“To live in these times is in a lot of ways scary, and in all of my recent works I’m working to acknowledge that, and to overcome it,” says Ogden artist Matthew Choberka, whose paintings are ablaze with nearly-neon color, informed abstraction, and monstrous figures that push, pull, topple and scream their way across the canvas. Terrifying yet beautiful, overwhelming yet approachable, Choberka’s work is a glimpse into the artist’s psyche where underlying anxieties over current events inform his actions in the studio.
While Choberka’s process is stimulated by the artist’s visceral response to personal and political strife, his reflexive way of moving paint or building a connected composition from a series of abstract marks is undoubtedly informed by his life’s journey as a student and teacher of the arts. Choberka was born in Peoria, Illinois in a family who valued education; his mother was a librarian, and Choberka was well read from a young age. He pursued his undergraduate degree at Colombia College where he initially studied photography but ultimately discovered his interest in painting and drawing. A drawing professor pointed him toward the New York Studio School as an opportunity for immersive study in those disciplines. The years that followed were invaluable to Choberka’s artistic growth, ingraining principles that he equally returns to and reckons with as he establishes his voice and identity as a contemporary painter.
“The Studio School had a reputation of fierce independence,” says Choberka, who attended from 1994 to 1997 under the direction of influential mentor and British-born American artist, Graham Nickson. “It was framed by its founders as a counter culture to the traditional university experience or art education, and was defined as this “anti-college” experience in a sense.”
Modeled after an artists’ atelier experience, the Studio School took an active and immersive approach to artist education. Students spent five days a week, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the studio drawing, painting or sculpting from life. There were brown bag art history talks at lunch and lectures two nights a week — and skipping studio time to visit the nearby MOMA or Met was considered an excused absence. This daily continuity was an important part of the philosophical framework the school was founded on, which prioritized observation based drawing and learning through perception. Established largely with a post-abstract expressionist mindset, the School emphasized a return to the figure and return to imagery, but in a less rigid and technical manner. In looking to the Old Masters, students were taught to study the artist’s perceptions rather than try to emulate their hand.
“There was no instruction on things like shading techniques, glazing, drawing from spheres or anything like that,” says Choberka. “Drawing from life was instead like a visual obstacle course where you had to find your own way through marks that emulated the movement of your eye. I was really able to redefine things for myself in terms of pictorial investigation.”
The School was housed in the original Whitney Museum of Art building, intrinsically connecting students to great artists of the past as they learned from great artists of the day. Choberka became part of a long lineage of Studio School artists, beginning with founding artist and educator Mercedes Matter and early faculty such as Philip Guston, Alex Katz, Charles Cajori and others. Lectures brought in highly regarded artists, historians and thought leaders from the field, stimulating critical thinking and discourse between students. These practices continue at the School today, yet with the offering of more formal degree programs. When Choberka attended, the School awarded certificates only in a further rejection of the mainstream “art school” model.
While progressive in its principles, Choberka found that the level of immersion at the Studio School led to a somewhat purist mindset where painting and drawing were seen as “above” the antics of the contemporary art world. “We felt like Studio School was better than a grad degree,” admits Choberka. “We worked without the shackles of any dogma – we weren’t caught up in the New York art world trends or fashions or anything like that – we just made. We went to painting school. And while I treasure that, I realize that it was an extremely limited viewpoint in a way.”
But it wasn’t until Choberka and his wife left New York City that he came to this realization. After Studio School, Choberka spent five years in a curatorial support position at the Metropolitan Museum, taking care of the Old Master drawings collection and the Drawings Study Room. It was a fulfilling job that he loved, but when his daughter was born the Choberka’s decided that living in the city just “didn’t make sense” for the lifestyle they wanted for their family, taking them back to Illinois. Here, Choberka worked briefly as an installer at the Art Institute of Chicago where he mounted exhibitions for artists like Gerard Richter. The installment work was intermittent, however, and not as intellectually stimulating as his curatorial duties at the Met. As valuable as the experience was, the Studio School didn’t give Choberka the official credentials he need to advance his career outside of New York, which ultimately led him to pursue graduate studies at Indiana University.
During his studies in New York, perception and observation were prioritized within the studio, but these principles also became imperative to Choberka’s broader outlook as an artist. Through his work, he wanted to investigate our complex internal response to the external world – but how to represent that on canvas? After his experience in the Studio School, Choberka was naturally working figuratively and struggling to share his true subject matter through his imagery. He was entrenched in a Goya-influenced style which he now describes as “costume drama”; figures were manifestations of self but dressed in elaborate clothing to appear as jesters, opera singers or other caricatures.
“I really wanted to find out what these anxieties, visions and responses to the world would really look like, but it’s like I had to dress it up in a costume in order to make it into a painting,” says Choberka. “I was looking for ways to invent formally, but was conditioned to these other ways of thinking.”
Graduate school was a complete “head turn” for Choberka, not only in the style of his work but also for his perspective as an artist. “In New York I was really closing myself off,” he explained. “I was going to museums all the time — but there was this idea of blocking out all the going ons of the art world. It didn’t take much for me to recognize what a posture that was and how thrilling what’s going on in the art world actually is.”
Ironically, Choberka found that he was more intellectually engaged in the contemporary art world from Bloomington, Indiana than he was when living in New York City. This was largely due to his university mentor, Barry Gealt, whose enthusiasm for the field and current art movements was inspiring and contagious. This perspective bled into Choberka’s studio practice, where he began questioning where his work fit on a wider spectrum. “I was forced into thinking about myself in context in an entirely new way,” says Choberka. “I realized I couldn’t just rely on the shared set of assumptions we had in the Studio School.”
Things changed quickly as Choberka moved toward abstraction, finding he could speak more fluently and directly through marks, line, color and composition than he could through his costumed figures. “My work became much more representational when it became abstract,” he says, “because it was truly depicting what I was thinking about.”
Psychological and political content moved to the forefront as Choberka began to navigate his complex responses to very specific worldly events through his paintings. While the direct influence may not be present to the viewer, the interplay within the work causes us to build associative connections with our interpretations. “There’s all kinds of obsessions present,” says Choberka of his abstract work, a style he continues to evolve today. “It’s me, it’s Donald Trump, it’s sex, it’s fear, it’s death, it’s life.”
Choberka continued in abstraction when he moved to Utah in 2005 for his current job at Weber State University, where he is an Art Professor and current Chair of the Department of Visual Art and Design. But over the past few years, Choberka has made somewhat of a return to the figure with a style that varies significantly from his earliest iterations.
With the rise of political tension from conflicts overseas to the tumultuous Trump administration, Choberka increasingly sought more direct ways to explore this anxiety-inducing strife through his work, and was beginning to feel limited by abstraction. In 2017, he traveled to the Venice Biennale with a group of students and encountered an exhibition featuring the work Philip Guston, an artist he already felt deeply connected to through the lineage at the Studio School. Throughout his career, Guston similarly transitioned from representational work to pure abstraction, finding his signature style as an initial founder and key figure of the abstract expressionist movement. Later in his career, however, Guston abruptly switched back to figuration as he grappled with the turmoil of modern America, a decision he was often criticized for.
Guston stated in an interview: “What kind of man was I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?” “I am weary,” he said in another interview, “of all this purity.”
It was the 1970s and Guston was referring to a seemingly endless war overseas and corruption at home that included a presidential impeachment – not too far off from the world Choberka was living in. Choberka deeply resonated with Guston’s predicament and upon his return from Venice, his studio practice shifted.
The figuration that emerged in Choberka’s work has been described as “grotesque,” and the artist himself refers to his figures as monsters. Ghostly but glowing with vivid color, these androgynous forms are strangely resonant as they echo the chaos of the contemporary world through beady eyes, scribbled bodies and mouths that scream in neon. This style initially took shape on screen as Choberka began traveling with an iPad as his portable painting studio. Working with ProCreate, he started painting digitally as a playful way to work out ideas. The program offers all the effects of an actual brush, but on a more moldable and immediate surface. What began as exploration developed into a full body of digital paintings, while also informing further figurative developments on canvas.
Even when bringing the figure back into his compositions, Choberka is careful to keep his work from becoming too direct, and often finds himself suppressing his formative figure training at the Studio School. “If I think too literally – like oh this is sky, or this is ground – then it just dies in my hand. But if you can be in that sort of multivalent thinking where it may be sky but it’s also just smeared color, then you’re in a good place.”
Choberka’s current work is a synthesis of the abstract and figurative styles that have evolved and coalesced over the course of his career. “What I’m trying to do now is to grow and build upon all the things that have been given to me, but to question everything. And question it not because it’s the romantic or rebellious thing to do – but because I really want to speak about the complexity of our response to the world.”
Currently in the studio, Choberka is busily preparing a body of work for his upcoming exhibition at A Gallery this March. Looming from the back walls are two monumental pieces that originated in digital, yet have undergone extensive evolution in paint to come toward fruition. There is a weighted complexity and authoritative presence due to their scale, deep color palette and interplay of figurative forms. Another series of mid-size paintings line the west studio wall, conversing through abstraction as they wait for Choberka’s monsters to rear their heads.
“I’m happy about these in that they are at least more candid,” says Choberka about the evolution of the new work. “In a way it says a lot more about how I see the world and how I feel about it. So if that’s successful or not, at least it’s true. Not that my earlier work wasn’t — it’s just time to be frank in this way.”
Matthew Choberka/Brian Christensen, ‘A’ Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Apr. 10. Artist reception Friday, Mar. 20, 6-8 p.m.