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.

Matthew Grabelsky Interviewed on the PO SHO

Matthew Grabelsky

Last month’s project room artist, Matthew Grabelsky was recently interviewed on hybrid podcast/web series the PO SHO to discuss his work and other fun topics. View the full interview in the YouTube video below and check out available works from Grabelsky over on the Thinkspace website here.

Interview with Matthew Grabelsky for “Underground”

matt grabelsky banner

Thinkspace Gallery is proud to present Matthew Grabelsky’s first solo exhibition with us, Underground, in the gallery’s project room. In anticipation of the show we have an exclusive interview with Matthew Grabelsky sharing with us insight into the anthropomorphic nature of his work, the special place a subway holds in society, and his artistic influences.

Please tell us a lil’ bit about your background?
I come from an artistic family (Father – film and television producer; Mother – dancer), so I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember. I was fortunate that my parents always encouraged and supported me in it. In college, I studied both art and science, and I graduated with a BS in Astrophysics and a BA in Art & Art History. Although I chose to pursue an artistic career, I have found that my scientific background has influenced my work significantly. My paintings are highly technical, and I often employ a scientific, analytical approach (knowledge of light, perspective, physics, etc.) in creating my images, both in terms of conception and execution. After graduating from college, I moved to Florence, Italy, where I spent four years studying representational painting. Afterward, I lived in Paris for several years, where I continued to paint and studied from the vast troves of art in the Paris museums. I currently reside in Los Angeles.

Matthew Grabelsky Franklin Street

Why the representational use of animal heads in your work?
I’ve always loved animals and mythology, as a result of being exposed extensively to both as a child. My parents were always taking me to the zoo and spent tons of time reading all kinds of stories to me. As I grew older, I became enthralled with the ways in which mythologies from different cultures make use of animal and animal-human hybrid characters to symbolize the mysterious nature of the subconscious.

These creatures in my paintings serve to inject an element of surrealism into one of the most commonplace experiences of life and of New York (e.g., public transportation). The characters are symbolic of the kinds of thoughts that lie under the surface of people’s minds, and they reveal that the most extraordinary can exist in the most ordinary of everyday settings. This theme is communicated through the juxtaposition of these ostensibly irrational images with otherwise completely mundane scenes. My idea is that my creatures are not original but are ultimately part of a much larger cultural continuum. My paintings are not intended to be explicit fantasy; rather, they are representations of the subconscious on which viewers are invited to form their own interpretations.

Couples seem to play an important role in your work. Care to elaborate?
In an image of a pair of people, the body language and the relationship of a couple are momentarily frozen. I am fascinated by the story-telling possibilities that spring from this moment.

WIP Matthew Grabelsky Underground

Any significance to the fact your subjects are often times found reading?
I like to have my subjects reading (magazines, newspapers, books, smart phones) because that provides a vivid and detailed point of interest in the painting, from which I create an entrance into the narrative that is taking place between the couple. Sometimes I’ll choose more serious fare like The New Yorker or The New York Times, and sometimes I’ll choose something from contemporary pop culture, like Cosmopolitan or GQ; the choice depends on the subject matter. I love to juxtapose the medium of a very polished and refined oil painting with the momentary, disposable pop culture that is represented by the reading material. The result is a fascinating mixture of high-brow and low-brow.

The magazines, in particular, are kind of amazing from a very base psychological standpoint; even if you think they are ridiculous, the covers are vividly designed with color, images, and text that grab your attention. You can’t not look at them at the check-out counter at the supermarket. In a sense, they similarly utilize the heightened visual language that I use in creating paintings that attempt to grab viewers and bring them into the world of my paintings.

Why do only the men have animal heads in your paintings?
My paintings are very personal. Therefore, I enter them through the perspective of a man, and I imagine scenes through a man’s eyes. The male figure is my avatar, while I view the female figure externally. The female figures are representative of the different women in my life. People have asked if I am saying that all men are animals. That is not my intention. If you look into world mythologies, you will discover that it is almost always the male who has an animal head. Two examples that come to mind are the bull-headed minotaur in Greek mythology and Ganesh, with an elephant head, in Indian mythology. Thus, I believe that representing the male with an animal head furthers my goal of tying my paintings into the larger continuum of world mythology.

Matthew Grabelsky Houston Street. Underground

How do you choose your models?
My models are all friends and family members. I really enjoy working with people I know well, because that helps me to capture a sense of realism in my characters. Using actual couples provides a kind of dynamism, which comes from the manners in which the couples pose. Generally, I’ll give them some instructions on what I want them to be doing, but the real spark comes from how they react to each other and their particular body language.

How do you choose the animal that you’ll feature?
I have my models pose in my studio, and I shoot a bunch of reference photos. Then, I review the photos and pick the most interesting ones. Sometimes I’ll have had a particular idea in mind for the painting, along with which animal I want to use. Other times, a certain pose, expression, look, gesture, or item of clothing will suggest a specific animal. There are times during which I’ll try several different animals, and then one will just pop.

Matthew Grabelsky Subway WIP

Why have you chosen the subway as your setting?
The subway is the circulatory system of New York. It’s a place where everyone comes together. No matter who you are, you will be on the subway at some point during the day. It is iconic and instantly recognizable. I grew up in New York, and I spent countless hours riding the subway. Although I live in Los Angeles now, my imagination puts me back on those trains whenever I think of my past. I often visit New York, but I find that painting these scenes while I am away from there gives me a form of clarity and allows me to reflect on that inspiration and organize it into my subway scenes. Memory is essential to my process; as an artist, I take different elements from my memory and combine them in an image.

Any major influences you care to share?
I draw a great deal of influence from painters and filmmakers who mix surrealism with realism. A few painters that have an outsize influence in my work are Arnold Böcklin and John William Waterhouse – both 19th-century artists – particularly because of the naturalism (rather than an allegorical approach) with which they paint mythological subjects. As for filmmakers, my absolute favorites are Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys), Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), and David Lynch (Mulholland Drive).

Additionally, I am always looking at imagery wherever I go (ads, billboards, magazines, film, etc.), and I draw ideas from everything I see.

Matthew Grabelsky Lincoln Center Underground

Care to elaborate any more on your style and technique?
My technique is highly realistic and heavily influenced by my studies of 19th-century academic and naturalist painters. These methods appeal to me, because of their rigorous approaches to accurately capturing visual appearances. Using those paintings as a jumping-off point, I’ve developed a visual language that allows me to create personal contemporary compositions. While people often describe my work as hyperrealist, my goal is to portray light, form, and texture very realistically but not to the level of microscopic detail, such as the pores of the skin.

I chose this technique because I want to depict my surrealistic elements in a manner that is so realistic that you feel like you are actually sitting on the subway with these creatures; even though they are fantastical, the realism and candor with which they are painted makes you forget that fact. At the same time, I arrange the figures, backgrounds, and colors in specific ways, in order to provide the sense of a heightened moment. It is like a snapshot that just happens to capture the moment when everything lines up perfectly. My paintings are executed in oil and currently I paint on panels.

Matthew Grabelsky WIP 3 Underground

Please join us this Saturday, April 30th from 6-9pm for the opening reception of Matthew Grabelsky’s, “Underground.” All additional information on the exhibition can be found on the Thinkspace Gallery website.