Briefly describe the work you do.
I am an abstract painter. I make paintings, drawings, and some sculpture.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I grew up in Indiana and was drawing regularly for as long as I can remember. Play with friends in my suburban youth usually involved raiding a few construction sites for scraps of wood and making things; bike and skate ramps, forts and the like. My neighbor’s dad was an engineer and built all kinds of amazing things. He and his two sons collected butterflies, and I loved helping. I remember summers spent making butterfly nets out of broom handles, heavy wire, and netting from the fabric store. We chased monarchs and tiger swallows in the woods and fields and were mostly catch and release hunters. We caught lightning bugs in jars and snakes with our hands, the former to the delight and the latter to the horror of my mother. We ran in the woods and fished in the creek. I think these things were deeply influential and writing this, I feel like I’m having a Mark Twain moment. Although I am very much an urbanite as an adult, I am still drawn to and moved by nature. Despite this Huck Finn-ish reminiscing, my youth was mostly predictable-suburban, and by my adolescence I started to feel it’s dullness. I had a great high school art teacher, who really encouraged me and my parents were always very supportive. I went to undergrad in my hometown. I knew that I wanted to be an artist and I was sure that meant I needed to leave. I wanted to leave desperately, but life is complex and the right choice was definitely to stay put for a bit. I had amazing peers and professors at the University of Southern Indiana who continue to challenge and inspire me. While in grad school at the University of Delaware, which was also an amazing experience, I spent maybe 30% of my time working as an artist assistant in New York and getting an introduction to things.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
My relationship to the studio has grown over time. Coming out of school, I was empowered by a post studio ideal. I found freedom in needing nothing to make art but ideas, actions, and some sort of record. This started to change for me about ten years ago. I had begun making drawings and physical objects again, in my apartment and started spending a lot of time alone, with the work. In the space and the solitude and the focus, I found my groove. I’m busy, like most people I know. I’m the Head of Visual Arts at Suffolk County Community College (Ammerman Campus) and the Director of the Flecker Gallery at the College. This is quite a demanding job. My nights and weekends are spent in the studio. Either in my Bushwick studio, or in my apartment in Greenpoint, about half of which is drawing studio where I also make a little bit of small sculpture. Breaks from teaching also give me long blocks of studio time. These stretches are critical. I am fortunate to be able to spend much of the summer upstate, reading, painting, and spending time in nature and with my family.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I think what surprises me most is my role as artist-teacher. Not that I am surprised to be doing it; my most influential mentors were all teachers. What I am surprised by is what it means and what it is to run a department. I am a full time advocate for art. It is a commitment to get everybody, not just students, on board with the idea that art is essential and to broaden understanding and exposure. This can be a challenging enterprise, no doubt, but those moments when I see that I’ve influenced someone’s point of view, helped them to see more fully and sensitively, or created opportunity for the students, faculty, and artists I work with, those moments are magic.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I often work in the available time in order to find the time. But when I have a full day, I prefer to read and write in the morning and I like to get to the studio in the early afternoon. I think I start to lose focus and good judgment after six or seven hours.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
It’s been a very focused five years for me. Drawing has re-entered my paintings in the last year. My vocabulary of forms and colors expands and contracts, this brings in additional elements, and then distils again. It is a slow process, and a relatively narrow, focused range. I saw a filmed interview not too long a go with Charles Seliger, a younger contemporary of DeKooning whom I was previously unfamiliar with. In it he said there are two kinds of artists; those who move horizontally from new idea to new idea and those who move vertically plumbing the depths of one thing. I would say six or seven years ago, I transitioned from being the first kind to the second. Where I once felt a great enthusiasm for having no parameters other than a loyalty to my own ideas, a very conceptual approach, I now find a sense of infinite freedom working in one vein, with limited materials, one set of basic, ancient, but pertinent tools.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
My wife, Rebecca Murtaugh, is the best partner on this journey I could imagine. We share so much common ground. We support and influence each other beyond measure. I try to be a good father and to live as an example for my daughter, Cyna, which has always affected my choices. My parents encouraged me to find my passion. My teachers and mentors: Jon Siau, Lenny Dowhie, Katie Waters, and Victor Spinski had immeasurable influence. I saw a Nam Jun Paik retrospective in high school and a Mike Kelley show not long after and both completely blew my mind. Lately I really love Ben Shahn’s writing on art and Frank Stella’s Working Space. I love to read artists writings and interviews. Thomas Micchelli is insightful and eloquent, a delight to read. Thelonious Monk and David Bowie continue to teach me new things.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
I never entertained the possibility. I do teach, curate, and direct a small gallery, but I see these roles as hats that I wear as an artist, not separate in any way. I think if I couldn’t do this or had to move on for some reason, well, I just don’t have an answer and I hope I never have to.
Matthew Neil Gehring studied at the University of Southern Indiana (BS), and the University of Delaware (MFA), and Skidmore College (summer program). He relocated to the Northern California coast in 2001 after completion of his degrees where he lived for two years, making and exhibiting artwork while teaching sculpture at Humboldt State University. In 2003, he accepted a faculty position in the Art Department at Syracuse University where he lived and worked for the next four years. In 2007 he relocated, to Brooklyn, NY where he has been for the last seven years, maintaining an active studio practice and exhibition schedule. He has exhibited in numerous group exhibitions and eight solo exhibitions, including a recent solo show at the Dishman Art Museum at Lamar University in Beaumont, TX, upcoming solo shows at the Islip Art Museum in East Islip, NY and also City Ice Arts in Kansas City, MO, recent group exhibitions, Meta Vista, at 16 Wilson (formerly Storefront Bushwick), Brooklyn, NY, and Eight Painters, organized by Paul Behnke at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, New York, NY. Matthew’s work has been featured or reviewed in publications including The New Criterion, Art Journal, Art Review, and ArtWeek. He is currently an Associate Professor of Art and Head of Visual Arts at SUNY Suffolk and the Director of the Flecker Gallery at the same institution.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.