Texas Studio: Matthew Bourbon on Blunting the Edges of Certainty

Like so many artists, Matthew Bourbon holds an array of roles in the field. This painter, writer, and educator is accustomed to shifting between modes of thinking, but finds it helpful to have a centralizing principle. Ambiguity and deliberation aren’t exactly the buzzwords of the moment, but Bourbon has built a career in which subtler characteristics are sacrosanct. Of his multiple roles, Bourbon says, “It all feels integrated. It keeps you sort of nimble in your thoughts about things…it naturally feeds into those questions for yourself. I feel very fortunate to have that lifestyle, where I can think about art all of the time.”

When we first spoke for this publication in 2015, Bourbon was creating paintings with oblique narratives and figures obscured by a kind of kaleidoscopic static that had become a signature. Seven years on, he says, “I’ve been trying to streamline what I do. I kind of wanted to let go of some things in my work.” Another way of saying this is that the subtext has become text. In Bourbon’s latest paintings, abstraction and patterning have subsumed human figuration and now stand on their own. “I’ve never been an artist that has a structure or an armature, like Rothko or Morandi,” he says. “I’ve always admired artists like that,” but “I found myself in a roundabout way in that space.”

His compositions are simpler, too, often centralized on a single faceted, patterned blob-ject that nearly fills the frame. “It’s so much about the physical body of the painting, and that singular presence. I’m in some ways dialing up that side of things, the presence of the painting,” Bourbon says. Within the self-contained universe of each canvas, scale is indeterminate. We may be looking through the window of an airplane or at a glass microscope slide, but either way, things are evenly abstracted.

Conceptually, this move is a reaction to the particularly strident moment we are living through. “I feel like we’re in a time period where people are over-confident in their beliefs and there needs to be some sense that every thought we have about the world should be provisional,” Bourbon says. Like many artists who were fortunate enough to have steady employment through the pandemic, the experience of retreating to the studio was something of a reprieve. “Maybe a lot of artists feel this way, but from my point of view there was a certain amount of pleasure just being alone in the studio. There were challenges in terms of teaching. In the studio it felt like a residency. I felt guilty about the pleasure.” he explains. “It almost brings you back to the time of being a student.”

Even the title of his newest exhibition with Kirk Hopper Fine Art, Thousand Year View (on view through Nov. 12), smacks more of self-deprecation than bold declaration. “A thousand year view is impossible, and we’re only seeing a sliver of the pie. That sensibility is what more people need.” Bourbon says. He chooses his titles from scraps of language that he collects over time. “I have a big book of potential titles for shows, most are terrible, but I write them down without editing.”

One thing the Thousand Year View is not, is a prediction of how long the work will endure. “That’s so much pressure,” Bourbon says. “I’m just trying to think about what’s in front of my nose. Anything beyond that seems like hubris to me. If you’re trying to hit that mark, it’s like you’re making art by crowdsourcing. That seems like a bad idea.”

Bourbon’s approach to writing about art seems to be similarly focused and democratic. “I feel like there’s a lot of translation,” he says. “The lay-person is normally a little put off by art and feels a little separate from it, they’re led to feel inferior.” It’s a dynamic that replays over and over in a system that still relies so heavily on institutions and galleries that have changed little in decades, one that hopefully is shifting as a new generation of curators and artists take the helm.

“There’s a purposeful and needed opening up that needs to continue,” he says. But, “there’s a certain crassness to the art world, the always churning fashion, seeking money, seeing artists get chewed up and spit out sometimes,” Bourbon laments. When deciding what to focus on in his writing, he starts as “a fan, usually. It doesn’t mean I’m not a critic and want to name things. It’s me thinking out loud about what I’m seeing and why it might be worth your time.”

This tendency to try to slow things down, to try to blunt the edges of certainty, is not new in Bourbon’s work. If anything, it’s become distilled. “Everything is quick,” he says, “and painting is slow. I value that…slow looking. Historically we understand what that format is. It’s a little bit known but always so foreign…there’s something in there for me that feels important.”