Matt Bahen is a painter. He graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2002. He works have been shown in Toronto, Alberta, New York, Alabama and Massachusetts. He’s represented by Toronto’s LE Gallery. His impasto landscapes deal with themes of war, conflict, history and compassion. His studio is a converted garage in one of Toronto’s quiet residential alleyways. Birds chirped, dogs barked and cats slunk out from under trees.
I work from photographs. People will give them to me and say, ‘It looks gross and shitty and I thought of you.’ All the photos I’ve gotten, I dug. The image isn’t really what’s important. It’s what it conveys. Whether it was taken in Ontario or Pennsylvania is totally irrelevant to the feeling I get from that photo.
I’m drawn to the images first. I find the imagery striking and then it lines up with what I’m really interested in, conceptually. I trust myself now. It was really upsetting when I was making plans, when I was building thoughts about violence and technology, etc.
There were lots of little failures like, ‘Why the fuck didn’t that work out?’ and it was because I was being dishonest even though I didn’t think I was at the time. I planned too much and thought about the ideas first. No. The eye leads and everything else has to line up with that.
You don’t have to be truthful with other people but you need to be truthful with yourself if you want the work to be good.
My work is about me, unfortunately. It’s always going to be that way and there’s very little I can do about it. So, I accepted it. My work is about my experience being a street outreach worker for a decade, and being witness to awful suffering and nonsense, and seeing the resiliency of people at the same time. The work is about: terrible things happen and sometimes it breaks you and sometimes it doesn’t. The idea is: What makes a good life? That’s what the work is about.
I was always very attracted to Tom Thomson and Van Gogh. The strength of their marks. I was listening to a literary criticism podcast about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Amy Hungerford, she teaches at Yale, said that he’s able to convey his point through the strength of his language. I thought, ‘Hmmm, maybe I’m trying to do a similar thing.’ You trust that mark. You put it down and it’s over. Maybe you have to do another one overtop, but you don’t doubt it. Boom.
I make representational work, stuff that looks like stuff, and it’s pretty tight. I’m not abstracting it too much, or certainly not trying to. I’m not changing the palette. Someone like Kim Dorland will make it with red. He uses colour much more expressively, whereas I keep the colour restrained throughout.
What the thick paint does, is let you know that you’re looking at a painting and not a photograph. The photograph can still be read with a sense of journalistic truth. ‘I was there, this happened.’ With painting it’s like, ‘This is all baloney,’ but the baloney can tell you something that’s true.
-Matt Bahen, as told to Studio Beat
Photos by Courtney Vokey