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"Echoes among the Tides"
by Richard Speer


Echoes among the Tides 

Perhaps the only thing more striking than the differences between Pablo Picasso and Matt Lamb are the similarities.  That the curators of the Centre Picasso of Horta recognize and celebrate the affinities between the hot-blooded, formally trained Spaniard and the affable, self-taught Irish-American, is a testament to the depth and nuance of their vision.  To be sure, the common threads linking Picasso and Lamb are not as immediately apparent as the threads linking, say, Chagall and Lamb, but they exist nevertheless and are perhaps more interesting for their subtlety.

Angela Tamvaki, curator of the National Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum in Athens, Greece, has drawn parallels between Lamb’s and Picasso’s “polished and quite sophisticated Primitivism,”[i] and Lamb himself has acknowledged a debt to the “uncompromising strength” of Picasso as a stylist.  Lamb also holds a longtime fascination—and identification—with Picasso’s controversial nature, loose-cannon outspokenness, and lack of apology for the formal and spiritual radicalism of his work.  “People either loved him or hated him,” says Lamb approvingly.  It is a polarization reflected in many people’s impressions of Lamb’s own work.

There are two main levels of affinity between Picasso and Lamb:  the formal echoes in the work itself and the sometimes uncanny echoes between the men’s personalities and philosophies.

In terms of figuration, while Lamb has never aped Cubism as some post-Cubist painters have, some of the spirits in his paintings appear in profiles that bear some resemblance to the style pioneered by Picasso and Braque.  In an untitled 2001 oil on canvas, for example, there are several faces floating in a nebular tableau.  Of the four figures, one is in a style resembling Cubism, the face broken into planes that could not be perceived from the same angle.  This is a rare instance in Lamb’s pictorial vocabulary but one worth noting.  Whence does it come?  Lamb’s metier is a wide-ranging amalgamation of his own life experiences and technical developments as a painter and is in many ways a reservoir of the collective unconscious.  As such, his painting is often informed—sometimes unbeknownst to the artist himself—by artists of the past.  Critics and academics have drawn parallels between elements of Lamb’s oeuvre and those of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Klee, Appel, Rouault, Clemente, and a host of others, including Picasso.  These elements emerge from canvas to canvas, often in unpredictable fashion.

Michal Ann Carley, Assistant Professor of Art at Cardinal Stritch University, has asserted that among the “figures and animals that interact or coexist abruptly and symbollically” in Lamb’s corpus are “joyous and naughty centaurs” that are by inference cousins to Picasso’s Minotaurs[ii].  These latter are more overtly sexual than anything we find in Lamb’s work, but the contemporary painter, while more metaphorical in imagery, is equally occupied with matters of sex.  Instead of beasts raping virgins, we have in Lamb volcanic vases spewing flowers and sperm-like forms seemingly swimming, flying, and otherwise hurtling into ova.  Instead of animal/human fornication, then, Lamb gives us a more abstracted fertilization:  more reproduction than intercourse, in keeping with the artist’s metaphysical preoccupation with life, death, and rebirth.

Yet while the artists’ focuses often diverge, their working methods converge in surprising ways.  Since 2000, Lamb has been alternating between three very different styles:  figurative, semi-abstract, and Abstract Expressionist methods.  Picasso had equally diverse working methods as he matured into and beyond Cubism, becoming the master of disparate, if not polar, styles.  Later in life, Picasso would decide on a painting-by-painting basis which style he would employ, which is exactly what Lamb is doing as he explores what is for him the hitherto terra incognita of partial and total abstraction while continuing to evolve his highly recognizable figurative style.

            What effects do Picasso’s and Lamb’s paintings have upon the museum- or gallery-goer?  Given that the output of both artists is so wide-ranging that it is impossible to generalize, it is still interesting to read the following description of a past exhibition, with the aim of guessing which artist the speaker is describing:  “This exhibition conveys the impression of immense joy.  You leave it happy, and this happiness is caused by the expression of his characters and the atmosphere of his colors.”  Sounds like the typical Lamb review, doesn’t it?  But the statement was made in 1970 by Jean-Jacques Labeque, curator of Picasso’s exhibition of 200 paintings and drawings at the Papal Palace in Avignon.  Picasso was nearly 90 at the time; Lamb was 38, still many years away from becoming a painter.

There are further parallels between the artists as thinkers.  Lamb is leery of artists who adopt a vow of silence and refuse to discuss the intent behind their work.  Picasso felt similarly:  “Everyone wants to understand art,” he said.  “And why not?  Why not try to understand the songs of a bird?  Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them?”[iii]

            Lamb and Picasso both show a belief in art as a realm transcending ordinary experience—no prissy academic experiment, but a mad explosion from unknown regions of the soul, channeling powers both benevolent and evil.  Said Picasso in 1946:  “Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.”[iv]

            As such, both men see art, even at its most beautiful, as springing from rage and chaos.  Underneath what Lamb calls the “Pollyanna” message and fanciful characters of his painting lies a world seething with rage and turmoil.  Picasso addressed this when talking about his Dove of Peace with Louis Aragon in 1949:  “As for the gentle dove, what a myth that is!  There’s no crueler animal.  I had some, and they pecked a poor little pigeon to death because they didn’t like it.  They pecked its eyes out, then pulled it to pieces.  How’s that for a symbol of peace?”[v]

Picasso’s view of painting and re-painting as a method for conveying higher and higher truths is similar to Lamb’s “generational” method of painting over and excavating older layers.  Said Picasso:

 “When you begin a picture, you often make some pretty discoveries.  You must be on guard against these.  Destroy the thing, do it over several times.  In each destroying of a beautiful discovery, the artist does not really suppress it, but rather transforms it, condenses it, makes it more substantial.”[vi]

             For both painters, this desire to continue developing a piece can become obsessive.  While Lamb says a painting is finished only when a dealer forcibly removes it from his studio and hangs it in a client’s home or office, Picasso wonders:

 “Have you ever seen a finished picture?  A picture or anything else?  Woe unto you the day it is said that you are finished!  To finish a work?  To finish a picture?  What nonsense!  To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow.”[vii]

 Lamb is a man with a keen awareness of his own mortality.  You cannot make a living in the funeral business without becoming well acquainted with the Reaper.  For this reason, perhaps, he pushes himself relentlessly, trying to make up for, in whatever years he has left, that which he did not paint in his twenties, thirties, and forties.  Picasso lived into his 90s but was also aware of his morality much earlier.  More than thirty years before he died he commented, “I have less and less time, and yet I have more and more to say, and what I have to say is, increasingly, something about what goes on in the movement of my thought.”[viii]  This last clause is extremely relevant to Lamb.  Picasso confesses that what he is interested in as an artist is primarily “the movement of my thought.”  He is not particularly interested in exploring, say, trends in the sociopolitical thought of the era, or in processing explicitly the developments in his contemporary art world; he is not interested in being a processor or mirror of external forces, but rather is intent on what is happening between his ears.  Lamb’s focus is similarly, unapologetically, and monomaniacally reflexive:  “I’m always asking myself, How does this affect me?  How can I make sense of the things happening in my world?”  Like many Outsider artists, Lamb really couldn’t care less what is going on in ateliers on the East or West Coast, who is curating the next Whitney Biennial or SITE Santa Fe, or whether the tenets of postmodern thought hold up to rigorous analysis in any given critical discipline.  No, Lamb, like his predecessor, is interested primarily, if not exclusively, in what is going on in his mind and therefore in his studio.

Finally, there are similarities between Picasso and Lamb as materialists.  Picasso was born of modest means but died a wealthy and well-known man.  Lamb inherited a struggling, cash-poor business and parlayed it into a multi-million-dollar corporation long before he ever picked up a paintbrush.  Both men contended (and Lamb still does) with critics who felt they had lost their edge to money.  The world—and especially America—loves the construct of the starving artist, the penniless and unappreciated creator who finds critical and popular acceptance only after death.  As Arianna Huffington asserts, “Picasso’s days as a starving artist were over in September 1909, when he moved to 11 Boulevard de Clichy.”[ix]  From that point forward, he continued to live in great comfort, if not outright luxury, in magnificent homes such as the Chateau de Vauvenargues and his World War II residence, a splendid hotel on the Rue des Grands-Augustins in the oldest part of Saint-Germain.  “What I want,” he said, “is to be able to live like a poor man with plenty of money.”[x]  Lamb, who travels by limousine and private jet between his homes and studios in Chicago, Wisconsin, the Florida Keys, Paris, and Ireland, lives by a similar credo, enjoying the trappings of capitalism but maintaining a bohemian outlook in his aesthetic and philosophical orientations.

The unlikely formal and attitudinal convergences that link these two artists speak to the cross-currents of legacy, the power and subtlety of influence, and the ways in which a living artist may tap into the well of the collective unconscious and uncap the fount of a dead man’s genius.  If the tides of time can carry Picasso to Lamb, one wonders upon what far shores Lamb’s own legacy will one day wash up.

[i] Agony and Hope:  Matt Lamb’s Optimistic Vision of the Universe by Angela Tamvaki

[ii] An Unfolding:  Traditions of the Narrative:  The Works of Matt Lamb, by Michal Ann Carley

[iii] “Conversation avec Picasso”, Cahiers d’Art, Volume 10, number 10, 1935.  (from a conversation with Christian Zervos, 1935)

[iv] Picasso:  In His Words, edited by Hiro Clark Wakabayashi.  Welcome Books, New York/San Francisco:  2002 (statement made in 1946,  Gilot, Life with Picasso)

[v] ibid (from conversation with Louis Aragon, Paris, April 1949)

[vi] ibid (from a conversation with Christian Zervos in 1935, Barr, Picasso:  Fifty Years of his Art)

[vii] ibid, Sabartés, Picasso:  An Intimate Portrait

[viii] ibid, Sabartés:  Picasso:  An Intimate Portrait (statement made in 1938)

[ix] Arianna Huffington.  Picasso:  Creator and Destroyer.  Simon & Schuster, Avon Books:  1988.

[x] My Galleries and Painters, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler with Francis Cremieux.  Viking Press, New York:  1971.  Translated from the French by Helen Weaver. © 2006 Matt Lamb