Legendary Bog: Matt Dibble in New York City

Matt Dibble, Legendary Bog (oil on canvas), 75×84, 2018

For more than three decades Matt Dibble, one of northern Ohio’s strongest painting talents, divided his time between a thriving roofing business and a necessarily discontinuous studio practice. Summers were for roofing; winters were for painting. Not that the interruptions slowed him down very much. Visitors to his Superior Avenue workspace in downtown Cleveland knew they would need to tread lightly and tuck their elbows in, so crowded was the 1,000-square-foot room with row after row of large and small stretched canvases. Known mainly for his extended consideration of abstract expressionist manners and techniques, Dibble has spent as much of his life as possible cramming experimental, athletically energetic compositions into every available moment and crevice of his art-life. And now that he’s reached an (early) retirement age, he’s free to do far more.

By 2018 images of new work began to flood his Instagram account (where he has 16,000+ followers), and fresh paintings piled up elsewhere in the virtual universe, especially on the popular saatchiart.com site, where hundreds of his works are on view, with price tags. As sales from those ventures became more frequent, and as his Cleveland-based career at local galleries remained relatively stagnant, he also began to reach out to brick-and-mortar venues elsewhere in the country, exposing his work to an ever widening circle of audiences and collectors. In particular, as you would expect, he had his eye on opportunities in New York City.

Dibble is a solid example of a self-made man, both as an artist and as a skilled tradesman. He was a 1978 graduate of Cleveland’s defiantly inspiring, now-defunct Cooper School of the Arts, and has marched to his own drummer ever since, indifferent to changing intellectual trends in university art department BFA/MFA culture. Yet even in that world, painting has had a tendency to follow its own historic arcs, and Dibble’s ongoing interests, which can be traced back to his student days, include original, nuanced reactions to both modern and postmodern personalities—from Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger through Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, all the way up to the present. You don’t need an MFA to know your art history. A fascination with pattern and repetition continues to underlie his large-scale Abstract Expressionist paintings, inspired perhaps by such mid-century American painters as Mark Tobey, who was interested in symbolic form from a surrealist perspective, but also as a more contemporaneous early influence from the Pattern and Decoration movement that surged (partly as a dimension of second wave feminism) in the 1970s. In fact his work has long displayed a double trajectory, which includes those paintings where expression moves towards meaning, but also a counterbalancing body of work, in which the drawn outlines of mythical-looking figures seem to float or dance in a film of space just beyond underlying blueprints, dress patterns, newspaper columns—as if the right and left hemispheres of the brain were performing a gavotte.

Dibble has shown extensively in northern Ohio, from the works included in the May Show in the early 1980s, to prestigious wins like his Best in Show at the annual National Midyear Exhibit at the Butler Museum of American Art in Youngstown. He’s enjoyed impressive one-person shows in the area as recently as 2017, when he exhibited at Tregoning Fine Art, and is included in a number of corporate collections here. But he’s also been well received by galleries outside of Ohio. The Elder Gallery, part of Charlotte’s thriving art scene in North Carolina, discovered Dibble’s abstractions and began showing them in its museum-like space in 2014. And there were shows elsewhere in Ohio—shows, but typically only a few sales. The garage in Lakewood where he lives is full of packing crates. He’s wry on the subject of these endless engagements:

“It got so all I could think about was, I have to drive a truck back in thirty days and take the show home again.”

His efforts to sell work in newer, higher-tech ways have garnered a certain amount of notice online and in the press. One notable mention was in a February 2018 New York Times article about mid-career artists and their experiences as they turn to online platforms to court ever-elusive sales. NYT writer Amy Zipkin quotes Dibble describing his newfound optimism following sales at saatchiart.com, and goes on to describe one of his recent ventures at home in Cleveland. “After a representative from Kalisher [a company with a high-profile online presence, specializing in “bespoke” collections for a broad range of venues, from hospitals to homes—ed.] began looking for Cleveland artists for a local client, Mr. Dibble landed a big commission in 2015. The result: 24 paintings hung as a single unit in the Hilton Cleveland Downtown Hotel. He received just over $19,000.00 for the job.”

In 2017 Dibble began working with the pioneering First Street Gallery, a well-known artists’ cooperative in New York. Founded in 1969 and headquartered now in Chelsea on West 27th Street, First Street offers solo shows (every 2½ to 3 years according to their prospectus) and other exhibition opportunities for artists. The organization charges an initial fee and monthly dues, but its location, longevity, and reputation make it more like an artists’ self-help organization than a pay-to-show gallery. First Street also curates pop-up exhibits around the city, and it was in one of these that Dibble’s paintings were first shown in New York. Then in January of this year his first official solo show was mounted in First Street’s main gallery. Only a few of the fourteen works shown were sold, but the month-long exhibit was well attended.

Dibble is an artist’s artist, devoted to issues of tactility and spontaneity specific to the media he has mastered. He makes works that transport the viewer into the thick of painterly process, into the infinities of what could be called deep studio time. That’s why 2018 was such a milestone for him, marking as it did the beginning of a longer plunge into his own unusually immersive painting techniques. These days he talks about his search for clarity, as if he was describing a dive into murky waters. More than once, he remembers, “I felt like I was behind the painting, working my way out.”

Even as he experiments with the superficialities of marketing in the sixth decade of his life, he searches for a purely aesthetic path that he can call his own, through the postmodern maze of spectacle and mania, back to older mysteries and wellsprings of meaning. “Legendary Bog” is a reference to the bottomless peat bogs of northern Europe, where well-preserved remains of ships and tools and people have been found, dating back to pre-history. Dibble means it as a metaphor for the extraordinary things that a painting and the acts of painting can be—an excavation through virtual time and transformed flesh, unearthing echoes of countless ages—an endless mine of sensation and experience.

Between his openness to innovative marketing in the thoroughly electronic present, and his hard-earned painterly expertise as he sifts the complexities of human culture and physiology, Dibble should hit pay dirt any time now, in one way or another.