Contributed by Sangram Majumdar / Matt Bollinger’s show, “Three Rooms,” on view at Zürcher Gallery through March 2, comprises paintings, maquettes of interiors, and a hand-painted stop-motion animation that runs nearly twenty minutes. He works up the Hudson Valley and has a full-time teaching position in the painting program at SUNY Purchase, so he’s endlessly busy, but we managed to find some time to discuss this compelling new body of work. I was also interested in how his work has changed since I first saw it ten years ago and how it has stayed the same.
SANGRAM MAJUMDAR: How’s it going? Have you had your coffee yet?
MATT BOLLINGER: My daughter woke up at 4:30 this morning, so yes, but I’ve lost count of how many cups!
SM: You are one of the most prolific and hard working artists I know. I doubt you even sleep. So, how did this project begin?
MB: In 2017, my wife, Anne, and I bought a house in the Hudson Valley. That fall Anne gave birth to our daughter, Agnes. During the pregnancy and the process of buying the house, I wrote the animation whose story involves two related narrative threads: one, set in the “present” takes place in a family home but without the inhabitants while the second takes place in the year 4036 where the three members of the family (wife, husband, and daughter) all live. I developed the paintings and sculptures in order to make the film. When one of the paintings looked finished, I was ready to start animating. I made small changes to the painting and photographed each of these. Eventually it became a bit of animated footage.
SM: These new paintings have no people in them. Meanwhile, the animation is keenly dependent on multiple characters. Also, if I am not mistaken, it’s the first exhibition where all the paintings depict rooms.
MB: My previous work included interiors mixed with exterior views, some with figures and some without. The narrative drove the change in the recent work. I am drawn to the way people shape the homes they live in, that they leave a mark or impression.
In the present-tense section of the animation, the characters are mysteriously absent. Objects move on their own, as though animated by the viewer’s presence. Each of the three rooms from the title reflects one of the three characters. The first room belongs to the father, a science fiction author, who wrote a novel called 4036. The second belongs to his wife, a mycologist, studying myco-remediation. The third belongs to their daughter. After 2 minutes and 44 seconds, the film shifts into the world of 4036. The viewer discovers the family through this story-within-a-story. I wanted someone who walks into Zürcher Gallery to have a similar experience of finding the characters after walking through the main space.
SM: The world you present to us here seems to have been set out too long in the sunlight, slowly bleaching it out. I am curious about how your sense of color has progressed along with the narratives.
MB: This body of work has a more tonal palette. The darks are blacker than in the past and the lights whiter. I think this gives the bleached quality you bring up. I wanted these paintings to be weighted and lit by natural light, both of which lead to the interiors being darker. This was to be in contrast to the watercolor parts of the film, which are mostly in a yellow monochrome. In thinking about the two times of the film, I wanted to consider how something I might do now could have repercussions into the distant future. I had read Timothy Morton’s book Hyperobjectswhich had me thinking about this idea as it relates to global warming. The palette (and the materiality of the paint) needed to reflect that distance while still holding together visually. The yellows in the sci-fi sections are by turns sunny and somewhat toxic. When I was first learning to paint, I would close my eyes in bed at night and see thick cadmium yellow paint, moving on a surface as though an unseen brush pushed it around. Three Rooms has a scene like this.
By the way, did you ever play those point and click mystery games like The Seventh Guest or The Eleventh Hour back in the 90s? I was thinking of those too.
SM: Sorry, I didn’t! does that make me a weirdo?
MB: Oh no, it’s probably much cooler to have never played them. But in case you’re wondering: https://youtu.be/45Z-Q5KVTyI
SM: The first time I saw your work was in a solo show at Plane Space near Chelsea. There seems to be two threads that have always stayed in your work, the evidence of the hand, a kind of painterly post-Manet gesture in everything you make, and the connection to storytelling. What feels the same and what feels different to you about your work as time has passed and your work has matured?
MB: I still can’t believe you saw the Plane Space show! But that’s true about those two abiding interests. For me the hand shapes the stories and keeps them personal. After that show I made a big change in my work: I stopped painting from photos and for almost two years I only made drawings. When I switched to drawing, the moment of developing the imagery and narrative happened when I pinned up a piece of paper and got out my pencils. Initially my narratives were simple and developed from memories of growing up, but in recent years, I’ve developed the world of my paintings more. This involves creating characters and environments beyond my personal memories. In a new project, I’ve invented a small town on the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.
SM: I recently realized that your work as it is now puts the viewer in three distinct spatial conditions. I become a viewer in watching your movies, I am a participant or a witness in your paintings, and I am a maker, or a detached, omniscient tinkerer moving around your world. Can you talk about how you think about the relation between these three modes of making and how it relates to and affects your thinking?
MB: Animation lets me work across that surface and then enter the world of the painting in ways I can’t with painting alone. At the same time, the films reveal the process of the paintings and my love of paint.
Because I photographed and animated the sculptures, they appear life-sized in the animation. In real life they’re like models. I wanted to include them because they also recall the dollhouse in the daughter’s room. The narrative needed different scales, just like there are different times or time-scales in the animation.
Because the paintings are still and many are large, you can more readily walk into them like environments. Instead of a camera moving or the angle changing, you move from far to near, noticing details at different points in time.
SM: I remember a couple years back walking around your neighborhood with you and Anne and you pointing out actual locations that have become part of your fictional universe. How and does your lived experience intersect with your work, especially in the recent paintings and films which takes us into the future?
MB: I need to understand the settings I draw, paint, and animate in time and space. To prepare for a new piece, I’ll draw small storyboards and in doing so, mentally move through the spaces I want to depict and find views. Several times I’ve used my childhood home, where my parents still live as a setting. InThree RoomsI drew out a floor plan (a modified version of that home) but I populated it with details from my current home. In 4036, I had the daughter/explorer find this house again. Her parents are there, unable to see her, continuing to live the routines of their lives from the distant past. This architectural anchor was an important part of the narrative but it also served the practical function of giving me something concrete to help ground my image of the future.
SM: The tone of Three Rooms is fairly serious. Although, having known you for a while now, I can objectively say that you have a pretty good sense of humor. Any thoughts?
MB: Thanks! I think my animation Apartment 6F is funny, although only about half of the people I’ve asked agree with me! Recently I’ve been preoccupied with subjects that don’t inspire much humor. I’m deeply concerned about global warming and the state of the U.S. politically. Being a father has given me new causes to worry too. In order to make work, it’s important to feel balanced and centered. I often make an effort to suspend my anxiety about the outside world when I enter the studio, which isn’t easy. That suspension isn’t a forgetting. It just allows me to work with material that might be too difficult to otherwise address.
“Matt Bollinger: Three Rooms,” Zürcher Gallery, New York, NY. Through March 2, 2019. Note: On Sunday, February 17, 2pm, the artist will be on hand at the gallery for a book signing.
About the author: Born in Kolkata, India, Sangram Majumdar is a Professor of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His solo exhibition “once, and twice” opens March 1 at Geary Contemporary in NYC.