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Speer, WW's art critic, will read at 7:30 pm Friday, May 6, at Powell's City of Books (1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540), followed at 9 pm by a one-night-only exhibit of Lamb's paintings at Mark Woolley Gallery, 120 NW 9th Ave., Suite 210, 224-5475. Both events FREE.

Snyder is the director and chief curator at Reed College's Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery.

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Matt Lamb: The Art of Success

Matt Lamb: The Art of Success


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Matt Lamb: The Art of Success

By Richard Speer (Wiley, $24.95, 356 pages)

On Jan. 23, 2003, one of Matt Lamb's art dealers produced an ad hoc, streetside exhibition of the painter's richly textured, colorful paintings out of the back of a rented Winnebago next to the Puck Building, at the edge of Manhattan's arty SoHo neighborhood. What was Carolyn Walsh, Lamb's Nantucket gallery rep, thinking? Inside the Puck, Lamb's work had been rejected for New York's Outsider Art Fair, the country's most important venue for the work of "outsider," or untrained, non-mainstream artists, where Walsh had regularly shown her artists' wares, including Lamb's paintings.

In crafting a response to this slight, Walsh and Lamb decided to address the situation on their own terms. While Lamb retired to his Florida studio to paint, Walsh and her crew braved the cold and set up the street exhibit-skillfully employing the rejection of Lamb's work to draw attention to the artist's exploratory creative process and rugged, life-affirming philosophy. By the end of the fair, Walsh had received public support from some of the art world's most influential power players, while in phone interviews, reporters found the artist to be a receptive, wisecracking partner. The flair and brio with which both Walsh and Lamb handled this very New York situation endeared them to old and new audiences: Folks who may not have known much about Lamb's art were impressed by his political savvy, passion and wit.

Lamb's rejection from the outsider-art "establishment"-outsider art being a concept fraught with its own complications-is just one aspect of the problematic but celebrated place he occupies within contemporary American art. In a new biography of the painter, Matt Lamb: The Art of Success, WW visual-arts critic Richard Speer powerfully illuminates Lamb's art, life and career, deconstructing the influences that inspired this wealthy funeral-home magnate to transform himself into a commercially successful and unapologetically controversial artist. Speer takes the reader on a detailed journey through the artist's humble origins, personal struggles, and the birth and development of his intriguing artistic techniques. Speer also describes the painter's work with students and communities in need as a critical aspect of his art, especially significant in the face of the criticism Lamb has received for being a man of means. Throughout the biography, Speer foregrounds the painter's creative processes, careful not to overshadow Lamb's studio practice and artistic vision while discussing the social and political machinations of an art world that has both embraced and rejected him.

As pointed out by critics and art historians, Lamb's work often seems oddly disengaged from contemporary artistic practice: Is he simply an artist born in the wrong century? Yet simultaneously, Lamb embraces issues that inform the work of contemporary, politically oriented artists-issues such as intimacy, mortality, justice and righteousness. As Speer assesses, the jury is still out on whether Lamb will be viewed as a misunderstood genius or a talented painter who capitalized on his business acumen to self-engineer a career that would never have happened without his personal and professional resources. Matt Lamb: The Art of Success serves as catalyst for continued debate about artistic authenticity, art-world hierarchies, and the right and power of individual artists to express their vision, regardless of what anybody-especially the critics-thinks.

Originally published on WEDNESDAY, 5/4/2005

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