patterns on the clothing as well in the mosaics and tiles on the wall behind them.

I always like to push myself and paint things that are technically challenging and this piece fits the bill. Whenever I paint something, whether a texture or object, that I haven’t painted before there is always a sense of discovery while I’m working on the piece. I have to figure out how best to execute it and that keeps the process new and interesting.

Aside from the technical oil painting challenges involved in this piece, it is an image that I particularly love. My friend and his son modeled for it and the pose they took gave the characters a real sense of connection and intimacy. Scattered throughout are fun little references to red pandas and details that let you create a story surrounding where these characters are coming from and where they are going next when they get on the subway train.

SH: What excites you about your work / creative process?

MG: I have a ton of fun working out compositions. I start with an idea and then do a photoshoot with friends or family members. Next, I work up a composite in photoshop where I start to visualize what the painting will look like. I spend most of this stage laughing. I find that when the image cracks me up I know it will make a good painting. The rest of the time is spent executing the actual painting. This entails many hours of intense concentration and it is very satisfying to see the image start to emerge over the weeks that I am working on the piece.

At the end I get to share my paintings with other people and their engagement and interest makes it all worth it.

SH: What frustrates you about your work / the creative process?

MG: What frustrates me is also what I love about the creative process – that I am never totally satisfied by how I am painting and there is an endless quest to find ways to paint better. 

I have this obsessive desire to create the perfect painting, almost like Ahab chasing his whale. I am always coming up with new ideas for both my concepts and my technique and every time I finish a painting I get new ideas for what to change in my process on the next one.

SH: A Netflix movie is being made about your life, who would be cast to play you and what kind of movie would it be? Try to describe it with similar movies.  

MG: It would be a documentary akin to Andy Warhol’s film of a man sleeping except it would be me in front of my easel with a painting slowly developing over many many hours. It would be very boring to watch.

SH: What is the best technical advice you’ve received in regards to painting / being an artist? What is the best philosophical advice you’ve received?

MG: This isn’t advice that I have received from someone, but have found – there are no shortcuts. 
Philosophical advice: find your voice. Figure out what the art is you really want to make. Find what is interesting and personal to you and express that with your art. 

SH: Are you a podcast, tv/ movie streaming service, or music in the background type of painter? What were you listening to during the development of this show that you would recommend to others?

MG: Most of the time I listen to audiobooks while I’m painting. When I’m composing a piece I need it to be quiet but when I’m painting listening to a story helps me concentrate. I love that painting allows me to listen to books all day long. I can’t imagine ever having had the time to sit down and get through War and Peace but by listening it only took me a couple of weeks. All of these stories then feed me creative ideas all day which I can then incorporate into my work.  

Often when I find an author I love I go through everything they have written. Some favorites include James Clavell, Neil Gaiman, James Heller, Alexandre Dumas, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Larry McMurtry, and Marcel Proust.

My favorite author of late is Neil Stevenson. During the preparation for this show, I have listened to Snowcrash, The  Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, Seveneves, and Reamde. His stories include a great mix of science, culture, history, technology and his writing is fluid, witty, and insightful.

SH: Dead or alive, who would you most like to collaborate with on a piece? What do you imagine the piece would look like or be?

MG: I would be really interested in collaborating with an artist who works in a  different medium, not necessarily a painter. Perhaps one of my favorite filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro, Terry Gilliam or David Lynch. They all have a mix of realism with surrealism/fantasy in their films which are elements that I always try to include in my work. I have no idea what it would look like but it would be interesting to see what would develop through the process of collaborating.

SH: What is the coolest or most exciting thing to happen to you thus far in life and it is because of or connected to your work?

MG: I fell in love with realistic oil paintings when I was in college. I saw these incredible pieces in museums and I had a powerful urge to learn how to paint like that. I started off by buying some oil paints and brushes and tried to make something like what I had been admiring but I wasn’t able to even come close. Now after years of study and practice, I have gotten to the point where I am able to make oil paint match the images I see in my head and that is immensely satisfying and a great sense of accomplishment. While I’m sure I will spend the rest of my life trying to refine my technique I have finally gotten to a point where I can express myself through oil.

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