Matt Held, A Profile

Here’s something I wrote about Matt Held to hopefully be published in an online art journal soon. It’ll probably end up being butchered with edits as I’m grammatically and linguistically handicapped. Please shout out any corrections, suggestions to content, grammar, format, etc. It would really help hone down on my writing and nunchuck skills.

The art world hearts facebook. From galleries and bloggers to artists and museums, the social networking site has become a ubiquitous tool for relentless self-promotion and unhindered accessibility. Galleries and alternative spaces announce their openings and performances through the events section, artists post images of their work in photos, and bloggers use links and status updates to report recent posts (Sharon Butler expands on this topic in Brooklyn Rail). It is a vital but questionable means of community building emphasizing quantity over quality and is used by individuals and institutions as the foreground to potential future collaborations and relationships.


In November 2008, one artist took advantage of this vast resource of content, crowd sourcing his way to create the group “I’ll have my Facebook portrait painted by Matt Held.” What started as a desperate means to appease a dry period in painting led to an inspirational project with unlimited access to material and an overwhelming response from art circles and beyond. I visited Matt’s 6 x 9’ studio in his Brooklyn home where he shared both enlightening and discouraging stories on being a NY artist for nearly two decades and how a single idea sprouted to become an ingeniously multifaceted project that reflects interests in pop culture and art history and finding relevance in the contemporary art market.


For the last two decades (three years in NY) Matt Held took photos of the absurd integrated into everyday life and painted from these images accentuating the unseemly and vulgar. He sites Eric Fischl, John Singer Sargent, and Richard Diebenkorn as influences and identifies with being the painter substitute of Diane Arbus. He was employed as an art handler for Christie’s and has recently pursued a full-time gig as artist and stay at home dad. This project is too ambitious for the under-encompassing size of his studio, which barely fits the paintings he’s completed thus far for the project (currently 39). He struggles with the pressures of being recognized as a fine artist without abandoning the everyman through this project that inherently approaches with democratic means and executes with immortalizing fervor. Having only exhibited in a tattoo parlor in Portland, Matt is adjusting to the overload of media attention and fears floating off to thin air after these precious fifteen minutes of fame. I concur with the artist who affirms these paintings stand alone as pure portraiture with or without facebook and the media hype, appreciated for documenting a particular history that reflects an anonymous individual while representing the gamut of a generation.


The facebook group notes over 3,500 members; quadruple the number when I met Matt early February. Tension arises amongst members aware the project will run roughly 2 years with a soft goal of 200 paintings and are hopeful an image will be chosen from their profile before time runs out. The democratizing gesture of painting an anonymous individual is complimented by a platform where these strangers promote and project a fabricated identity that may or may not be true. Accurate rendering is faulty and arbitrary when the artist chooses images that favor pictures with no children or pets and emphasize absurdity and quirky expressions over somber dull ones. There is no guarantee that the portrait will reflect the sitter’s eye color or reveal a particular characteristic, intentional or not. The pseudo-narcissism inherent in creating an online profile is nurtured throughout facebook. The direct encounter with filtered projection is counterintuitive to the traditional modes of portrait paintings commission by the royal and elite. While the project promotes itself as dismissing hierarchy and igniting almost a socialist mode of democratic availability, it relies on a selection process chosen by one artist deeming an image appropriate for the project. The intention is for everyone to be worthy of immortalization and recognition but it rests in idealism and utopist sentiments that the portrait partially succeeds.


The artist has taken an unconventional route in opening the stubborn doors of the artosphere having been first recognized by art bloggers who are themselves under-recognized. Rather than going through with the arduous and expensive education process of receiving MFA in hopes to be immediately picked up by a gallerist to be transformed into the next star-artist, Matt has gone through the back alley and have picked up hoards of media attention extending beyond art culture to pop culture. It’s a reflection of the success of this participatory project lending itself to direct engagement between art and life, hence the interest in fields as vast and varied from teenagers in middle America, punk neo-fascists, religious “bible-thumpers” and others.
Speaking formally of the paintings, the artist playfully co-mingles abstract color fields to reflect a specific element in the “sitter”, isolating the figure in emphasis of a certain personality. The washy strokes combine the romanticism as seen in Neo Rausch co-habitating in Rothko-like environments. Planes are sliced into arbitrary grids creating a backdrop that is as engaged as the figure.
As more artist look toward social media and networking as a means of inspiration and expression, facebook remains a vital resource to manipulate and explore. There is no predicting it will always be this vital and relevant but as long as it is utilized by the general public of people like you and me, Matt Held will take charge and use the alternative art space as his desired object. Through this usage he ignites a sense of community, of accessibility and belonging that reeks desire for many in this time of economic downfall and political change that unites more than disconnects.


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