Interview with Matthew Ivan Cherry


Neoteric Art: You were born and raised in Arizona, received your MFA from The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, worked and lived in Chicago the next 12 years then most recently accepted a Dean’s position in Pennsylvania. This is a 2 part question. Part 1: Since you are a representational figurative painter and The School of the Art Institute is known to frown upon this type of work, did you have any problems and part 2: how would you describe the Chicago Art Scene during your 12 year stay?

Matthew Ivan Cherry: I think it was more the students jockeying for position at SAIC who frowned upon representational/figurative work…while some of the faculty did/do to a certain extent…although I am not sure frown is the right verb coming from the faculty perspective. I think they were more concerned about making representational figurative work more substantial than just painting the figure. They knew me and my work…and they provided me with the Presidential Fellowship. I also received the fellowship upon graduating. You got me?? So it is more complex than just drawing a line in the sand. SAIC and the Chicago area have a very strong tradition of narrative art…though certainly it is its own “brand” of narrative. My early work extended naturally from figurative and representational work incorporating narrative as the primary drive in my “Domestic Narrative” paintings. Ray Yoshida and Don Baum sat on the committee that awarded me the fellowship and they loved my work.

picture-2.jpgI think the problem with figurative/representational painting is that most people think they have it solved almost upon impact and immediate access (1st read). This is ignorance on their part. We are bombarded with imagery in our culture…so people read imagery and move on as if they understood it from a quick glance. They rarely allow themselves the proper amount of time to dwell with a piece, to see how the paint is applied, to see how space is treated, to see how the process moves us and guides us through the image and adds to the figural representation. The sum is so much more than the parts and yet each part (formal element) provides exquisite direction to our understanding of the full visual narrative/representation. With conceptual dialogue and post-modernist vernacular process needs to be a major importance for figurative painters..not just the ability to paint well. Although I respect the hell out of someone who paints well…it is the process and the delivery of paint that speak to me…along with the narrative/content. The representation and how an artist arrives to their representation is paramount. They need to be co-mingled.

If I were to place myself back in the program I would probably admit that we thought of ourselves (the figure painters) as being somewhat subversive. We were certainly the minority fighting for viability. I no longer think of it so politically. Good painting is good painting and I no longer feel a need to defend it. A similar argument has been made for the death of painting and yet there are new painters every year making new art. To deem a medium or a subject matter dead or irrelevant is political…and absurd because an artist can transform a genre, breath life to form, and re-interpret its purpose. That’s what we do.

Chicago was great and continues to be good to me. The market ebbed and flowed…I hit it at an “ok” time. It treated me well…I think the galleries could treat the local talent with a bit more respect. You no longer need to go to NY to prove yourself. Yet some people still hold to that idea. I exhibited in several galleries and found the work in Chicago by Chicago artists to be exciting and relevant. Chicago galleries and public need to jump on…and support what they have in front of them. They do not need to wait until NY or CA bring them something “new”…the world is too connected to think that we are not exchanging ideas at a rapid rate…what is going on in Chicago is just as “hip” (I hate that word by the way) as San Francisco or New York. I love Chicago and hope it will always open its arms to my work.

picture-3.jpgNA: Why have you been drawn to the human figure?

MIC: Man, for so many reasons. Conceptual work is interesting; it feeds the brain, makes me think. Abstraction expressionism moves me and feeds my appetite and emotions. The human figure in its representation and painting are as complex as ever and include elements of both concept and expression.

Flesh is revelatory, touch is exquisite, the soul is something divine. It is the combination of its physicality, sensuality and spirituality that attract me to the figure. It hurts and feels pleasure…yet there is something inside that feels pain and pleasure too.

I am interested in people and the lives that they live. I am intrigued and perplexed by the human experience in all of its depth and breadth. There have been many times when painting someone who, after standing in front of me for many moments of observation, and through active painting, and after listening to many intimate stories, there is a sort of transformation that occurs and I see the person as I never have before…I see the person outside of their physical form and something else is revealed, something under the skin, through the skin, something outside of them all together. It is like I am looking at them anew for the first time…really seeing them. It is unpaintable. It is spiritual. Yet, as I paint, I keep recording the layers of skin/flesh that I can see in front of me. Some people call it the soul, some people call it a spirit, whatever form you want to call it…I see the person for who they really are with great clarity…it is truly a beautiful moment but it does not happen with everyone. It cannot be forced. I am drawn to it…to find it. The act of making and revealing…is very sexy…very spiritual.

picture-4.jpgNA: You have also painted many self portraits. Please elaborate.

MIC: Some artists have ballet dancers that they fixate on, some have sunflowers, some rely on still lives, landscapes, or non-objective doodling. The self portrait has always been a diving board or platform for me. I use myself as a way to come back, regroup, organize my thoughts, and quite frankly to get the day going. So sometimes I use the self to literally wake up, open my eyes and start seeing for the day…like an exercise.

Obviously that shifts and is only a device. For me, the “self”, more times than not, becomes a vehicle that drives content. I do not paint myself psychologically. Rather I use myself as object to talk about many other topics: identity, self and pop-culture, aging, repetiton/variation, shifting perceptions and how one’s version of one’s self is slightly fictional and yet REAL. Perception is both revealing and fleeting and how I view myself in any one moment changes and shifts from another depending on my mood, perhaps hormones, interactions with others, what I ate that day, and what is going on in the world. Our many facets to ourselves and how we are many versions of ourselves at any one time is of interest to me.

NA: Discuss your two current series “looking for…” and “fauxREAL”.

MIC: fauxREAL is actually an extension of the series looking for…. I have been interested in simplifying the narrative component in my work so as to pare it down to just the head, or bust or full-body portrait. looking for… is a series of three-quarter frontal nude portraits of random people that are painted in large scale. I have always been interested in the body and identity and how we wear “ourselves.” I have painted the nude throughout my life as a way to formally see, paint, and tackle narrative dialogues revolving around identity. The potential for pleasure and pain is always present with a body (physically, mentally, and spiritually.) I feel that death too is always close by. These are different than anything I have painted before.

picture-5.jpgDecisions of composition, size, scale, and vantage point are the result of my need to paint the people I encounter in a way that celebrates…yet confronts, that is matter of fact…yet greater than or celebratory of, that shouts out and validates the “JOE” that is in us all. They challenge the notion that what is ideal and/or beautiful is not what Hollywood or magazines depict…but rather what nature and life provide. They are not nudes for the voyeur…yet admittedly acknowledge the fact that they have subjected themselves to be looked at. Indeed, the nudes that I create challenge the viewer. They do not wait for the chance of a second glance seen discreetly from the side of one’s glasses. They stand, face forward, confronting the viewer, soliciting more than a casual gaze, seeking to create a dialogue. They are titan-sized and positioned in a stance that makes the viewer the object scrutinized. They stand blatantly aware and amassed together. They form a front that forces the audience to look at and look within, while moving amidst the masses of nude flesh. By stripping down the accouterment to the bare essentials (what we look like) I have evened the playing field to help us come to terms with who we truly are, individually/collectively. We all share universal similarities. To continue this dialogue I place the bodies in similar poses right next to each other…repetition variation of the sum/group helps me understand the individual even more.

I also have become consciously aware of the fact that everyone is “looking for” something…as am I when trying to find people to paint. We are looking for life, for meaning, a friend, a connection, to be attractive. We want someone to feel, to fill, and to fulfill. We want to be loved, to be a partner, a baby, a dad, a sugar mama, a sperm donor. We want to be noticed, to be challenged, to participate, to feel apart of, to escape from, and to share with. We want to get lost just to be found. We are looking for careers and education, artistic pursuits and intellectual stimulation….we seek success! We seek thrills and fun yet desire peace and fulfillment. We look for cures to cancer and HIV and failing memories. We want to be free, to stay true…be authentic, indeed to live and perhaps be remembered.

picture-6.jpgThe fauxREAL paintings come from a similar dialogue regarding identity but involve the added devices of apparel or hairdos etc… and various other ways we wear things or modify our “parts” that allow us to project our identity to others. Ultimately these are “trappings” that seemingly allow us to put a name on it , put us in a box so that we are identified and understood. By our changing our own “look” we also feel “re-defined”. Ultimately, a change of hair is just that…the façade of our outside selves merely represents a visual clue of one aspect of who we are inside. TRUE IDENTITY is something ever evolving and much deeper than what we look like, how we wear our hair, or how we carry our body. Sometimes the paintings are literal and depict the same person changing their hairdos, or clothing, or wearing different accoutrement. Recently, these paintings are starting to reference pop-culture in various ways.

NA: You have a large family (7 children?). Has this affected the way you see painting?

MIC: Whoah….hold on there…I have 5 children…I seem to accrue another child every time someone hears about me. We are a family of 7.

These people I live with are very interesting and I am both attached to them emotionally and physically while I attempt to detach from them objectively to observe them. I seem to be engaged in living this life while continually trying to disengage from it so that I can observe it and come to some understanding of it. It is a slightly schizophrenic approach to experiencing life. I will sit there and participate while I mentally remove myself and be somewhere overhead trying to see it from a different angle. Ask my wife…it drives her crazy!

I think my work is more revelatory and non-didactic as I pursue authentic representations of who or what I am observing. Domestic life is slightly crazy busy with clutter (literally and figuratively). Perhaps the simplicity of these compositions are directly opposed to such a life…removed from the domestic spaces. I never thought of that until now but it makes sense. Just body…and negative space in which the body resides. Thus they become a big rorchachian inkblot. The narrative is as much about the body, body type/person as it is about how that form fits into the square/composition.

I am not sure if my family has affected the way I see painting…or that the way I see painting has affected the way I see and live. It’s like the chicken and the egg dilemma…”What came first?” I was a painter/thinker/artist before I had my family. I certainly could have a chosen a more conservative route and just found a way to support my family. I think the world, especially the American culture, is sceptical of art and artists and it presents quite a challenge to do both. But it has been important to me to show my kids that one needs to find a way to support one’s passion and live an authentic life…and you can balance that and everything else that life throws at you. I have had friends that take issue with my nudes…especially with my children around. I cannot think of a reason not to continue doing what I do…I think my family is healthier/better for it.

picture-7.jpgI can say (back to the original question) I have been quite interested in my family as they grow in age and as they grow in life and experience. As I said above, I am fascinated with repetition and variation. I am fascinated to see their various looks as they age and change and morph into adults. I am fascinated how genetics factor in to what we look like but so also does lifestyle and choice, occupations and pastimes. We change what we wear…and it somehow defines us. We chose a sport and our muscles lengthen and it puts us in a certain culture. We chose an occupation and the way we speak shifts. I have these lives that I am surrounded by who are living and growing and changing and coming into their own…of course that affects me…the human psyche involved is quite interesting in addition to my interests in physical appearance. I have one boy who is sporty and one who is artistic/musical…I am interested how that informs me/them of who they are, how they dress, what they watch on tv, even language that they adopt.

I can spend all day looking at a great painting…truly all day. I can do the same with my family…looking, watching, observing. It is beautiful to come so close to something that you are a part of and that responds to you and that you respond to…organic…and one. Art & life do this for me because they are the same thing for me.

NA: Where would you like to see your painting career 10 years from now?

MIC: Career…hmmm…it is much more important that my work is enjoyed and held in high esteem by other painters and art enthusiasts. Career/money is not the determining factor for success yet they serve to be able to continue to make more work. Ultimately, it is a life endeavor/pursuit. My work right now has become very direct both conceptually and formally. Confronting people, the body, portraying it in its many variations in a singular direct mode is consuming me and will probably hold my attention for some time. I hope to meet people that I can paint from every nation, all over the world, from all walks of life; people of diverse faiths, beliefs, occupations, economic situations and of every lifestyle. I am starting to use this series in a way that documents time and location: Five people from Southside Chicago, 7 people from Lancaster, PA, (potentially 12 friends from Bejing, China, or a family from Bogota etc…)


I typically work on several ideas at one time using one or two ideas to break away and give me some reprieve from the main body of work that I am concentrating on. This helps me sustain my attention in the long run. I find that I can get very fatigued with a series or even a singular piece from a series, yet when I bounce over to another painting or another series I can start with a fresh eye and renewed vigor. I never know which one will overtake another. It is more of an organic process. Some of them are very similar, just shifting the narrative, but not the formal elements, some are quite a departure from the way I am painting. I am making little collages/narratives in the studio that are quite playful and less serious as the nude series that I am working on…a new way of thinking and creating for me. I am not sure how it will work out. I do think at some point it will become important for me to pursue. I have just started a new series in the studio comparing in scope and measure with the titan-sized nude series. These involve myself in the same format as various pop culture references (as I mentioned in the previous question) from my early formative years; Gilligan, Starsky and Hutch, Brady Bunch etc… I tried these a few years ago as just singular and grouped head portraits that were small in size. They didn’t work. I think moving them similar in scale to the large nude series will make a huge difference and do what they were supposed to do in the earlier failed attempt.

Every series creates a new problem for me to solve. I typically paint on a series for 2-3 years and then I use one of the paintings in that series to move me to another series…I work linearly that way. But I think the large titan nudes will be something that I continue to work on for quite some time, if not for the rest of my life. There is always something new to preoccupy my attention and contribute to this long tradition of making images. Ultimately that is what I am consumed with…having a conversation with Velasquez, and Titian, and Soutine, and Freud. I don’t care if they are living or dead…good painting speaks to good painting. I hope to continue that dialogue for the next 10 years and beyond…it is not mapped…so lets see where the voyage takes us…yes??

Matthew Ivan Cherry website