Matt Neuman’s busy paintings, with beavers |

Matt Neuman’s busy paintings, with beavers

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly

ASPEN ” A few weeks ago, as he hand-crafted his full-size Iron Man Halloween costume, Matt Neuman’s Hunter Creek apartment was in total chaos mode. Perhaps the only thing preventing the costume, which required making sculpture and molds out of plaster and hot glue, from overrunning the quarters entirely was Neuman’s girlfriend, Ashlee. “It was pretty out of hand,” said Neuman, who made the disarray worthwhile by winning top prize at the Belly Up’s costume contest.

His paintings could well be described as two-dimensional approximations of Neuman’s apartment, in its pre-Halloween look. The works are cluttered with bric-a-brac; “out of hand” would be an apt way to categorize the amount of information conveyed on one canvas. The latest series of paintings is all interiors, very much focused on the idea of a living space.

There is even a sense of tension between the male and female who share the residence.

Neuman, however, imposes tighter control over what he is creating on canvas than he does over the condition of his apartment. His current series, Life with Beavers, is meant to build a narrative. Each of the four 60-by-60 inch works has its own internal story, with character, setting and action (not to mention beavers). And the four pieces taken together tell an even bigger story, replete with conflict and resolution.

“It’s a combination of chaos and complex narrative,” said the 23-year-old. “The core of the work is narrative, and the chaos is more of a channeling of my own esthetic. It’s the opposite of the motel-room effect: I find the more things that surround you, the more action, the more creative I am.

“But in the paintings, it’s a controlled chaos. My paintings don’t have the natural quality that my apartment might have.”

The narrative, and the chaos, in Life with Beavers does, indeed, center around the furry brown animals. And though Neuman is from a relatively rural corner of the world ” Wilmington, a town in southern Vermont of some 2,500 people ” and though his paintings can be as active as the famously busy rodents, it was not beavers that initially captured Neuman’s artistic eye. Rather, it was water. Taking in a retrospective of the work of David Lachapelle at a gallery in Milan, Neuman was struck by the photographer’s Deluge series.

“I remember dark waters, bouncing reflections around,” said Neuman, who moved to the Roaring Fork Valley a little over a year ago, for the skiing, and for a three-month workshop at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center. “There was this mysterious quality that brought energy to the piece. I knew I wanted to work with water.” Neuman also cites as an influence another photographer, Gregory Crewdson, whose elaborately staged, dramatically lit images have a distinct narrative, and occasionally included overflowing water.

As an undergraduate at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Neuman attempted to revitalize still-life painting. Eventually, he began looking for ways to depict objects at the center of a narrative. During his residency at Anderson Ranch, he hit upon another element that would add life to still lifes: humor.

“Painting, I felt, was lacking a sense of humor these days,” said Neuman. “It tended to be very serious. I wanted humor and surrealism.”

Beavers, in themselves, don’t have much of a history as objects of humor. But put a few beavers in a house, let them flood the place with a dam and get their teeth into the contents of a closet ” and have a young couple try to co-exist with the unruly animals ” and you’ve got a template for offbeat laughs.

“The story is about beavers who move into these people’s lives, and build dams and lodges out of all the household items,” said Neuman, who has a laid-back manner and thick sideburns. “So it’s a look at how living with beavers affects these people’s lives, for better or worse.”

Life with Beavers is a humorous tale of acceptance. In the first piece, “The Adaptation of the Beaver,” the critters have wreaked havoc on an otherwise cozy-looking house. In “The Folly of the Beaver,” tensions have heightened, as the woman of the house holds a tattered dress and looks accusingly at the man (who greatly resembles Neuman himself). He, in turn, passes blame along to the beaver, who has a telltale hanger in his mouth. By “The Acceptance of the Beaver,” the humans have made peace with the situation, donning swimsuits and drinking beers in their indoor pool.

Neuman’s intention is to have viewers take in his paintings in all their narrative, emotion, busyness and confusion. “They become small areas of discovery, with people hopefully scouring the painting, finding a lot to grasp. They’ll look around it, find the narrative and some sub-narratives,” he said. Assuming they give it the proper attention, viewers can find more than a silly story about beavers overrunning a house. “It’s touching on ideas of co-habitation, man living with nature. Consumerism, the modern media always bombarding us with information. This is a filter for all of that.”

For his next series, Neuman is contemplating a futuristic setting ” “After the age of man,” he said, when “nature is reclaiming the world.”

Neuman’s own near-future is looking bright. LivAspenArt, the Aspen Highlands gallery which represents him, is featuring Neuman’s work at the Bridge Art Fair Wynwood in Miami, in early December. Bridge Wynwood is one of numerous satellite art fairs that have sprung out around the massively popular Art Basel Miami Beach. In fact, Bridge Wynwood is an extension of the Bridge Art Fair, a satellite event that outgrew its space. LivAspenArt’s booth at the invitation-only Bridge Wynwood will feature several Aspen-area artists in addition to Neuman: sculptor Alicia Matesanz de las Heras, photographer Kat Parkin, and painter and gallery owner, Olivia Daane Reische.

LivAspenArt is having a preview exhibition of the work being shown in Miami. The opening is Wednesday, Nov. 26, from 4-7 p.m. (Disclosure alert: I have had a loose representation arrangement with LivAspenArt for my photography. My work is not being shown in Miami or at the preview exhibition.)

It is an unusual career arc Neuman is on. Though he has been intensely interested in visual arts, he opted not to attend an arts school for his undergraduate course; Skidmore is a liberal arts school with a small fine arts department. “I figured, if I was serious about being an artist, grad school was the time to do it,” he said.

But Neuman has skipped over grad school, at least for now, and it seems to be working out. As soon as his Anderson Ranch residency ended, he moved right into a combination studio/gallery situation at LivAspenArt, where he has been working and exhibiting for over a year.

“Grad school is glorified as the place of no inhibition. They pride themselves on not being confined in that way,” he said. “I wanted to go right on to grad school ” and I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve gotten into my own head instead of relying on formal critique and professors. I think I’ve progressed so far in what I’m doing on my own. They say the best grad student is someone who’s spent ‘x’ number of years outside of school; you go into grad school with artistic intensity and not as a product of a group of professors and peers.”

Neuman realizes there might be more to learn in a school setting. He is looking at entering grad school next fall, with his hopes high for Boston University. His time in the valley has been fruitful ” “For a young artist a year and a half out of school, I think I’ve done well for myself,” he said ” but there are things Aspen is not teaching him.

“In the respect that the weather’s always beautiful. There’s always peaceful light in what is otherwise a chaotic scene,” said Neuman of his work. “But there hasn’t been a winter scene, because I’m so into color. I’m aware I need to break out of the living room I’ve been painting in. Someone accused me of being agoraphobic. I guess I need to break out of my paintings. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet, but it’s on my mind.”

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