Matthew Bourbon Interview: Waiting For Now

Spring, 2019

Patrick Kelly: I would first like to ask about your background—where you were raised, your formal (or informal) education, and what brought you to Texas.

Matthew Bourbon: I was raised in northern California in a small town about an hour south of San Francisco. Like many artists, as a young person I had an affinity for drawing and painting. My mother and uncle are painters—so I saw and appreciated how paintings were made. However, I never considered art as a life pursuit, until I witnessed professional artists working while I was attending UC Davis. At first, I thought I would transfer from UC Davis to UCLA to become a filmmaker. I had made a series of short films with friends in high school, and because of my interest in movies, it seemed like a reasonable place to direct my ambitions. After taking the only film class at UC Davis (which was housed in the Art Department), my eyes were quickly opened to the possibility of pursuing what I always loved—drawing and painting. I stumbled into an amazing art program, taking courses from artists like Wayne Thiebaud, Squeak Carnwath and Roy De Forest. This was my first exposure to people who were deeply connected to the daily practice of making art. After changing majors and earning separate degrees in Studio Art and Art History, I moved to San Francisco and painted in a small bedroom studio until I applied to graduate school. I was accepted to various programs, but the lure of New York City was strong, and I ended up going to the School of Visual Arts in Chelsea. Being in New York was fantastic for a young art student. SVA had several faculty that had a large impact on me; I recall that Jerry Saltz would take us around the city and we’d sometimes hold class in Soho and Chelsea galleries. Being in front of quality work and seeing so much variety helped clarify my own values as an artist. Looking back, Jake Berthot and Gary Stephan were also instrumental to my education; both pushed me to get past some artistic hang-ups that helped redirect the trajectory of my work. It was also at this time that I started writing reviews of other artists' exhibitions. I landed a job as a paid writer at New York Arts Magazine and wrote hundreds of short reviews. Writing about so many different artists really places you in the means and methods of other people. It proved a big part of my training as a thinker and educator. After earning my MFA, I taught foundation level art courses at a small private school in New York. Meanwhile, I applied to teaching gigs around the country. The reason I ended up in Texas is really due to the artist Vernon Fisher. I applied for a Painting position at the University of North Texas, primarily because I knew Vernon taught at what is now the College of Visual Arts and Design. I respected Vernon’s work, having seen it in New York. Coming from Manhattan, I had no real sense of North Texas, but I knew I did not want to be too far outside of a major city. I figured if Vernon taught at UNT then it was worth offering my application. Long story short, I was hired in 2000 and have been here ever since. I feel fortunate to have come to a state with so many great artists, a healthy gallery system, and major arts institutions. Texas has been good to me. 

PK: Having experienced the east and west coast art worlds, was there anything about the “Texas scene” that stood out...either positive or negative? Also, in the 18 years you have been here, have these changed or remained constant?

MB: When I moved from New York to Texas, the differences felt cultural. I would go to a store or restaurant and people were authentically friendly. I was accustomed to mild disinterest in New York. It is a bit of a cliché in both directions, but I certainly felt the change. As for art, the differences were mostly about the openness I experienced in the Texas scene. New York, especially larger Chelsea galleries, can feel a bit sterile and intimidating. The people running the spaces are under such financial pressures with the cost of NY real estate, that they can be curt or aloof to the “regular” visitor to their space. It is also about the scale of the market; the generally smaller gallery operations in Texas allow for a more human touch. I also believe the barriers for an artist to enter into the gallery system are lower in Texas. Many galleries here are true labors of love, or DIY spaces that have more freedom and willingness to try their hand at “undiscovered” talent. Texas sometimes, and in certain places, has a conservative streak in what gets shown, promoted, and collected, but there are plenty of pockets of boldness that are very appealing about our locale. In the time I have lived here, the scene has been relatively constant. Galleries have obviously come and gone, but new ones arise and a vibrant arts activity always seems to be percolating upward—perhaps from the abundance of university programs—as much as other causes.

PK: Was there a recognizable visual or conceptual shift in your work after your “Texas arrival?” Can you describe your work prior to that and how it has evolved since?

MB: I am always focused on what’s in the studio at the moment, but if I reflect back on the past 18 years, there’s been a gradual transition in my work. When I first arrived in Texas, my paintings were based directly on fragments of old film stills and advertising photographs. In the paintings from this time I was intent on altering my source material and changing or highlighting the potential meaning inherent to the original image. As the years passed I began to adopt a wider vocabulary of sources, and I became increasingly interested in combining descriptive painting with areas that are more or less “abstract”. Around 2005, my driving curiosity became using diverse visual languages to see how they could coexist within a discrete scene (usually of people in rooms), and how obscuring “realistic” information could lead to a more open way of interpreting what is depicted. I was, and continue to be, fascinated with how images are understood or misunderstood.  

Recently I have moved away from using obvious figurative elements in my paintings, which is a significant shift in my process. While I’m still thinking of competing visual languages, and “abstraction” as an active force in my paintings, I’m now seeking a framework that is more elemental. The new paintings have a nominal perceptual reality, but I’m no longer motivated by larger ideas of narrative, nor am I adhering as strongly to the rules of traditional descriptive painting. My work for the Cell Series has me thinking about fundamental ideas of sculpture as object, architecture as body, and simple forms as potential carriers for the entire world—albeit through the lens of painting. As a long-time meditator, I think this new work is also impacted by the stillness associated with regularly sitting zazen.

PK: What do you mean by “…simple forms as potential carriers of the entire world…”?

MB: What I am trying to convey is that the work in this exhibition does not rely as heavily on a dialogical relationship between different styles of painting and different subjects to suggest meaning.  Instead, I am using basic forms as carriers for all of my content and material concerns. I guess it is like looking at the world through a quantum understanding—everything is in a state of flux, but all is made of the same sort of constituent parts. Consequently, in these current paintings a large basic shape depicted within a canvas can simultaneously stand in for architecture, an industrial designed object, or even a landscape.

PK: At this juncture, I likely have only viewed one or two of those “newer” images to reference. Can you describe one work and tell how this concept you just mentioned visually manifests itself?

MB: As I get older, I have more doubts about the world around me, including my relationship to art. The experience one naturally accumulates with age has led me to want my paintings to sit more directly in a place of not knowing. This manifests, as I said before, in using rudimentary forms as the jumping off point in my new work.  It is a kind of inward looking to see outward. The invitation to exhibit in the Cell Series led to a perhaps obvious projection on my part—imagining a human being as a prisoner confined in a small cell. The forced restraint of being held within a jail mirrors a kind of restraint within the new paintings. For instance, in the painting Greeting the Doldrums, I was thinking about the elementary shapes found in Japanese rock gardens. I like how the large boulders in these gardens are meant to be themselves, but they are also meant to be islands, and imaginably even people. I’ve always relished the gamesmanship of competing meanings in art, but with Greeting the Doldrums I was trying to create a painting that on the surface was uncomplicated. It is a bit like the Morandi-model of making art—take a basic thing (bottles) and let the way one paints those items carry more of the meaning. I am not as monkish as Morandi, but that type of reserved sensibility has been creeping into my practice. Because of this shift in my approach, the work for this show is less about overt references and associations internal to each painting, and rather more about finding some essential stimulation—to generate some heat, some life, from the most mundane of circumstances. Perhaps like generating a life for oneself while held prisoner within a cell.



Arch Deceivers: Matthew Bourbon at Avis Frank


December 29th, 2014

At first glance, Matthew Bourbon‘s paintings in Arch Deceivers at Avis Frank Gallery in Houston may seem like self-conscious postmodern pastiche: each is a salad of jarringly contrasting painting styles, text, and virtual collage, but the mix-and-match strategy isn’t the usual riff on art history, it’s the considered choice an urbane observer of contemporary public life. Bourbon is one of those oddball figurative artists like Richard Merkin, R.B. Kitaj, or Francis Bacon who appropriate the vocabulary of modernist abstraction for expressive purposes.

In each of Bourbon’s paintings, human figures are obscured and replaced by patches of pattern painting. Seeing a screen of stripes where one expects a face is off-putting, literally a defacement. It’s the kind of thing art students do to cover their inability to draw, or that upset critics when Cubism was still new.

But Bourbon cloaks his people in abstractions as a metaphor for their social facades, hence the title, Arch Deceivers. It’s no coincidence that the colored stripes and squares recall the pixelation used to obscure faces in anonymous video interviews. Moreover, the patterns suggest the texture of each figure’s personality. This guy is red and yellow stripes. That one is gray brickwork. In Inscrutable Author, a figure bends over a desk, working. We don’t need to read her book to know it’s dry and heady— her gray blocky head is swelling with the disjointed symbols and diagrams painted on the wall behind her.

In Department of Departments three very different figures meet in front of some obscure posters. A slender brown fellow whose head is a thatch of hairy brushstrokes, a woman built from blocks of blue Jell-O, and a bulky, gray guy like a copy machine confer over some obscure policy.­ Bourbon focuses on the way office chats feel, when distinct personalities put their heads together in a hallway.

Bourbon’s also a keen observer of body language. In My Weakness is Your Weakness, a man in a brown jacket reaches out to another man in a white shirt, consoling, cajoling, counseling. The reaching hand is reduced to colorful stripes because it’s the action point of the painting, the point of contact. By contrast, white shirt’s flaccid, imploring hand below is made up of disjointed blocks of color.

All the paintings are interiors, little realist one-act plays set in the familiar world of offices, schools, and homes. Bourbon sets aside the operatic tradition of figurative painting, instead of romance or battle, Bourbon’s people read, sew, or confer quietly; undramatic actions that make the fabric of life in our safe middle-class society. Even Bourbon’s Bad Actors are white-collar criminals.

They’re the kind of pictures you see in corporate annual reports or school course catalogs, given a boost: the erasure of the specifics of individual identities forces us to focus attention on the nuances of these undramatic situations, and allows us to more easily enter the blank spaces Bourbon leaves in his ambiguous stories. It’s the life most of us lead, dull when compared to the turmoil and drama of traditional narrative art, yet through its truthiness, surprisingly affecting.



Content and Interpretation in the work of Matthew Bourbon


DECEMBER 19, 2014

Matthew Bourbon’s latest exhibition of paintings, “Arch Deceivers,” on view at Avis Frank Gallery, immediately incurs a deluge of questions.  His characteristic use of geometric blocks and striations of color to depict figures is as captivating as ever and never belie the narrative.  The scenes hold the abstract and the representational components of the picture in a striking balance, but what are these people’s motives, their story? In Your Weakness is my Weakness, there is a man grabbing hold of another man’s arm in an act of intimacy, or is it a quiet anger? In Bad Actors, two men surreptitiously leaf through a binder- or are they benignly skimming the information?

To get to the bottom of the curious vignettes, the viewer could perhaps turn to the paintings within the paintings, usually a reliable purveyor of insight. Take Inscrutable Authors.  Foregrounded is a human form, the head a patchwork of black and grey squares, the arms and torso horizontal bars of blues and ochers with two pixelated globules for hands.  Painted in the background are enlarged typewriter keys and oversized pages of typewritten text, alongside tiny-pictures painted as though they are taped to the wall; a Magritte-esque pipe, Malevichian squares, a geometric black and white form twisted in on itself.  One could attempt to deepen these images into metaphors, try to get at what symbolism the artwork and text could be referencing, but that somehow feels like over-analyzing and stretching the visual evidence.

Much of Bourbon’s recent work includes imagery “collaged” into the background (Bourbon often considers the works as collages when painting them), but in actuality the collaged elements don’t illuminate much about the scene at all. They don’t serve as points of entry to understanding the work, but nor are they red herrings.  Bourbon knows that text in a painting will be read and interpreted, and image references will be tracked down – but to what end? It’s homage to, and disregard of, debates surrounding collage, and if the source material can ever exist independent of its content.

Despite the abundance and variety of visual elements throughout the work, Bourbon keeps the canvas compositionally uncluttered and tightly edited, the finely rendered backgrounds and pulsating energy of the abstract figures playing off each other perfectly.  In a work like Arch Deceivers, from which the show takes its title, the vertical bars of color that constitute the central figure seem as though they will glitch suddenly against the background, like an image flickering through the cathode ray tubes of an old television.  In fact, their similarity to color bars makes me wonder if the fragmented streaks and chunks of color here are coalescing into representational figure, or on the edge of dissipating completely, as fleeting as the moments Bourbon captures on canvas.


Matthew Bourbon: Arch Deceivers
Avis Frank Gallery
Through Jan. 15



NOVEMBER 5, 2013

HUMAN AND ALIEN: Matthew Bourbon Lets “Internal Disputes” Play Out in Paint

The Dallas Museum of Art recently awarded Texas Biennial participant Matthew Bourbon the Otis and Velma Davis Dozier Travel Grant. Bourbon a painter, critic and associate professor of art at the University of North Texas in Denton, will use it in the spring to conduct research for his painting practice in Tokyo and Kyoto. Bourbon’s work in TX 13remains on view through Nov. 9 at San Antonio’s Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum; he spoke with Dallas artist Benjamin Terry about why he paints.


Matthew Bourbon:  My concerns are not steady. Sometimes a phrase or title will elicit a painting. Occasionally I move in one direction and end in someplace entirely unpredicted. At the start of my process I draw images directly onto canvas until some friction occurs. It is a collage-like process, where I move painted components in and out of the frame of the painting until I am intrigued. Invariably I am responding to my source material, and my initial reaction to film stills, advertising photographs, etc., drives this early activity.

This procedure of sifting through the abundance of imagery that bombards us and then recapitulating my relationship to my adopted images is important to me. In some sense this becomes a social or political activity. I don’t think my work is overtly political or topical in the normal way people associate with political art, but my interaction with and transformation of found imagery is a kind of taking possession, or at least explaining to myself what all these sources can mean to me.


MB:  Yes, on both counts. I do have desires to do different things in my work, and the painting-within-a-painting approach feeds this desire. I also like the idea of setting up different values or competing constituencies within the constrained format of a painting. Since all artworks are arguments for their own existence and importance, in some small way mine argue to the world, but they also have an internal dispute about what a painting is or should be.

Maybe it reveals my wide-ranging appetites, but it also exposes a skepticism I have of singular ways of making art. It is a minor critique of my own insistence on retaining certain things within my paintings — like the human figure, for instance. Recently I have started letting words creep into my paintings; it feels bracing to be expansive about what can exist within the frame of painting and also unnerving. It is certainly easier to drop balls flying in the air when one juggles eight, instead of three, but it is also more exciting.


MB:  I have heard this question before and it honestly cracks me up. It presupposes some kind of hierarchy of value in mediums or genres, which I think is anachronistic and wrong-headed.

If my interest were in new media, or gouache, or porcelain, than that is what I would be doing. Yes, there is a shorter history to new media, so one is less burdened by the long arc of history. In this sense it is easier to make one’s mark in this territory.

But, if I reflect on my own interests, then I do have to admit I have a dedication to painting. I value the slowness of painting as an experience. Paintings are active as they envision worlds, ideas and patterns, yet they are completely immobile. It is this combination that makes them powerful.

The stillness, silence and physicality of painting places us in our bodies very differently than photography, new media or sculpture. Photographs are flat, materially uninflected and ubiquitous in our lives. Paintings, however, are intimately crafted, and the human residue of their making links them from artist to viewer in a unique manner. This may suggest romanticism, but I do believe that the corporeal skin of painting is visceral, even in works seeking to eliminate the “hand” of the artist.

New media, by comparison, is familiar to how we function today — with everyone looking at screens every two seconds. Sculpture is akin to how we always move through the world —bumping into objects in space. Painting, however, is unusual—dare I say special?— because it involves looking and experiencing in a fashion that feels distinctive. This unusual and conflicted presence is in part why I am a painter. Painting seems human and alien at the same time.






Painter Matthew Bourbon’s vague vignettes and anonymous portraits

resonate with multiple points of view and ambiguous narrative intrigues

Because something is happening here

But you don't know what it is

Do you, Mister Jones?

-Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man


It’s a quietly loud painting. At first glance, stridence and gesture are everything; after a time, tantalizing ambiguity and question marks ultimately hold sway. Two figures, probably male, are involved in an altercation, a transaction, a misunderstanding? The deep colors of their clothing are complexly muted, while their visages are striped abstractions, bold striations of absolute color that merge the figures into a Gestus of confrontation. On the wall behind, a framed image of a nude woman seems to look on—an audience? A backstory? In the foreground, aJaponisme-derived vase and bowl introduce a Zen hush, an ironic, fragile tranquility that offsets the enigma of the focal pas de deux. Even the title, “Sentimental Beasts,” is ripe with paradox, inviting repeated viewings and conjecture. Matthew Bourbon, the painter behind the conundrum, may have the answers, but if he does, he’s keeping his secrets.

“I like situations where it’s not clear exactly what’s happening or how we should read the vignette,” the artist reveals candidly. “I’m interested in the vagueness of things, with the psychology of a particular situation: with multiple people in the room and something going on, it sets up questions and uncertainties, maybe moral uncertainties. So who do I affiliate myself with in this painting? With which point of view? Should I feel comfortable, or should I feel uncomfortable based upon this scenario? I like the idea that viewers come to something that’s sort of charged in some way, and the interpretations can be dramatically different, because of who they’re attaching themselves to within the piece, and what the power situation is…” While Bourbon’s artistic influences include Jim Jarmusch films likeMystery Train, Raymond Carver short stories (“Neighbors” is a favorite), and the works of the late British figurative painter Euan Uglow, the source materials for his works are anything but esoteric. An inveterate collector of found images, which he carefully catalogs in a profusion of files, the artist’s real inspirations lean toward the bourgeois and banal: photographs, film stills, television, book illustrations, magazine advertising and comics—the incessant, ubiquitous visual buzzing of our culture.

Born in California in 1970, Matthew Bourbon grew up in the Bay Area. Although his artistic talent was evident from an early age, he started college with the idea of becoming a filmmaker. Art classes at UC Davis quickly turned his life around. “I stumbled into this incredible art program,” Bourbon says, and he cites his studies with pop art/mass culture painter Wayne Thiebaud and artist Squeak Carnwath, known for her celebrations of quotidian mundanity, as especially valuable. After graduating with BA’s in Art History and Art Studio, Matthew opted to pursue his MFA at New York’s School of Visual Arts. The seeds of his current work were sown at that time, a fusion of disparities that gradually coalesced. Frustrated with his previous painting output, Bourbon began a series of drawings defined only by line, devoid of value shading. At about the same time, he’d become fascinated with taking photos of televised images, mainly old films. “I’d sort of lost my faith in the work I was doing,” he recalls, “and that’s when I made the shift of trying to make the paintings based on just line, on paper, in oil, but starting from these sources of films. That was really the genesis of my work…that was a big breakthrough for me.” Another contributing serendipity was the primitive nature of his process. His shot-off-the-TV-screen photos were pre-digital, and subject to the vagaries of cheap processing, glares, reflections, halos, and erratic color effects, all of which he began to mimic on his canvases as elements of abstraction. “I started to incorporate lots of color within these figurations, which started to develop into more complicated patterns,” he notes. Making lemonade from lemons, Bourbon knew he was onto something.

 In a recent solo exhibition at El Centro’s H. Paxton Moore Fine Art Gallery, Bourbon’s focus was a series of “anonymous portraits,” a twist on the idea of an unidentified painter. In this case, the subjects of the paintings themselves were the anonymous side of the equation—the artist didn’t know any of them. “A lot of my sources came from film stills, advertising, newspaper clippings; I purposefully pick people I don’t know,” Matthew admits. “I wanted this idea of me building a relationship to something that was foreign to me, that was in the media, out there, speaking to me, and then my own kind of building a bridge to it, creating my own import for it, versus what its perceived meaning was in its actual source.” The effete self-absorption of the female subject in “Stop Pretending You’re Nice” is palpable, suggested by the near-miss of her gaze and disquietingly practiced half-smile. The flesh tones of the face are established through a composite of broad daubs of pigment, a sort of pointillism-on-steroids that has more in common with expressionism than impressionism. For this series of portraits, Bourbon worked on 16” square canvases, creating a static playing field not unlike the uniformity of serial cells in a comic book. For the last two years he’s eschewed oil paint for its slow drying time and luminosity; acrylics, with their rapid drying time and flat finish, are perfect for his recent concerns and evolving technical requirements.

Now living in Denton, where he’s an Associate Professor of Drawing and Painting at UNT, Matthew Bourbon juggles his time between the demands of academia, painting, and family life. He also writes extensively about art as a critic, a part-time career that dates back to his graduate school days in New York; he’s a regular contributor to Art Forumonline, ARTnewsFlash Art InternationalArt LiesNY Arts, and KERA radio. Although he hasn’t become the filmmaker he’d once imagined he’d be, his unique sensibilities about nonlinear visual narratives seem to come from the very essence of who he is. “I think every artist’s work, whether they’re loathe to admit it or not, is autobiographical in some way,” he maintains. “In my case, the autobiography comes out in my concerns.” And why his ongoing predilection for the nonlinear, the ambiguous? “I think part of it is my lack of faith in one story, one story told with one point of view,” he answers. “It just feels more honest to me somehow, more true to the way that I move through the world and understand the world; I don’t attach myself to just one way of describing the world, or thinking about it. In some small way it’s a kind of humility, that as an artist you’re giving some perspective, but it’s not the definitive view. I think that I’d feel uncomfortable trying to come up with some distinct narrative story that’s supposed to carry everything that aremy concerns. It’s easier for me to deal with these kind of vignettes, and maybe somehow they’ll build up into a sense of what I find important, as a person, and as an artist.”



Get the bigger picture online at Bourbon has exhibited locally at Conduit Gallery (, Brookhaven College Center for the Arts, H. Paxton Moore Fine Art Gallery at El Centro College, UNTartspaceFW, Kimbell Art Museum, and widely across the state and around the country.





JUNE 2010

Matthew Bourbon at Rudolph Blume Fine Art/ArtScan

Matthew Bourbon populates his paintings with figures handpicked from a variety of sources; viewing them is akin to channel surfing through the vast array of human folly available on late night cable. But Bourbon mixes things up in his large acrylic paintings, juxtaposing abstraction with figuration. Our Splendid Defeat is an aptly contradictory title for the exhibition and its contradictory imagery. The overall tenor of the work is both frantic and melancholic.

Bouurbon titles his paintings with fragmented phrases that hint at a narrative for the work.  The paintings portray as very particular point in time, even if culled from a plethora of sources.  But that rendered moment is by no means static; Bourbon's paintings make you feel that if you blink, the image will change.

One way the artist achieves this is by depicting figures in brushy, rather than modeled, sepia tones, sometimes shifting to grisaille. But Bourbon subversively obscures random figures with brightly colored blips and stripes of varying lengths and widths—an element in the work that can best be described as noise. And it is this dissonance that dominates the work. Each canvas depicts some sort of situation that is then interrupted and assaulted by these visual elements. What results is an abstraction of form and space that further obfuscates the already mysterious situations.

In Natural Folly, Bourbon portrays several leisurely-posed figures, one of them topless. But vividly colored horizontal stripes interrupt the figures and dominate the composition. One of the figures is almost completely overwhelmed by them. The resulting conglomeration of persons and abstraction holds little literal meaning, but lures the viewer into constructing narratives for the image as they revel in the visual cacophony. In another work,The Words We Agreed Upon; a man and a woman sit in a drawing room, perhaps playing a game of cards. The interior is invaded by abstraction, this time chunkier and forming a multicolored, seemingly parasitic, growth on the man's head.

Bourbon plays with both formal tensions and narrative, infusing each with the other to create work that is intriguing and complex.

Matthew Bourbon: Our Splendid Defeat
Rudolph Blume Fine Art/ArtScan Gallery
June 5-July 3, 2010

Garland Fielder is an artist/writer living in Houston.