Restless and Sophisticated

Matt Christy’s recent show drew praise for the artist who, according to his former professor, is fulfilling what good painting is.

Matt Christy, Watkins College of Art

A tiger crouches, ready to pounce from atop a rock. Focused on an unseen target, the cat is oblivious to the world beneath its feet, and so are we — at first.

Then the viewer notices the “rock” is translucent and filled with a teeming mass of shapes.

Suddenly it more resembles a cell, dominating but not alone beside other, smaller objects of varying colors and sizes. Though they seem to be existing independently of each other, we can see them sharing the same black space in “Untitled (Tiger),” the striking seven-foot acrylic-and-ink drawing that anchored Matt Christy’s recent solo exhibition, The Vibrating Neighbor.

Untitled (Tiger), Matt Christy

Christy, a 2007 Watkins graduate, has long been fascinated by what connects him to the outside world and what connects that world itself.

“It’s an idea that’s been with me for a long time, to make stories that shift perspectives, which is why psychedelics came up often when I was first talking about this (show),” Christy says. “[There’s a] sort of a shift in your normal perception from what we think of as central to the periphery. The other way I talked about it was that it was about unaccountable relationships.”

In “On the Occasion of a Not Knowing and Never Remembered,” four figures — actually cutouts of photographs — are suspended in a space surrounded by streaks of white, as if the viewer is looking through the windows of the Millennium Falcon when it jumps to light speed. One seems to be shouting to the object in the center, an ant in a bubble from which the streaks seem to emanate. Despite their proximity, none are obviously aware of the others. Like the tiger, they’re oblivious to their shared reality.

On the Occasion of a Not Knowing and Never Remembered

“All these simultaneous events are coinciding but don’t have any relationship that I can articulate withou­­t making a painting about it. I’m creating them, but it’s trying to make sense of that nonsense of the world,” Christy says. “I think that’s what art can do, and that’s maybe why you have to do it — because you recognize how blind we are to a series of relationships that are constantly happening but are impossible to account for or make sense of. Like my relationship with the ant for instance.”

The Vibrating Neighbor ran this past winter at Nashville’s Red Arrow Gallery. Erica Ciccarone of The Nashville Scene called the show “trippy and unpretentious” in a rave review, the latest Christy has received while carving out a space for himself as one of the city’s most highly regarded up-and-coming artists.

He’s also shown locally at Seed Space, Mild Climate, and the David Lusk Gallery, nationally at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Oregon, and internationally the Mienblau Gallery in Berlin. But Red Arrow was a new challenge for him, according to Watkins Fine Art Professor Terry Thacker.

“He’s not used to a little more commercial venue,” Thacker says. “I think the gallery was a little nervous for that work, because it has a rawness to it that’s not easy to market … I think he handled it really beautifully.”

It’s an idea that’s been with me for a long time, to make stories that shift perspectives...

Christy graduated from Watkins in 2007 with a degree in fine art and moved back to Nashville after completing his MFA at the University of Oregon in 2015. That was a big step in his development as an artist, because while inspiration has never been in short supply for the prolific painter/writer/aspiring musician, harnessing his energies has.

“It wasn’t really until after grad school that I was able to focus for any length of time on anything,” Christy says. “I’ve been really focused lately on those paintings … It feels like something needs to be more refined and a little bigger and a little less subjective than the way I’ve been working for the past 10 years.”

Bigger certainly described The Vibrating Neighbor, which culminated with Christy teaming with David Onri Anderson, another Watkins grad, and David’s brother, Benji, to add a musical element to the show. Now that the dust has settled, Christy is still trying to wrap his mind around his own creation.

“I don’t even know how to collapse that show anymore into an easy soundbite, because when I took it down I thought, ‘Oh man, I thought I knew what this was all about, and now it just seems out there to me,’” Christy says. “I spent a lot of time making the work and a lot of time thinking about the work. There’s sort of anxiety and excitement that goes around with an opening … So, when I went back in after being away from for about a month, I just had a very difference experience.”

Matt Christy, Watkins College of Art

A constant need to be creating has defined Christy for most of his life, to the point that he taught himself to play the piano in between writing a novel. That drive has also meant that the completion of a piece brings as much emptiness as satisfaction.

“In grad school a lot of my artist statements always said, well, I’m restless. I feel constantly restless,” he says.

Thacker and Christy are close friends, but if they’d never met Thacker would still admire Christy’s paintings — which he’s been collecting for years.

“There is this element of … chaos that emerges in the work, but the sophistication is it’s a resistance to codifications,” Thacker says. “If you believe in (your former students’) work you’re super happy that it ends up in this community. One of the reasons a person makes a painting is they don’t see work out there that fulfills what they think a good painting is, what a painting can be or ought to be.”

Christy, who also teaches at Watkins, will undoubtedly keep painting, but when asked where he goes from here he laughs. “I’m horrible about goals,” he says before launching into a plan to make an album exploring “a relationship with visual art and music that needs to be fleshed out.”

“I try to be open and read widely and remain curious, but I think I just have a lot of need to make something,” he says. “Where does that need come from? It comes partially from anxiety, but I don’t want to say it’s all that because I don’t think it’s purely therapeutic. It can be super frustrating actually to do it … I look at a lot of art, so I’m thinking about other artists. I want to be in dialogue with those artists, people I admire, your fictional audience basically that you construct for yourself after years and years.”

Visit Christy’s website to see his work.