After a childhood of creative passions, Matthew discovered that his career needed to be a creative outlet. His first step was as vast as any artist could take; he plunged straight into the 1980s New York gallery scene. Read on for a discussion of how Matthew seized his early chances, established himself in New York’s East Village, and embraced the unknown to fuel his artistic discoveries.
- Garret S. / DMS
Where did you start exhibiting your work? Was this in Detroit, or were you already out of there at this point?
The only exhibit I was ever involved with before I went to New York was a juried show at the Art Gallery of Windsor in 1982. It was an early cubist influenced drawing called, ‘Too Much News’ that was picked to be in the show. This drawing was part of a series of large pencil drawings I had been working on starting in late 1980 which, as it turned out, formed the foundation of my first show in New York. It was very encouraging to be among those chosen to participate.
Matthew Giffin, 'Too Much News' Coloured pencil on paper 24" x 36" (1982)
Shortly thereafter I learned about a juried outdoor art exhibit that took place each Spring in Washington Square, New York City. It seemed like a good opportunity, so I submitted my work and was accepted.
I was living with my then-girlfriend in Windsor at the time. When the time came, we packed up the drawings in our old AMC Pacer and drove to New York for the two week duration of the show.
We sublet a tiny 6th floor walkup in Greenpoint, Brooklyn that had no air conditioning. It was smokin’ hot in that place. I remember from the window in the evening you could see folks in the neighbourhood hanging out on the stoops, playing stickball, drinking beer and listening to music. And the smell in the air… was fantastic. People were doing amazing things with garlic. There must have been some incredible chefs on that street.
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NYC
Sounds like a big change from what you would know from Windsor or Detroit.
Yes, for sure. The whole city just seemed impossibly vibrant; the subways, the buildings, the streets and shadows, the in-your-face character of the people, were all just very exciting. We were young, discovering New York and I was participating in this exhibit, really getting my work in front of relatively large numbers of people for the first time.
The excitement was further stoked by how well the show was doing. The personal feedback alone was incredibly encouraging, but even better, I sold a number of pieces, including a couple of drawings to a collector who also offered me a solo exhibit in the gallery he owned uptown.
Through him I met the owner of Dyansen Galleries on 57th Street, a high society kind of gallery and one of the largest fine art publishers in the world, which resulted in a long meeting to discuss a possible show and even publishing.
The whole experience was really way beyond anything I could have imagined. It was obvious that I had to be in New York. It was the centre of the art world, but more than that, it was just the coolest place ever; a city that existed on mythical terms, the subject of songs and movies and a magnet that attracted creative people from all over the world.
We both loved it. We decided that we’d return to Windsor, get married, pack up and move to New York. Six months later we were there, living in a dumpy apartment in Washington Heights.
That’s such a big step to take, going from not really doing shows to being thrown head-first into the gallery scene in New York.
I know, but I don’t have much fear that way. I just thought, ‘go for it and see what happens’. Dive in. And that pretty much is a pattern that has held for my whole life.
How did it feel to have such an abrupt change, to move and be featured in a gallery so quickly?
Well… When you announce your intention to be an artist there is no shortage of well-meaning people telling you how difficult it will be to find a gallery anywhere, much less in New York. I was very conscious of what I was getting into, but I was also very clear about the work I was doing.
So, this is what artists do. We follow and listen to what intuition tells us. This path felt right and I was greatly affirmed by the positive response my work was getting. To not follow it would have been absurd.
The artists journey is not a standard career path. It’s more like setting sail across a vast ocean. You just watch the stars, feel the wind and try to be as ready as you can possibly be for the whale when it finally, inevitably, arrives.
Jonah and the Whale from the Compendium of Chronicles, MOMA
How do you wrap your mind around that?
I think there’s no other way other than to work really hard and try to put yourself in a position to be noticed. There is no medal of virtue to be awarded for not trying to acquire an audience.
A lot can be gained from reading interviews with creative people who are not afraid to stand up and say “this is who I am, this is what I’m doing”. Some artists see that kind of thing as beneath them and they avoid it. For others, publicity stunts seem to be end all and be all of their art.
My personal view is that art is communication and reaching out to the public should be an extension of the artwork. It helps to be at least somewhat conscious of the story you are creating.
For example, the story surrounding my first show drew the attention of CBC News back in Canada and The Windsor Star, and as everyone knows, there is no such thing as bad publicity. I quickly became involved in the vibrant East Village art scene and signed a contract with Helio Galleries. I had several solo and group shows there and other places as well. It was an amazing time.
Being an artist is a demanding life that requires a lot of faith from oneself and others. There are massive peaks and valleys. It gets ugly. But in that journey lies a compelling story, and when properly told, miracles can be revealed.
Next up in 'Conversations with Matthew': The East Village