When the Chicago Cultural Center mounted "The Painter’s Other Library" in 2014—a show of strikingly dark paintings by Matthew Girson—Lise McKean called the work “a meditation on silence,” noting that the “choices of color, image and surface implicitly beg questions about how we perceive books and paintings and how we access and conceive knowledge.”  In Bad At Sports magazine, the artist Anne Harris wrote that the work has an “intensity ... meant to be slowly experienced—taken in through the senses and felt, rather than glanced at and catalogued in terms of image and idea.”

(A small "Other Library" painting hangs in the reception area of the graduate office of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, 990 W. Fullerton Avenue, Suite 4200) 

Girson’s new show called "Between the Interference and the Message"at The Mission Projects (1431 W. Chicago Avenue) through February 27—continues his conversation with the viewer about, in his own words, “the limits of perception and aesthetics.” Two of his new paintings are also part of the Chicago and Vicinity show at the Shane Campbell Gallery (2021 S. Wabash Avenue) from March 5 through April 23. 

Here, Girson—a professor of art—talks about painting, teaching and the creative impulse driving both.

What’s "The Painter’s Other Library" all about? 

I spent 10 years on that work, which was installed in three consecutive rooms in the Chicago Cultural Center.  Some people would walk into the first room, take a quick look around, and then walk right out, as if saying ‘black paintings, some nihilist argument, a negative statement, some extreme, radical idea—that’s not for me.’ 

Well, the paintings are very, very dark. They’re for people who are willing to slow down. The more time a viewer spends with the work, the easier it becomes to see the images. The work addresses those challenges of perception.

In some ways, the show was also a continuation of a series I’d done in the mid-90s about the Holocaust, which, as an event, presents significant perceptual challenges. If we look at individual victims, we see the suffering but not its enormity; if we look at the enormity, we lose the view of the single life. So it’s almost impossible to focus on this difficult subject. I wanted my work to get people to think about what they are looking at and how they are looking at it.

So, to the question—‘Why black-on-black paintings?’—I would answer ‘Why not?”

My work isn’t easy, and it’s not supposed to be.  But if it stimulates curiosity in any way, or cultivates the will to investigate, or inspires a person to know more or feel more, then that’s exactly right. My favorite works of art are the ones that I can’t frame with language.

Does your new show, "Between the Interference and the Message," have the same intent?

Generally yes, in that I think the purpose of art is to help us reflect on who we are.
But I don’t paint with a goal in mind: I make stuff, and then I make more stuff.  I like to say that I work from a position of ignorance, and when the work is done maybe I’ll understand it. I really love not knowing, and most of the time the art-making process can’t be controlled: It’s a fluid, amorphous, constantly changing set of ideas and practices.

Also, an artist has to accept that he or she might want to ‘say’ something, but not know exactly what that ‘something’ is. In my new work, I explore the idea that people think that a message is all we need to communicate. But messages get convoluted, broken down, distorted and blocked, and sometimes the interference is more interesting than the message itself.

Given that art-making is idiosyncratic, how can it be taught?

Yes, it is highly personal, but there are disciplines to learn.

Studio classes are an artist’s version of experiential learning. I teach a lot of different techniques because I believe it’s better to know the rules before you break them. Art is an ongoing conversation, and new art is always pushing against the old and against tradition. So, the practice of being an artist is similar to the practice of being a lawyer: Every single work is an argument, and all arguments are based on historical precedent. Like lawyers, artists are essential to the defense of free speech and to the freedom of expression.

I think we, as a society, have to find ways to celebrate the ways that artists argue. In a culture that defines people by what we consume, being a ‘producer of stuff’ can be a radical act. It’s a way to frame the world on one’s own terms.  As an artist, I don’t want everything to be defined by corporate offices and marketing strategies.  At the same time, in a society that celebrates free speech, we have to embrace multiple possibilities about artistic expression. Of course, I also think that artists have to be snobs: Having high standards, and being able to define them and stick to them, is really important.

I also teach—and show—my students that making art is hard work. I’m very invested in my practice: I read, I study, and I look at other art. I go to my studio every day, and sometimes—plenty of times—I make crap. But when Michael Jordan had a bad day, he didn’t stop shooting: He shot more. So, if I feel that I don’t know where I’m going with a piece, I keep working because invariably the act of painting becomes something elsethe painting itself.

All that said, I would also say that studying art can sometimes get in the way of making art. Over-thinking art, and over-contextualizing it, can narrow how we experience it. I can explain about how to hold a brush, or describe how it feels on the canvas, but talking is nothing compared to doing. One of my favorite anecdotes comes from the great 20th century painter, Phillip Guston, who said that his best teacher was the one who couldn’t wait for class to end so he could get back to his own paintings.

Making art is all about passion. I can teach students how to use certain tools. I can introduce them to the works of poets and painters and sculptors. But I can’t teach them how to be an artist: I can’t make that spark leap. That’s up to each of them, alone.

The My Art series showcases the work of artists teaching at DePaul—our poets and musicians, painters and composers, writers and actors.