Matt Haber

Matt Haber


Painter: Brooklyn, NY

Set off from planet Earth at an average speed of 36,000 miles per hour, and after an intensely calculated seven-year sprint through our solar system you’ll finally reach the unmistakable rings and more than 60 moons that surround the planet Saturn. From there, if you’re adventurous enough to navigate a bit farther through the periphery, you’ll find Titan – Saturn’s largest moon, and the only one in our solar system known to have a dense atmosphere. What a scene it would be. Imagine approaching that hazy atmosphere, drifting down through it, and coming to rest on such remote, frozen terrain; then gazing out to watch large, viscous raindrops of ethane and methane fall in slow motion through an orange sky.

     What’s so appealing about a scene like that is the escape, and the excitement of something so brand-new and extraordinary. It’s the uncontainable desire to figure out the mystery behind what you’re witnessing. For Matt Haber, you’ll see there’s something of great importance in solving (and creating) those mysteries. And something, too, that resonates with the great artists of history.

“When I look at a great artist there’s always this element where I’m like, how did they do that? It’s like some magic or something unexplained. What kind of paint is that? Is that acrylic? Is it oil? Is it decal? What am I looking at? It’s the same in terms of craftsmanship – when a piece of furniture has a perfect joint, it’s like it’s invisible. Or with an Anish Kapoor sculpture, it’s really rounded and smooth and looks like an alien object. To me, those are the kinds of things that separate the experts from the rest.

And people might discover their secret, but they’re the first ones to do it. They changed art history, like Pollack, or Cy Twombly, or Picasso – any great artist. They’re the first to dip their feet into the arena. Other people come along and they might eventually do even better, but at first it’s so exciting, it’s so fresh.”

     Explore just a small portion of Matt’s creative career and you’ll better understand the certain energy with which he speaks: Taking a job with Disney at age 19; in time giving that up and venturing across the country to attend Rhode Island School of Design; afterward moving to New York for a job at Takashi Murakami’s studio. Learning. Testing colors. Refining his skills. Putting them to use for himself and for others. There were positives in these experiences, and negatives, of course. But regardless of their nature, he’d cultivate the attitude that it was all necessary. Over time they were helping Matt to develop and paint some vastly creative worlds of his own.

Honey Is Captured
    Just look. Instantly it transports you: the characters, the scenes, the colors. To us, they’re unknown times, unknown worlds; but just like those liquid methane raindrops on Titan, in Matt’s work the real allure is that although we are seeing something quite different, there’s also something of the familiar – just enough of both to really stir your imagination. To make you want to jump into those scenes. To crave more of the story.

“It’s a sense that there’s something around you can’t see, but you can feel. Even here, they’re walking along a bridge. You know there’s something on this side of the bridge and on that side of the bridge, but you don’t know what. I like that. I like the tension of ‘what else is out there in the scene?’

     Study the catalog of Matt’s work and you’ll discover just how engaging it can be to put some of your own interactions and story lines together. There’s a lot to wonder about. A lot to imagine.

Movie Footage
“I’m interested in origin of the story. When a story begins, it gets told, and then as it gets passed on it gets changed, throughout the years and throughout the centuries, and it gets to a point where it becomes something different. And that’s what I’m very interested in because a lot of my work exists in a place where the characters are telling a story in the way they can tell it with what they have around them. It exists in a make-believe and a reality at the same time.

It all goes back to when you’re a kid and you’re like, ‘I’m an astronaut, look at me’, and you’re just in a box, and you’re surrounded by lights that you set up, but you’re in it. My very early work was playing off the thoughts that you might have in that make-believe game, and I’m still interested in that, but it sort of developed into ‘what is the story?’ And now I’m in that place where I’m telling the story but I’m also giving references to that type of storytelling – so you may be in a boat but you’re not paddling with an oar, you’re paddling with a broom. There’s that sort of interplay. I’m interested in that. Being a kid and having that imagination, and I don’t know, having a very stage-like thing where there’s a moving prop that gives you a sense of water. It’s very flat and very much a prop in itself, but you don’t see it as that because of the movement. You see it as water.”

Entering the Kingdom
     Can’t you remember having those powers of imagination? At some point during childhood we’ve all staged a make-believe scene with whatever items we happened to have around–at least once, if not hundreds of times. And it would all come together with a simple, imaginative snap of the fingers. So why is it that some of us allow that sort of imagination and ability to wane as we grow older, whereas others seem to keep it, or grasp onto it even tighter?

“Growing up, my grandpa was an artist, and all the grandkids used to draw and paint together. We would sit there for hours and paint in his studio. And then one day I turn around and I’m the only one doing it. And I was just like, What the hell? We were all doing it. We were collaborating. It was so awesome. And of course I say that, but I know you can get distracted with real life or other interests. Nothing’s predictable. But to me this was always what I wanted to do. It’s just never changed. I don’t know why it would change for anyone else. I don’t have that DNA.”

     The DNA he does have not only keeps Matt painting, but it also stirs him to continue moving forward with his work. Taking those leaps, experimenting, even when it might provide temporary frustration.

Victory Lap
“I’ve been experimenting a lot this year. So for example I’ll spend a week trying to figure out how to crackle paint in specific areas in specific shapes, but really control it. And it’s been such a pain, because it takes me a week just to test, and I don’t have a week. I need results now! But it’s about trying to be cool and thinking, this will be worth it. And I finally pulled it off with a painting that I’m working on right now. After several failed attempts, I figured it out, and it’s really satisfying. It’s not perfect, but it’s very close to what I was going for, and I wouldn’t have that unless I went through that process. In the future I have that tool in my arsenal if I need it. It was a long route to learn that trick, but there's not a manual out there for every kind of technique, you just have to find out how to do it yourself.”

     Walk around Matt’s working environment and you’ll see evidence of this. Papers clipped together: one experiment. And another. One story line. And another. It must be enough to simultaneously bring excitement and exasperation. But that’s understandable. There’s always a timing to organizing ideas. A rhythm in readiness. Being sure it’s all put together in just the right way. And perhaps even more so for Matt, here’s why that rhythm is especially important: Over the years his paintings haven’t necessarily just depicted individual and isolated scenes. Connected throughout are some definite and specific characters who exist in a definite and specific world. And there’s a much bigger story.
Firing Line

“For some reason I haven’t told it yet, and I think a lot of it is fear, like I’m afraid to put it out there because I’m afraid of doing a bad job – that it’s gonna be a letdown. So I’m hesitant.

And also, when you have a show you have to make a bunch of work, and that creative art takes its own course. But I needed to not be distracted with shows to think about what I’m doing a little bit more, which is a reason I’ve pulled back a little bit from painting lately, because I’m doing a lot of development of the actual story. So, I’m really happy right now because I’m in a place where I can just discover my world a little more. It’s given me a chance to really develop what the world looks like and what the interactions are like, and what kind of themes I’m interested in – and there are a lot of recurring themes. It gets closer and closer with each show, and I’ve just got to continue working because I want it to be bigger than just a painting.”

     There’s ambition in those sentiments. And what a perfect time to keep that drive going – not only is Matt developing his characters and their worlds and refining the directions in which he’ll take them, but he’s also receiving support from those who admire what he’s done to this point, and who’ve been anticipating what’s to come. That’s something for which he’s very thankful.

“It’s never been about being a part of someone’s ultra-hip collection, it’s never been about selling paintings at auctions and going to every art opening. It’s just that I want to communicate with people. And what I’ve learned by having my openings and talking to people is that there’s a very humane level in the paintings that people have responded to – aspects of it that I had no idea I even put in there. So that communication with the people who come to see the show and who are really interested – that makes it all worthwhile.

Lightning Storm I
Finding a way to make that the central drive of what I’m doing is what I’m going for. Because when somebody appreciates what you’ve done or responds to it, it just makes you so happy. It’s like, God bless you. Where did you come from? Because most of the time you’re just in your studio and you’re like, okay, this is great… I think… I don’t know… is anyone gonna like this?

     Put yourself in that studio and you’ll see it’s a train of thought
we can all empathize with. But ultimately, I know Matt holds faith
in the outcome. And the result of
that faith? As Matt reveals even
more of his story, we’re bound to be
even more amazed by it.

“I think if you jump, a safety net will be there. It’s sort of like there’s a system in place that you can’t see, but you just have to trust that you’ll be fine. Just do what you’re going to do. Try your hardest and it’ll work out.”

{march 2013}
Images courtesy of Matt Haber