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’s “Jungle Train” opens Saturday, August 3rd.

MATTHEW GRABELSKY
Jungle Train
August 3 – August 24. 2019

Opening Reception with the Artist(s):
Saturday, August 3, 2019
6:00pm – 9:00pm 

On view in the Thinkspace project room is Jungle Train, featuring new oil paintings by Los Angeles-based artist Matthew Grabelsky. His works combine a hyperrealistic painting technique with a surreal penchant for unlikely juxtapositions. Raised in New York City, Grabelsky uses its subway’s underground world as the setting for his unlikely pairings.

Grabelsky’s works depict his subjects traveling on subways, often nonchalantly reading magazines or newspapers, while the protagonists in these dyads are strange, quasi-mythological human hybrids with animal heads. Deer, bears, elephants, tigers, and everything in between, make a suited appearance in rush hour. By contrasting the platitudes of the day-to-day with the presence of the extraordinary and unlikely, Grabelsky stages the unexpected within the most unassuming of circumstances.

The appearance of the animal head feels distantly totemic, an archetype for something primordial, ancient, and psychologically motivated. Fascinated by the persistence of animal imagery in mythology and communal cultural imaginaries, Grabelsky superimposes its presence onto his depictions of the contemporary world. For the artist, the animal becomes a manifestation of the inner workings of the hidden subconscious, literally revealing the latent identities and motivations lurking beyond the composure of the human mask.

Technically inspired by 19th Century academic and naturalist painters, Grabelsky creates these unlikely, surreal scenes with a staggering degree of realistic detail. The contrast created between the visual verisimilitude of the works, and the surreal improbability of their content catches the viewer in a prolonged moment of convincingly suspended disbelief.

Interview with Frank Gonzales for “Desert Discourse”

We’re excited to be showing new work by Pheonix-based artist Frank Gonzales in our project room for his solo exhibition Desert Discourse opening Saturday, March 2nd. Gonzales’s compostions showcase his love of botany and ornithology, combining both the organic and artificial, the natural and the contrived, to produce what the artist himself has aptly coined ‘artificial realism.’

In anticipation of Desert Discourse our interview with Frank Gonzales discusses the inspiration behind this latest body or work, and his love for prickly pear and John Coltrane.

SH: What was the inspiration behind this latest body of work? Were you exploring a specific theme or pushing yourself artistically in a certain way?

FG: I’m always trying to push myself artistically with each painting or body of work, at least I try.  The theme of my work is a continued exploration of the phenomena and sense of wonder I hold of the natural world. There’s been an introduction of aerosol in some of the works. Its been great To revisit my roots as a graff writer and play with the medium again. The quality of paint and options of colors offered these days are phenomenal. That kind of makes me sound old, haha. It’s just great to throw another medium in the mix and react to it. 

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.

FG: I really enjoyed painting Night Breed. It’s more specific imagery wise. Instead of stacking various elements I chose to illustrate a pollinating night scene of a Saguaro with Long Nosed Bats. There are so many different pollinators of the Saguaro, but a night scene with bats is just so badss. Its remarkable knowing a Saguaro doesn’t even produce flowers until its around 70 years old and can age well over 100 years old! Pollination of flowering cactus in the Sonoran Desert could be a whole series in itself. Who knows, that could be another venture to explore on the horizon!   

SH: How do you approach starting a new piece? Walk us through the process of a piece from conception to completion. 

FG: I’ll usually start by obsessing over a certain cactus or mineral or some sort of natural element as a jump-off point. Or I will just start putting down paint on a surface and react with shapes and colors, etc. Its a pretty organic process.

Once I have a surface I’m happy with I will start to research from books, pics I’ve documented, my desktop folder of images, or plants from my own collection. Once an element is chosen I’ll draw it on the surface and it grows from there. The painting will usually dictate what it needs. The hardest part is learning to step aside from yourself and let it happen without getting too heady about it.

The painting process is usually a blur of being in the moment. I love that the most. All sense of time is gone until you stop and back away. It’s an experience I think most artists can relate to. 

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

FG: It can be a love/hate relationship. Sometimes starting is the hardest part and also the most exciting. As mentioned above I think getting out of the way of yourself and moving with the process is exciting. There’s a sort of dialogue that happens I find enjoyable. 

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

FG: The times where you feel like you’ve run out of ideas or stopping yourself mentally before even starting. This is usually a sign that something needs to change. Find a different approach or just change the music. In the end the work will still be consistent, but its the mental chatter that can be a bit of a buzz kill. I definitely think the excitement and frustration balance each other out. You can’t have one without the other. 

SH: Is there a piece of knowledge or advice around being a working artist that you wish you knew 10 years ago? 

FG: Not really. Its an ongoing journey to be explored. 

SH: If your body of work inspired an ice cream flavor, what would it be called and what are the ingredients?

FG: Hmmm, maybe Prickly Pear fruit! I would have to be a Paleta and all natural. HA! 

SH: If you could collaborate with any other artist (dead or alive) in any art form, such as music, film, dance etc… what would be your dream collab and what would you create?

FG: At first my thoughts would be to do live art with John Coltrane, but I wouldn’t get anything done because I would probably just stand there in awe. I would probably have to go with producing some type of super sexy and sensual botanicals for a Prince album. HAHA. 

SH: What do you think the role of artists is in society? How does other artwork inform how you move through life?

FG: The role of artists in society is very vital. It’s how we communicate and express the unspeakable truths of natural phenomena. Language can only communicate so much. There are so many forms of art out there that inspire, inform and speak to me. It shows what it means to be human. It’s chaos, it’s ugly, it’s pretty, it’s functional, it’s useless, etc. It’s all out there. What matters is how we engage with it. It’s about what we choose to accept and not accept and to keep an open mind and heart regardless.

 SH: Favorite way to celebrate the completion of a project/body of work?

FG: a big sigh and some brews. ha!

Join us for the opening reception of Desert Discourse, Saturday March 2nd from 6 to 9 pm.

Frank Gonzales’s “Desert Discourse” showing March 2019.

FRANK GONZALES
DESERT DISCOURSE
March 2 – March 23, 2019

Concurrently on view in the Thinkspace project room is Desert Discourse, featuring new works by painter Frank Gonzales. Born in Mesa, Arizona, the artist is currently based in Phoenix and incorporates the desert botanicals and bird specimens native to the surrounding area into his vibrant and detailed paintings. His love of botany and ornithology have sought expression in works that combine both the organic and artificial, the natural and the contrived, to produce what the artist himself has aptly coined ‘artificial realism.’

This balance between life and design is at the forefront of Gonzales’ practice; rarely ever planning a piece with preliminaries before its set to a panel, the artist is resolving the composition in paint as it unfolds in real time and as it’s made. The resulting works convey an organic sense of balance and an internal logic. In this new body of work, Gonzales incorporates looser areas of paint application, using a freer stylization to offset the precise handling of others, while he has also included new geological elements like crystals and geodes.

Amidst beautifully rendered natural specimens – everything from brilliant birds, exotic cacti, lush desert blooms, to prismatic rock – the artist’s surreal stylization prevails, bringing the extant to strange, vibrant, new life. Gonzales’ works are punctuated by moments of graphic mark making and intentionally synthetic motifs in bright, electric hues, providing visual contrast to the tightly rendered counterpoint of the wildlife specimens.

Inspired by the vastness of the desert’s natural landscape and the humbling impermanence it invokes, Gonzales combines the intuitive and the observed in a contemporary take on the Naturalist’s obsession.

Stephanie Buer & Daniel Bilodeau Opening Reception – January 5, 2019

Thank you to all those who made it out to the first opening of 2019. We kicked off the year with new works from Portland-based artists Stephanie Buer in our main room and New York-based artists Danial Bilodeau in the project room, with wire works by Spenser Little in the office space. The exhibition drew a great turnout despite the Los Angeles rain and set a nice tone for the rest of the year. Make sure to come out and see both exhibitions now on view till January 26th.

To view available pieces from Stephanie Buer’s “Wild Abandon” and David Bilodeau’s “State of the Art” visit the Thinkspace website.