Thinkspace presents Matthew Grabelsky’s ‘Riders’ where his new body of work continues his exploration of people with animal heads riding the New York City Subway, and in one case the London Tube. Each painting contains elements from pop culture (a magazine, a poster, a tattoo, a character in the background) which relate to the specific animal, creating a series of humorous tableaux. With a realistically rendered and highly detailed oil painting technique, his goal is to create the effect of looking at a scene on the subway as if it were a diorama at a natural history museum. The images present richly detailed moments frozen in time allowing the viewer to closely inspect every element and make connections between them to read an overall story. In this world, people are transformed into part-animal to create scenes that are strange, funny, and endearing.
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.
Our interview with Matthew Grabelsky reveals how he linked up with Thinkspace, the reason he had to recreate one of his paintings, and which animal he would choose to do a self-portrait.
How long have you been showing with Thinkspace? What does having an exhibition up at the Brand Library and Arts Center mean to you?
My first show with Thinkspace was back in 2012. I’d walked into the gallery without knowing anything about it and loved what they had up. LC was there and I started talking to him. He asked to see what I did and I showed him a few photos of my paintings. He loved them and showed them to Andrew. Andrew invited me to put a piece in a group show they had opening a few weeks later and I’ve been showing with Thinkspace ever since.
Seeing my paintings up at the Brand has been a huge thrill. I’ve been going to look at art in museums my whole life and seeing a room at a museum full of my paintings feels like validation. Around the end of college, I decided I wanted to be a painter. I would look at detailed realistic oil paintings and have this overwhelming feeling that I had to make something like that. Learning to do it took years of study and working on my technique and subject matter. When I stepped into the room at the Brand with my work for the first time I felt I’d accomplished what I set out to do all those years ago.
A handful of the pieces have film references accompanying their subway rider. Do these films have a greater meaning or reflect an influence on you as an artist/person? Or were they fun explorations in anthropomorphic associations?
I picked the films because they had fun associations with the animals in the paintings. In “Crow-Magnon” the figure has a crow’s head and is dressed all in black. Adding Brandon Lee as Eric Draven from “The Crow,” standing on the platform, struck me as fun goth touch. In “Giddy Up” the guy is dressed as a cowboy and has a horse’s head. I added the poster from “City Slickers” as well as Billy Crystal reflected in the window in his character from the film as funny connections to my city cowboy. In “Gotham Local” I wanted to make a Batman-themed piece because he’s always been my favorite superhero. Tim Burton’s first batman with Micheal Keaton was the seminal batman from my childhood so I used references from that film, including the batman logo on the t-shirt and Jack Nicholson as the Joker standing outside the window. In “Polly Wanna Cracker” a girl with a parrot head eats Ritz Crackers. I thought it would be funny to have a pirate standing on the platform. I chose a guy dressed as Keith Richards’ character from Pirates of the Caribbean because it felt culturally relevant. Finally in “An American Werewolf in London” a guy with a wolf’s head rides the London tube. This painting started as a joke when a friend said he thought it would be funny if I made a painting based on that film. I loved the idea so I filled the piece with references to the movie including dressing him like the titular character and even putting a still from the movie on the newspaper that he’s reading.
What was the most challenging piece in this exhibition? How did it help you grow as an artist?
Every time I make a painting I run into new challenges I have to figure out. Sometimes it has to do with the composition and sometimes it’s a technical aspect when I start working on the canvas. That’s part of what keeps painting interesting for me. This time around the biggest challenge had to do with painting denim. It’s a tricky texture because denim is made up of blue intermixed with specks of raw white cotton and faded to varying degrees in different areas. If not done right it ends up looking like plain blue fabric.
I spent a whole day painting the jeans in the werewolf piece and thought it looked pretty good when I went to sleep. I woke up in the morning and with a fresh eye, it just didn’t look right. I let it dry for a few days then painted that whole area back to white so I could start from the beginning. I experimented for a few weeks with different methods of layering the oil paint and finally found a technique that worked. I repainted the jeans and they looked great. There were several other paintings in the show with blue denim so I used the same method and each time it worked like a charm.
The opening at The Brand Library and Art Center was quite the scene; what was one of your favorite moments from the evening?
The opening night blew me away. There must have been a couple of thousand people passing through that evening. I spent countless hours alone in my studio working on the paintings with the hope that they would connect with people and engage them. There were so many times that night that I would see groups of people looking at my paintings, talking about them, and laughing at the humor in them. Each time I saw that it made me smile and told me that all the work was worth it.
The “Hello Kitten” piece was a recreation of a similar piece that was lost, what made you decide to revisit this work? Where do you think (or imagine) that piece is now?
Sadly the first version disappeared during shipping and was never found. It was a very meaningful piece for me and it strongly connected with lots of people. I’m hoping that it either got sent to the wrong place or someone stole it so it’s still around somewhere.
It was the thought that it may have ended up in the trash that make me want to recreate it. I hated the idea that I worked so hard on the original and now no one may ever get to see it again. I had all my original studies so I decided to make a second version. I intended to stick quite close to the original but as I started the new version I found several things that I thought would improve it without losing what made the first one a success. I made it larger so the figures would be life-size. That gave the sense that the mother and daughter were in the same room with you. I added a red bow to the little girl’s hair to match the cartoon character. In the first version, she was just wearing socks so I added a pair of shoes. I adjusted the perspective slightly so that the girl’s head was fully surrounded by the blue of the subway seat which made her head pop out a bit more to focus your attention there. Finally, for a fun little inside joke, I removed the glasses from the guy reflected in the window. A lot of people have asked me who he is and he’s my friend who’s the father of the little girl. Since I made the first version he got Lasik surgery and doesn’t wear glasses anymore.
If you were to do a self-portrait, what animal and iconography would be included in that piece?
I’ve been thinking about painting a self-portrait of myself as a raccoon. A big raccoon used to sleep in the bush right outside my studio window. I loved watching it and got kind of obsessed with raccoons. They’re super clever and can do amazing things with their hands. As someone who works with his hands all day, I can relate.
How has understanding the chemical properties of oil paint influenced the development of your technique?
I strongly believe that the medium you create art with has a huge impact on the end product. This ranges from the aesthetic qualities of a particular medium to the way that working with one might give you different creative ideas than you would get from another. There are many ways to make a realistic image from painting which reaches back to the beginning of humanity itself to more recently photography, digital rendering, and now even AI image generators.
I love oil paint for two reasons. Aesthetically oil painting has a unique textural look unlike anything else. Oil paint is extremely versatile. It dries slowly by oxidation with the air so it stays workable for a long time. That lets me apply oil paint to my canvas and blend into it to get very subtle effects. By adding different oils and solvents to the paint I’m able to adjust the consistency which lets me get a range in surface quality. The paint stands out a bit more in some places and is thinner and more transparent in others.
Secondly, building up an image with oil paint takes many layers and lots of time. The result is that I’m working with my hands directly on a canvas for many many hours and inevitably during that time I get ideas that I add to the painting that I didn’t have when I came up with the initial composition. These are sometimes big changes and sometimes small but they always make the image much richer than what I started out intending to paint.
The New York subway still remains your main backdrop/ third character in the compositions. In this body of work, you included the London Tube, but have you ever considered painting the LA Metro? If so or if not, please elaborate.
I’ve lived in LA for over ten years now but I’m still a New Yorker at heart. This series started on the New York City Subway and that has been the setting for the majority of my paintings. I love the subway because it’s an iconic New York location instantly recognizable to anyone who’s been there. It is also a central mixing place for people in the city. When I had the idea to do a werewolf in London, the London Tube seemed like an obvious spot to bring one of my characters. It plays a similar role in London as the subway does in New York. A scene from the movie that inspired the piece even takes place in one of the Tube tunnels. As far as Los Angeles, while there is a metro and I’ve ridden it a bit, it doesn’t feel like a particularly central part of the city. At its core, LA is still a car city. When I think of LA I think more of the landscape with its palm trees, beaches, and mountains. To that end, the one painting I’ve done set in LA so far takes place on the beach right in front of the Santa Monica Pier. If I do more paintings set in LA that is probably the direction I will take.
Studying in Italy led you to pivot your career path from astrophysics to art. What is a significant moment from that time there that has stuck with you and informed the person you are today, beyond just being a full-time artist?
My experience in Italy was amazing and changed the course of my life. I was fascinated by astrophysics and enjoyed studying it in college. However, when I was dropped into an immersive painting experience in Italy it gave me a different level of satisfaction. I was living in Florence which is a living museum. Just walking down the street I would pass incredible frescos, sculptures, and architecture. Italy has a sensuousness about it, more than any other place I’ve been. It is full of beauty and made me want to create beauty. Italians also have a way of focusing on enjoying life. Italy convinced me to be an artist professionally and also taught me to enjoy life along the way.
There are more than several amazing pieces in the exhibition, and this might be a difficult question, but are you up for the challenge – what piece would you want to add to your art collection, and why?
There’s something I love in all of them but I’d pick the one I did of the crow. My mom was the model so it’s a particularly personal one for me. I got the idea for it when I was on a trip with my mom to Sicily. We were crossing the street and a car was coming which made her nervous and she made a sound like the caw of a crow. I instantly knew I wanted to paint her as a crow. The painting is full of references to my mom. “CAW!” is painted across the back of the seat on one side in my mom’s handwriting. On the other side, her name is painted to look like it’s scratched into the plastic, again in her handwriting. On another part of the seat, I put a sticker that says “I Love My Mom.” On the platform outside the window, you can see Eric Draven from “The Crow” which I saw in the theater with my mom when I was in high school.
On view only until this Friday March 17th at The Brand Library and Arts Center in Glendale, California.