Upstairs at The Space Gallery, artist Matthew Bennett steps over a scattering of empty coffee mugs, water bottles, used and unused painting implements and random inspirational ephemera, and reaches behind a canvas to grab a human skull the size of an indoor soccer ball, which he delicately passes over to me.
“A lot of people don’t like touching it,” he says of the skull, which he affectionately calls David. “I didn’t even like handling it at first.”
Bennett purchased the skull, he tells me, a few years ago on eBay.
“I’ve just always wanted to do a series of life drawings of a skull,” he says. “So this show has given me an opportunity to really dive into it.”
Bennett’s been hard at work lately, prepping pieces for “More Than This,” a group show at The Space Gallery, the DIY art venue he co-owns with his wife Laura and artist Wyatt Parlette. The show will also feature works by Jan Tomlinson Master and Lana Shuttleworth.
On the periphery of Bennett’s rather manic-looking workspace are a series of canvases–some on easels, some just propped up on the floor–showing works in various stages of completion. One depicts a pair of sinewy clay-colored feet, descending from a subject out of frame. Another shows hands, one cupping the other, seemingly anticipating a rinse under an unseen faucet. There are several paintings of David, including one in which the skull is surrounded by a bounty of healthy-looking carnations bursting in spring colors. It’s evident, even from this small sampling of Bennett’s work, that lately he’s been interested in the postmortem.
“I’ve had a number of people I’m close to, or somewhat close to, die in the past few years,” he says. “I’ve been interested lately in sort of the spark that drives us and what happens to that when we pass away. I don’t have any firm beliefs about afterlife or anything like that. I just have this idea to paint that energy. To show that it exists. That it goes on.”
The show, according to Bennett, also represents a move toward an artistic transition. Known for his accuracy and skill as a representational painter, Bennett is broadening his scope for “More Than This,” incorporating abstract expressionist elements and diving deep to home in on a theme across multiple works of art.
“In representational art, everybody knows what it’s supposed to be,” he says. “I wanted to abstract some of the ideas I’ve been kicking around and take some of these temporal things and create some kind of spiritual life force around these paintings.”
In anticipation of “More than This,” Folio Weekly talked to Bennett about the concept for the show and how he feels he’s still growing as an artist.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Folio Weekly: Tell me about the significance of the skulls.
Matthew Bennett: I haven’t been thinking about the skulls as death, necessarily. I’ve been thinking about it more as the remains. Sort of what’s left behind. Any sadness, or feelings related to the experience, is felt by the people who are still here. It’s the loss that generates the sadness. So, with the colors and everything, I’m trying to take this object associated with sadness and say … that it’s just part of this whole thing. The death, the sadness, what’s left of the person: That’s not the beauty. Whatever it is that they were is not what is left over.
Looking at these pieces, I see you’ve got at least one representational figure–who looks dead–you’ve got some skulls in certain states of disintegration, as well as a fairly abstract piece that seems to depict the energy, or life-force, we were discussing. Is there a linear or maybe cyclical theme to this series?
No, no. I don’t really work conceptually that way. I think my pieces end up with a cohesive feeling because of the timeframe in which I’m working. But also the palette I choose to work with during that time, or the subject matter. There’s a general idea, but I don’t sit there and plan a storyline. There’s no cohesive message that I could articulate. You know Wyatt [Parlette] works on these great cohesive shows that have well-thought-out and articulated themes. I’m in awe of that, but that’s not what I do.
In the past here in Jacksonville, you participated in the Off-The-Grid program—showing your work in nontraditional spaces in the urban core. How did that time here influence what you’re doing now as far as your artwork and your work with The Space Gallery?
Well, in the past, I’d been showing a lot in St. Augustine. But St. Augustine can be very specific with the kind of art that you’re encouraged to create there. There isn’t a lot of really avant-garde stuff going on. I came [to Downtown Jacksonville] for ArtWalk and saw some just awesome, weird art that I didn’t think was around this area. And that kind of set the hooks for me. I got a studio over on Bay Street through the Off-The-Grid program. I met a lot of other artists here. That period really helped me progress. I think if I had stayed showing exclusively in St. Augustine, I would still be doing strictly traditional fine arts stuff. I was really able to expand my horizons working in this community.
So does this show—given the size of The Space Gallery and what we’ve said about branching out and exploring more conceptual or cohesive themes through multiple pieces—feel like a big leap for you?
Not a huge leap. It’s encouraging me to think more about what I’m putting out. It’s not normal for me to be working on seven paintings at a time. Having the deadline for the show has helped with productivity, for sure. [Laughs.] Right now, I’m in here six to 10 hours a day. I wouldn’t have done that before.
Is it enjoyable, though?
Oh, absolutely. For me, the actual act of painting is kind of like an emotional rollercoaster, I guess. I have a lot of joy when I’m painting. If things are going well, if things are going how I want them, or even if I just happen to be enjoying myself that day, I get this kind of bursting feeling in my heart. It’s kind of like a mania, actually. I feel confident and happy. Conversely, especially when I’m just getting started on something, I can be, like, ‘Man, I’m the worst artist in the world. Why am I even doing this?’ The older I get, the less often that happens. But I feel like everybody who is creating some kind of art goes through that. That’s why I say we’re all the same. I have a lot of love for all artists, because I know what it takes to do it. The reason that all artists I know do what they do is because they have to. And for me, the fact that I can have this cathartic experience, whether it’s joy or sadness, just having that emotional reaction to the creative process is awesome. I love it.