From beginning to end, I was completely absorbed by every word artist Matthew Conway uttered during our interview. Honest, insightful, perceptive and creative are just some of the attributes that jumped out at me as Conway shared his stories about growing up gay in Texas, the role drawing has played in his life, the concepts behind his work, his evolution and some exciting future projects.
Can we start by going back in time to your early days, to six, seven, eight years old? What was life like for you back then?
I was a solitary child. I remember being alone, drawing. I’ve been drawing for forever, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. Coloring books and graphic comics influenced what and how I drew. They were the visual language of my childhood and even sneak into my work now. The material choice of colored pencils, which I’ve been using for a while, really speaks to that juvenile adolescence. I was working with them when I was 14 or 15, a young time to use them. That was a time of sexual awakening. My work is influenced by the fact that sexuality can be funny and it can be awkward. That time is ripe with emotion as we are trying to figure things out. I was trying to figure things out.
What role did drawing serve for you as a child?
Being a solitary child, it made me feel special. I had this talent that people recognized. I got positive feedback for it. Neither of my parents are very artistic but they are liberal in their politics, for which I am thankful. My family is made up of farmers and immigrants, so there wasn’t much encouragement to develop an artistic sensibility from them. Both my brother and I are artistic, and they supported us because they didn’t have the opportunity to do it for themselves.
Our teenage years can be a great time, they can be a horrible time or they can be anywhere in between. How were they for you?
Being a gay teenager in Texas was not the best situation. I lived in the center of Dallas-Fort Worth, in this white enclave of McMansions, where kids got their first BMW when they turned 16. My parents weren’t like that but I was surrounded by it and a classist divide. Being gay there was difficult despite having great friends and supportive parents. I just wanted to get out. After high school I bummed around and moved to Austin, the most liberal and accepting place in Texas.
What was the subject matter of your art at that time?
I can’t event think about it! It was juvenilia. I was teaching myself and so it was about foundational skill craft.
So what were some of the early notions of what you wanted to be in life and what iterations did you go through?
I always knew I wanted to be an artist. There hasn’t been a time I didn’t want to make art but in my early 20s I walked away from it. People were telling me it was a good hobby but I wouldn’t make money from it. Everyone told me this, counselors, other adults. I took it to heart in my youth. I worked bullshit jobs, which weren’t fulfilling. But as you know you have to follow your passion and sometimes that means following a difficult route.
Was there a catalyst that brought you back to art?
I was working a dead-end job and I was really unhappy with my life. I had these friends in college. I was 27 so I decided to go back to school myself. First, community college and then the University of Texas, Austin. It was a life-changing moment. It helped me so much. I made connections with the faculty and grad students. I saw a career as an artist as a viable option. I wouldn’t have my studio without it. It’s part of a collective. One of the members of the collective was the shop tech at UT Austin. He liked my work and offered me one of the studios once I got out of school.
So we’ve come to the present day. How much of your work now is about your own self-exploration?
I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a non-political portrait. It shows what someone thinks is attractive; it shows what I am attracted to. It’s not a conscious choice. I work with the model. I have a photo shoot and take 500 to 1000 photos and pick the ones I want to work with. It’s not random. I trust my instincts and leave it to my id and subconscious to pick. It’s very interesting for me to reflect on the image that I picked and what that says about me after I’ve made the work.
I was fascinated with the male form, even at a young age. I remember practicing drawing the male figure from CK1 ads. I use that in my work. I’m conscious that desire was so strong. “Why is the male form so strong for me to represent in my work?” It’s partially politically minded, the idea of queering the male gaze. The idea of objectifying and sexualizing heterosexual men in a way they are not used to. Now I’m including queer people in my drawings. My work has extended into an exploration of contemporary masculinity. Even more recently, I’ve had Instagram followers and people who follow my website submit images. This makes my work more collaborative and about how people see themselves.
What are the people who submit images saying or asking?
They have a desire to be seen or to be translated into the work I am making. It’s indicative of the current moment. There is more visibility of queer people but not nearly enough. People are yearning for their own representation in the media.
Have you had any trans-men reach out to you?
Yes, I have had a model contact me and we are trying to set up a time to explore that.
I noticed on one of your recent Instagram posts you commented, “I like a guy in socks.” Are you describing what you like sexually in your drawings?
I can’t say why I like it, so much of sexual kinks are a mystery. You have something you can’t pinpoint in your background that becomes part of your sexual narrative. Fetishes have so much power to them but we can’t understand why.
My work has a bit of cachet in certain communities. It’s important for my work to be queer focused. Now that AIDS is no longer a death sentence, art in the community can be focused on things beyond the crisis of AIDS. We can make work about desire and beauty. In the context of my work, I have been thankful there has been such a nice response. People seem to really enjoy and react to that.
Given the subject matter of your work, what are the biggest misconceptions about it?
“You’re really lucky that you get to look at boys all day.” I explore this theme in my work but it is work! A lot of work goes into it. People say my work is effortless which suggests it’s easy but it’s not.
Your career has really been taking off with a growing number of followers and collectors. Has there been an event or a tipping point to your success?
Without sounding ungrateful for the exposure I have had, I don’t really feel it has happened yet. I consider myself ambitious so I’ll keep making work and see what opportunities come next. I want full-time gallery representation, ideally in New York or LA, and a solo show. I was in a group show in Marin County and flew out for the opening. It was a great feeling.
To that point, what does that moment feel like when you walk into a show and you see your work hanging on the walls?
It’s complicated. First there’s the excitement of it but that’s followed by the post-show depression. Once it’s done you feel a bit of a loss and start to wonder, “Well, what’s the next thing?” It’s difficult to unpack all the emotions from that. But I feel very comfortable shedding skin. Life changes, you change with it. Life happens.
It leads me to wonder when are you at your most and least confident as an artist?
I’m at my most confident when I am in the studio making the work. When I’m in the middle of making work, I feel like a well-oiled machine. I love Michelangelo’s view that the sculpture is already inside the stone and he just had to let it come out. When I’m in the moment I’m the hand that lets the drawing come into the world. I’m less confident when I am showing my work to other people. Not because I feel they are judging it harshly. It goes back to being the solitary child. I was never one for the spotlight. I like to be on my own and don’t want to be the center of attention. It makes me nervous. I feel like I do that with the work. I’m not the work. I want the work to be separate from me.
That’s a really fascinating differentiation and it makes me wonder about your process for producing your pieces. Can you talk to me about that?
I start with a sketch of the figure first. I go with a heavy line to articulate the full form. It’s very Art Nouveau and also reminiscent of coloring books, the heavy outline to emphasize the figure. I then color in the outline and add tones to the whole body. After that I add shadows and the colors to make the flesh look real, the browns, greens, blues and purples. I like it when colors surprise me, which they continually do. They never come out like I expect. Sometimes it doesn’t come together like you want. Sometimes it gets better. Other times I step away. I’ll leave it for weeks, even months but then I’ll come back to it and a couple of changes and it’s back to where I want it to be. You can’t force it.
Talking about changes, what’s next for you?
Currently I’m writing a proposal for a collaborative residency project. I would make 10 to 15 life-sized drawings with a hard, black outline and invite the same number of queer artists to activate the drawings, to color them in. This plays on the theme of adult coloring, which has become popular recently. I want to invite the public in and have tables for them to color too, breaking down barriers between the institution and the public. High art concepts can be manipulated in ways that can be really interesting and fruitful.
I love the sound of that. We should look for opportunities to bring that project to New York. I think it would be perfect here. As you continue to grow and develop in your career, what advice do you have for artists who are just starting out?
Hone your craft, know what you want to say with your work and your audience will receive you work. Don’t be dissuaded by failure. You’ll fuck up but pick yourself up and keep doing it. The best advice I received was from one of my professors, “Keep doing it until someone pays you to do it.” White-knuckle it until payday. Eventually you’ll be successful.
That’s very insightful advice. How much do you think about your legacy as an artist?
It’s difficult to think about. I’d like to make work that lives beyond me. I only use archival materials that won’t disintegrate in as little as 50 years. Some artists consciously use materials that will break down after a couple of years, which has its own motivations and political statements. We’re in an interesting moment right now where figuration is coming back into vogue after abstraction and conceptual art. It’s coming back and I’m glad I could be a part of that.
Long after you and I are both gone, what do you hope people will say about your work?
In a way my work and the guys in it, these bearded, tattooed, hip, cool guys, might be super dated 30 years from now. I like the idea that my work is a documentation of the times but things always come back. Maybe my work will get a huge retrospective in 80 or 90 years!