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Richard Speer

“A Fortuitous Detour: 

Lamb, Miró, and the Abstract Expressionists”

a catalogue essay 

Fearlessness of form and color, simple shapes with complex meanings, and a menagerie of fantastical creatures bubbling up from the subconscious—these hallmarks characterize the works of the late Surrealist, Joan Miró, and of the contemporary painter, Matt Lamb.  But the affinities in visual symbolism between these important artists, I submit, do not arise from any direct influence on the latter by the former.  No, the road from Miró to Lamb is not a straight one; it takes a fortuitous detour through Abstract Expressionism before skipping over Pop, minimalism, and post-modernism, to arrive, finally, at our millennial doorstep.

As Lamb’s biographer, I am intrigued by both the formal and meta-aesthetic similarities and differences between the self-taught Irish-American and the late, great Spaniard.  What the two lack in pictorial affinity (Miró’s figures are frequently wiry and jagged, while Lamb’s are most often rounded and soft) they share in over-reaching approach:  Both present, arguably, an equally bizarre procession of oddly conceived animals, humans, and hybrids that fall by default into the category of non-classifiable “other.”  And both artists concern themselves with singular visions to which the rest of us are not privy, although their respective worlds, figuratively, are worlds apart.

Miró’s systemization of recurring motifs, developed in the mid- to late 1920s, encapsulted elaborate meanings in pictographic symbols, representing both base desires and higher aspirations—man’s dialectic juggling act of limbic and cerebral, bestial and celestial.  The combinations of symbols the artist chose in any given work could impart a different meaning, according to the context.  Similarly, many of Lamb’s recurring figures, at first inscrutable, turn out to have names, histories, and subtextual meanings within the artist’s oeuvre:  the Indian, Empress, Harlequin, flying fish, horse, “lookers,” two-headed dog, “Groucho Marx dog,” and Fun King, to name but a few.  Each of these creatures has at least a cursory persona within Lamb’s larger philosophy of “peace, tolerance, understanding, hope, and love.”

Beyond these passing echoes lies a more significant link.  The use of automatic drawing as a base technique for the Surrealists—among them Miró, Dalí, Breton, Arp, and Masson—built upon the fundamental conceit of the literary parlour game known as Exquisite Corpse (Le cadavre exquis):  An artist would move his pencil randomly across the paper or canvas, allowing chance and the subconscious to dictate the composition, effectively eradicating rationality from the creative process.  Miró, in particular, is known to have begun many of his mature paintings as meticulous automatic drawings.

For his part, Lamb begins each of his oil paintings with an automatic process he calls “the dip,” wherein he submerges a canvas in a vat filled with paints, concrete, turpentine, and a closely guarded “secret recipe” of other materials.  He moves the canvas around in the trough according to whim, different spots within the vat affecting the painting’s eventual composition in different ways.  Then, he lifts the canvas from the primordial ooze in which its background was born, flips it face up, and has his way with it with brushes, whiskbrooms, or simply his fingers.  It is a kind of digital ballet, this exercise in pure action painting—sometimes legato, sometimes staccato, lasting for only ten or twenty seconds, but imparting an enduring effect on what will eventually become the finished work.

“It’s not about thinking or planning,” Lamb says emphatically of this process, “it’s about emotion.”

The dip, then, is a function of Lamb’s subconscious, just as the automatic paintings freed the Surrealist id from the grip of the superego.  Several scholars have pointed out the automatism of Lamb’s method, most pointedly Dr. Michal Ann Carley, professor of art at Cardinal Stritch University.  This connection came most prominently to the fore at the 70th anniversary performance of Sir William Walton’s Surrealist-inspired performance piece, Façade, by the William Ferris Chorale in 1993.  Lamb’s 32-foot-tall painting, Great Façade, was commissioned by the Chicago Cultural Center to commemorate the gala performance and was based on chance and automatism.  Tellingly, when installers mistakenly placed one of the work’s 64 panels in the wrong configuration, Lamb let the mistake stand rather than demanding it be corrected, figuring that the error was oddly appropriate, given the performance’s Surrealist underpinnings.

That the Abstract Expressionists took the Surrealists’ lessons and ran with them is well documented.  They blasted automatism into hyperspace, divorcing the painted line from any need for a literal referent and expressing pure emotion through color, movement, and surface.  Matt Lamb mastered all three of these elements during his 20 years as a naïve figurative painter before he began essaying abstraction in 2002.  His recent works of pure abstraction (which are not truly “pure,” since he maintains he can still see dozens of his beloved “spirits” within them) fall in the direct lineage of mid-century Abstract Expressionism and are equally endebted to the unrestrained wellings of the subconscious.  They are also among the most arresting paintings of Lamb’s career and may go down as the most important.  Jaunty, sophisticated, and endlessly varied, they are miracles of what Dr. Carley called “mutant texture and chromatic excess,” truly the virtuosic variations of a master just hitting his prime.

“I couldn’t have planned it this way if I’d tried,” Lamb told me in his Chicago studio in December 2003, pointing out a jaw-dropping effect he’d created:  an outcropping cascading from the canvas resembling shards of glass or spiky, aquamarine geodes, yet rubbery-soft to the touch.

And indeed he could not have planned the effect, nor could anyone else.  The renowned “Lamb pucker,” along with his signature nuggetty textures and the breathtaking swirls of his “controlled migration” process, are all improvisational responses to the interaction between his materials, his hard-won technique, the obsidian depths of his subconscious, and his even more mysterious absorption, as if through the collective unconscious, of other artists to whom he has been compared:  VanGogh, Rouault, Dubuffet, Chagall, and Franz Kline, to name but a few.

As the case of Miró and Lamb suggests, sometimes it is neither the road less traveled nor the road more traveled, but the road that veers off from both in unexpected detours, that leads to the most worthwhile—and wondrous—destinations. 


mattlamb.org © 2006 Matt Lamb