Abstract artist Rich to show accident and intention in work


Matt Rich, “ampersand.” Acrylic on cut paper and linen tape. 54 x 48.5, 2012. Submitted photo.

Joanna Hamer | Staff Writer

When Matt Rich makes his abstract paintings, all the painting has already been done. His colorful geometric works are created by assembling pre-painted strips of paper in a versatile and reactive process.

“The abstract painter is traditionally bold,” Rich said. “You know, the gesture of the individual. I’m trying to make it more accessible.”

Rich will speak about his art, process and studio environment at 7 p.m. tonight in the Hultquist Center, the last of Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution’s Visual Arts Lecture Series this season.

To make his paintings, Rich takes long strips of paper and covers them with acrylic using a paint roller. From his studio space, now covered in sheets of paper brightly colored on both sides, he begins to put together his work, cutting, overlaying and taping.

“Assembly is the primary force behind composition, as opposed to applying paint from a brush directly from the palette to the canvas,” he said. “It’s a much more malleable, much more flexible process.”

What makes Rich’s process so unusual is its mix of artistic decision and random chance. His pieces can be any size and contain any color, but the hues are all predetermined during his period of painting. He periodically turns the entire composition he is working on over to expose the different colors painted on the reverse sides of the paper and the new juxtapositions between them.

“There’s this conversation between intentionality and accident. It’s a two-sided painting, and the process was two-sided,” he said. “There’s enough information that you’re able to find access. It’s not that you know how it was made, but that it was made.”

His work is made of neat geometrical shapes with seams that occasionally separate. There are swooping brushstrokes that signify the artist’s hand, but that are sliced through with a knife and reassembled.

Rich has taught since graduating from the master’s program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004, and he is about to take his first-ever sabbatical year in San Diego.

“My first class was a 100-person lecture class,” he said. “An MFA teaches you how to be an artist, it teaches you how to make work, but it doesn’t necessarily teach you how to teach.”

For the first year, the balance was difficult to get right.

“It was very odd to try to be something for everyone in the classroom and then to go back to your studio and to try to make one sort of thing,” Rich said. “That didn’t make sense.”

Now, after teaching for eight years, most recently at Northeastern University, the dialogue he feels between classroom and studio has settled into an enjoyable conversation.

“I love teaching,” Rich said. “I love trying out ideas, and packaging ideas, and understanding ideas and explaining ideas, and the thoroughness involved, and the creativity and inspiration you get back from students.”

Teaching for the School of Art’s final two weeks — Weeks Six and Seven — his first time at Chautauqua is a challenge Rich has taken on enthusiastically. In his drawing seminar, he aims not to re-teach the basics, but to reformulate drawing as a way to help the students approach their final summer work.

“I’m approaching drawing as a way to gain a contextual understanding of what they’ve done so far and the work they’re making,” he said.

In his talk, Rich will explain his studio process and theory, but he knows that most of the time, his art stands alone, existing independently of his explanations. When his work is hung in a gallery — which he calls “a laboratory for looking” — he hopes there is a ripple in its two-dimensionality.

“I want it not to be one thing, I want it to be two things or in between two things,” he said. “It’s accident and intention. It’s an author, and it’s formulaic. It’s me as creator; it’s them as creator. It’s flat; it’s not flat.

“I’m trying to find something that is accessible to people and understandable in its building blocks that I build up, but people can break down and build up again.”