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Artist Interview: Matt Gondek

February 3, 2022
38 min read
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Today I had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting over Zoom with Deconstructive Pop artist Matt Gondek. Our conversation zig-zags back and forth discussing everything from his childhood, drug addiction, his art, his new custom colors and his upcoming solo show entitled Discipline from February 5-12, 2022 at Lorin Gallery in Mexico City. Matt, can you give me a little background about yourself, I know you started doing art from a young age, were your parents artists? 

I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My parents were not artists, no one in my family ever did any type of art. So I don’t know what happened exactly. I’ve been doing art full-time for 15 years now. The first eight were as a freelance illustrator, I worked in the music industry. So I did a lot of band merchandise, snowboard graphics, t-shirts, posters, etc. And then when I turned 30, I opened a store. This is all in Pittsburgh by the way. The store sold a bunch of clothing brands and my own art and tons of stuff. The reason I opened the store is because I hated doing graphic design for other people. Freelance illustration that I did a lot for the music industry was all spec work, meaning that if I made the work, and they didn’t like it, I didn’t get paid anything. The pay was very, very, low and it was for a lot of bands I didn’t like, and just didn’t really enjoy it. So that’s why I opened the store. The first day of opening the store is when I realized I hated that, too. I hated talking to customers. I’m not a people person. So literally I just rode my bike around Pittsburgh for like three or four months … just depressed… not knowing what to do with my life. Because I didn’t want to go get a normal job (I used to work in car insurance which I did not want to go back to) so I was just trying random things. Then one day I went to Home Depot and bought some house paint and a piece of wood that you would put in a cupboard, like a shelf, and I made a painting on it.  

I was trying to figure out what to paint… And at the time I had a freelance illustration project where it had me drawing Mickey Mouse. It was 30 different drawings of Mickey mouse. And just because I had to do it so many times I started designing all kinds of situations like dirty ones of Mickey having sex, him getting killed, getting shot, getting run over, but one drawing was just his head blowing up. It was a huge stack of Mickey drawings. I reached in and I randomly grabbed one that turned out to be the Mickey head blowing up one and said to myself “I’ll just paint this one”. So I did. And I found out that I quite enjoyed painting. I liked how the tactile nature of physically making a piece of art that exists in the real world could be. I like getting my hands dirty. I like getting the paint on me. I like to figure out how to make and mix colors. So I just started painting. 

Once I completed a bunch of these painting with heads exploding I did an art show in a bar in Pittsburgh called kill ‘em all. The paintings were a hundred dollars each and somehow they all sold the opening night! Suddenly I said to myself “Oh my God, like this thing I actually enjoy doing… people liked it!” 

Plus, right around this time (I used to be married), my wife and I moved from Pittsburgh to California. As I got here, I immediately just hit the ground running, trying to meet everyone. It was right around that time Secret Walls moved to LA and had their very first painting battle party thing. I went to it, I met the owners, and I somehow finagled my way into doing a mural with Secret Walls in LA. The owners liked it and asked me to go to Austin, Texas to do a battle. So I went and painted for them in Austin and that’s how I started meeting all the other artists, and started making connections … that’s how I got the ball rolling. 

What year are we in now?

So I’ve been painting since I moved to California, so like eight years total. 

So if painting was relatively new tool was drawing your weapon of choice before?  Growing up were you sketching constantly? 

Well, I mean, I’m an illustrator, I’ve always drawn ever since I was a kid. I drew comic books. So I loved Spiderman, X-men, Spawn, etc. In particular, there was a comic called Scud: The Disposable Assassin an underground comic, which kind of taught me that you don’t have to work for a big company to get your art seen. You can just do it yourself, which was really cool. And my previous style before Deconstructed Pop art was these neon monsters, very gory monster teeth with slime and stuff. 

Photo courtesy of Matt Gondek

like Skinner style stuff?

Yeah, exactly like that. But when I started painting, I didn’t wanna do that style because I associated that artwork with how I felt, which was bad at the time. Because that’s the kind of work I did in the music industry which is what I was trying to get away from. So I never painted any of that stuff. I wanted to do something new. And like I said, I did the blowing up head art show at that bar which seemed to be working so I just kind of rolled with it. That’s how the whole deconstructed head thing really started to take off.

Was that the original name for the new style of work straight out of the gate?

Actually, I just called them “head exploders” originally, and what actually happened was about two years after I moved to California, I had a show at this store called Ron Robinson. This old guy ran the store and I was showing him the work that I brought for the show and asked “What do you call these things? Deconstructed Pop Art”. And I’m like, “yes, that’s exactly what I call them…” So I stole it from him and I’ve been calling it that ever since. 

The first time we met was at a small pop-up show you had in NYC last year where I purchased your Deconstructed Pop Art version of The Simpsons infamous couch gag. I love to chat with everyone about the Simpsons, because everyone loves the Simpsons! I’m a Simpsons fanatic myself! I love that you Simpsonized yourself into the print.  It’s one of my dreams to be animated into The Simpsons. That seems to be the ultimate goal to know you’ve truly made it in this world. If you are ever lucky enough to visit Ron English’s house he has a framed production cel on the wall from the episode where he was animated into The Simpsons.  It’s like being immortalized in pop-culture forever. Obviously you’re a huge Simpsons fan as well. Are they your favorite for source material? 

Yeah. You know, in the beginning, it was definitely a ladder. Me painting things that everyone knew was a ladder upwards, which was great. But at what point does that become a crutch? You know what I mean? But really I think that a lot of people paint stuff like this because (this is gonna sound fucking convoluted and dumb), but this is my theory on it all anyway. If you look at art from let’s say the Renaissance period, Baroque, all that amazing stuff in the past, a lot of it deals with either religion or the hierarchy, the King, the Queen, all that shit, because back then day to day life was the church. It was the King and all that shit. So that’s what people knew, and they painted that stuff (and was usually financed by the church). You know, now in our 20th century, most of us don’t care about religion to that extent, today there’s no hierarchy in this way really. 

So who are our modern day gods? Its Mickey mouse, Its Bart Simpson. These are the things I grew up with. These are the things that were my entire world growing up, and they still affect me now to this day. So me starting out, always using these as reference images in my work was just like I don’t understand how I could have not done that. They shaped my whole life man. You know? So I think a lot of it comes from that, these are our modern day gods. 

I used to say years ago, that Shakespeare was written for the commoners, the masses, the low brow poor people mostly. But it also was enjoyed by the elite, a weird way to find some common ground through the different classes. It was supposed to be dirty, and raunchy, and satirical towards their modern day. It was the Simpsons of their time. I feel like in the future kids are going to be like, “Oh, we have to watch the Simpsons again in class this stuff doesn’t make any sense to me!” It’s gonna be Shakespeare one day.

<laughing> That’s so funny. I never thought about it like that, but you’re absolutely right. That’s great. 

I had the honor of meeting Matt Groening in passing a couple times over the years. Shaking his hand was probably the closest I’ve come to touching an idol (if anybody can set me up with an interview with him that would be pretty awesome). 

<laughing> Absolutely. Yeah, totally. 

So how does this all relate to your new show opening on the 5th?  I believe it’s called Discipline?  I heard you’re only using 5 colors that you created for this body of work?

Yes. The show’s called Discipline and for eight years prior to this show, just whatever color something was what it was. If a tree is green, I would paint it green. You know, if a couch is brown, I painted it brown, but I also had these custom colors I always used, there was Pink Cocaine, Thousand Watt Yellow, Maliblu, my gray is called Albondigas, which is meatball in Spanish, but has bone in there. So that’s where that comes from. Like all the skulls, all the skeletons are made with Albondigas and of course my Black. So anyway, the point was the new show’s called “Discipline” for two reasons. 

Firstly, I was trying to push myself to do something I never done before, where I’m gonna make an entire body of work only using five colors. I’m not gonna take the easy route and make everything the “correct” color.  So, what I did was, use only the five custom colors of mine, and then all the shading, the highlights and the color tones are done with a series of Ben-Day dots, like Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein is my favorite artist. And I always just really liked what he did. And also it’s how the old school comic books were shaded and everything. So we used a lot of that to achieve that aesthetic. That’s one half of the discipline. 

The other half was, the fact that I was a pretty good kid growing up. And then I moved to California and I got into drugs and I’ve always actually been quite a drinker. I got really bad into drugs when I moved out there because my career took off really fast and I suddenly had more money than I knew what to do with.  Everyone wanted a painting and I had all these opportunities and the only way to stay awake and do everything was to constantly put cocaine in my nose to keep going. And it got to the point where it got really bad and I couldn’t do anything without cocaine. So I got off it a couple years ago and the next step was to end the drinking. You know, how many times I fucked up a relationship in my life because of drinking? How many times I made someone upset with me because of alcohol? So I got rid of that, too. So the second half of discipline is I’m now clean and I’m taking care of my body for the first time ever. So it’s very personal show about getting rid of the addiction and it’s Discipline meaning I’m only gonna use five colors to make the best show I’ve ever done. 

I actually stopped drinking completely just over 4 years ago myself, and I don’t regret giving it up at all. But back to the show it’s not just about paintings though, you also have some sculptural works. I saw you teasing a new baseball bat in your instagram. Assuming this is an ode to The Walking Dead? 

Everyone thinks that. And obviously, yeah, Negan. I love those comics. I watched all of the show up until like the last two years. I understand Negan uses a similar bat. But this is not my bat’s origin story really. The bats are more of a metaphor for how I was brought up, which sounds kind of dumb. But I’m a big punk rock fan. I was in a bunch of punk rock bands growing up. And you know, the first couple years when I got successful, I wanted to not show the true real me in my work because I was afraid that this stack of cards that’s getting me somewhere… I was afraid to like to tilt it, or do anything that might make it all topple over. 

Eventually I stopped caring so much. And I realized I can’t keep doing this unless I’m more myself. So I started trying to think of ways to incorporate who I actually am in the work. And one of those things being the bat. I was trying to think of what is an icon I could use to symbolizes punk rock that also symbolizes destruction, like the things I’m doing. And it was a fucking bat with spikes pounded in it. It’s all the things that I am. So that’s why the bats are around. It doesn’t hurt, just like in everything I do, it doesn’t hurt that people see my work and associated with something else like The Walking Dead. But that was not why I initially created it. 

There’s no denying that your work has pop culture references in it.  It’s silly to think that your work does not have deep seated roots in youth culture form the 80’s & 90’s etc.  

Exactly, could you imagine, how fucking preposterous it would be if I sat here and told you <laughing> no, I definitely never seen Mickey Mouse before <laughing> ? Who? Mickey who? But no honestly as far as it goes every time I have an art exhibition, or a solo show, I try to make at least one bat and I try to put them right at the entrance. I like it to be the first thing you see when you walk into a show. For this Discipline show, we did a bat, with the Ben-Day dots and neon colors. As soon as you walk in, I want that to be the first thing you see, just to kind of get everyone attending in that mindset. You see something that is visually representative of destruction, and I like that to be the first thing people see when they walk into something of mine. 

I can see that baseball bat tattoo on your forearm!  But just like the bat you also use Donald Duck imagery in your work. Why is Donald so special to you?

That again goes back to the symbolism. If I was a cartoon character, I would be Donald Duck. He’s always kind of like flying off the handle, he doesn’t like to wear pants, and I put him in like this punk rock jacket, and that always kind of symbolizes me, obviously its Donald Duck, but if you see him in my work that really me. So yes, I’m doing a print. The piece is called “Head Like a Hole” named after the classic Nine Inch Nails song. This new show aside from the fact that it’s only five colors, and aside from the fact that it’s about my personal and physical growth I also make the point of talking about in this show is wealth and money. I grew up with nothing. Ok, Not that I didn’t have anything. I had a normal childhood with a great family. 

Photo courtesy of Matt Gondek

But you didn’t have a trust fund or anything like that to help you come up or to fall back on? 

Exactly,  growing up in Pittsburgh, everyone is blue collar. I didn’t have any wealthy friends. I didn’t know any wealthy people. I never was around luxury items. But, moving to California I saw them from afar, and as my career grew I got closer and closer to those things. Until I started accruing them myself and being around people with real money and having conversations with them and seeing the way these people talk and move throughout the world. And me always wanting that, you know, who doesn’t want success and stature and money? Well, not everybody I guess, but honestly I do. I’m selfish. But also I’m not that kind of person, I’m like this punk rock kid from the woods in Pennsylvania. It’s just dealing with a lot of my own inner turmoil, like fighting the things that I want versus what I need to truly be me. And also having something and not knowing what to do with it. So a lot of the work is dealing with that. And besides the Donald Duck, we have been talking about, there’s this monster I’ve made, it’s basically a Kajiu version of Homer. I call it “Big Trouble”, but it’s really a metaphor for greed. This giant green eye monster… the idea is this giant thing just rampaging around destroying everything. He’s in a lot of the paintings and everyone’s trying to fight him, but he’s still destroying everything. So it’s kinda like a very subtle metaphor. A lot of the work just has money in it. There’s this one painting where the character is holding a giant bag of money, but then he’s surrounded by people with their hands outstretched asking for some, and just having to deal with that kinda reality. And just as a personal note meeting the manager of a very, very, wealthy street artist and denying working with them. And then finding out that very wealthy street artist was now incorporating Deconstructed Pop Art into his work without me. So instead I took one of his character and put in one of my pieces for the show and my character is beating the shit outta the monopoly man. 

Photo courtesy of Matt Gondek

I’m sure the readers can piece together who you are talking about on their own… but while we are on the subject I just want to point out that your work consistently deals with the money and fame but you’re not using these images of wealth to be a baller. You know what I mean? It’s not like your intention is to say  “oh, look at me, I’m rich and famous, and I have tons of money to burn”.

Exactly, absolutely!  It sucks that people associate me with a lot of other artists that just put fucking Bart Simpson with a Louis Vuitton sack of money or something… I can’t fucking stand that stuff. I think it’s so superficial and cheap and just stupid. And it sucks for my work because the problem is I use the same kind of pop culture images. So a lot of times I get put on the same level with those type of people, and it makes me very upset, but it is what it is. I can’t fight how people think about me. I can just do my work to the best of my ability, but personally, I don’t like it. 

Photo courtesy of Matt Gondek

It seems like in your work you’re not saying “Hey, look at all my fancy Rolex’s” but instead “Hey, this Rolex is a thing that’s ruining my life”. You’re trying to push it differently. You’re using the same iconography, but actually trying to say something poignant with it instead of just, “I’m gonna make money off of these images and flaunt it”. 

Yes! I feel like every time I do a show, I get a little bit closer to what I’m trying to do. But in the beginning, I really was just so scared of losing interest of the public. And I mean, I was just really not putting myself in anything.  But every time I do a show I feel like a little bit more of me comes out and more of what I’m trying to do. The fact that we’re just using five colors for this show that are my distinct colors and the subject matter strictly deals with how I am feeling right now. Because I don’t think the world hears enough from rich white guys <laughing>. So I mean, whether or not, I am who I am, and this is how I feel, and all I can do is talk through my mouth. So every time I do a show, it’s more genuine, and this is by far my most genuine show to date. And I hope the next one’s even more so. 

This idea of you being more yourself and more genuine in your work is a prominent theme in your new show, but how does this translate to your NFT works? 

Actually, I feel like I’m back to square one. When it all started, I didn’t really understand it. I didn’t understand NFT’s at all. No one did, but my manager did actually! Nifty Gateway emailed me two summers ago and and I told them “I don’t wanna do this… this is stupid”. And my manager talked me into just giving it a shot. And that’s what happened to be honest with you. When I put out my first release, I literally had no idea what was going on. The closest I got to actually trying to do anything of merit was when black lives matter happened, I did a series of paintings called Bitter Divisions, which just illustrated dumb police brutality shit going on.  I did those paintings. And figured I might as well use them for my Nifty Gateway drop but I’ll animate them. That’s the closest I got to trying to do anything of any merit. The rest of it’s just been like, here’s an NFT of a little duck with his penis out. But at that point I didn’t understand what I was doing. And in the beginning I did pair it fairly well, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. And now I do. And I kind of regret a lot of the stuff I put out because I just put things out to put things out. So I took a pause and this year we’re looking at it more like a membership pass for putting out a collection of NFTs that are a membership pass where fans can access my future releases of my bats, my plush toys, my vinyl toys, etc. Moving forward this is the new way to be part of my quote unquote “ Gondek fan club”. But because the NFT collector base is a very rabid collector base I realize as a businessman, which I’m a very business oriented person, I realize I don’t wanna be left behind. I do think that the art world is moving this way. I think that there will always be a place for the painting on the wall of a gallery, but all this other funny, goofy shit I make that is a completely different market, how can I get that to the right people? How can I get to the people that want it? And I do think it’s this way of creating a membership kind of thing can alleviate this problem. 

And also, right now you buy a painting, I give you a piece of paper, and that’s your COA. I love the idea that COA can be maintained on the blockchain moving forward. The paintings can be tracked forever. At this point I’ve sold probably 400 paintings. I could probably tell you where four of them actually are and that sucks! I see some of my artist friends out with their collectors having dinners, etc. and I would love that. Maybe I’m on trip and I look up my collectors in that geographic area and meet up for some food or something. I would love to be friends with my collectors, but the gallery I work with won’t tell me who has what where. So this could be a great way for me to track these people down.  Like, “Oh, Hey Mary Smith from Idaho, I’m in town, I would love to get a coffee with you and get to know you”. Honestly, right now these are the things I’m most excited about doing.I’m always forever grateful to the people who buy my work and hope to meet as many as possible.

Photo courtesy of Matt Gondek

It’s no secret that I’m a researcher and huge collector. And as a collector, it’s nice to be able to have that connection with something that has influenced or effected your life. So I look at all these kind of blind box NFT communities as more of like wearing a bands shirt or pin on your jacket in the 90’s. A way to show likeminded people that you’re down.  And I do think you’re right, that all these NFTs are great ways to track your past works, secure authenticity, and to get future royalties. But along with this gold rush there will be lots of losers when the NFT culture finally becomes less volatile.  None of this is really “new”, just check out tulips, baseball cards, and Beanie Babies.

Agreed, I don’t understand why any artist that wants to be successful is rejecting it. Before I was popular, I would go around and put stickers up. Because I wanted everyone to see my work. This is just another way I can make people see my work. There’s a whole other group of people that would never buy a physical print, or a painting, or a toy, or a shirt, but they will buy something like an NFT if they wanna collect a less cumbersome item. It just opens up this whole other world of collectors. I don’t understand why any artist now that we know and understand the blockchains potential would not embrace it?

Especially with what I think is going to be the true hallmark of the NFT’s in the future which is the ability to do amazing collaborations across mediums and genres way more seamlessly. Kind of like how Kings of Leon released their last record on all the regular formats including streaming, but the hardcore fans could but the deluxe edition featuring an NFT.

It’s funny you say that because I’ve been working with a really famous musician for a couple months now working on a similar project. The musician is a very well known  drummer who for the first time ever has recorded four or five new songs where he sings as well. And the project artwork is made by me and they come with these songs that he recorded. The craziest part is that we’ve been working on this for the last few months, and it’s so funny because when we started the project the landscape of how NFTs are done has changed.  When we first started were just making an NFT. We would put it out, blah, blah, and we’re done with it.  But, now that’s just the beginning. Now they have to be part of a membership and everything. And so like we had to keep kind of stopping, we knew we have to restructure this, and we did in real time. So, yes, to answer your question yes. Working with, with other people… I just think it’s cool. 

I remember being like 18 and I loved Green Day when I was a kid, like not only buying the Green Day albums, but finding the Japanese imports and getting all the singles, like just proof of ownership. And I do think it’s kind of cool as far as musicians go, that they can finally, if you like a band, you can have some sort of proof of ownership with them. I like this NFT, I love this band, and I want a piece of it, and that’s kind of cool. 

Like I said Kings of Leon did a great job with this with their last album. For like $50 the super fan could buy a bundle including the LP etc. and it also had an NFT version. But hey, if you wanted you could also just listen to it on Spotify if you’re not a huge fan.  And that’s what I think people are missing is that it’s not just an NFT. It’s a new art form and a new culture developing. Now I see phone cases that you can display your NFTs on the back of them, kids wearing apple watches around their neck with their NFTs on it like pendants. Other than being much cheaper how is that different than me wearing a Beastie Boys button on my jacket in high school? 

Yes! You’re absolutely right!

Photo courtesy of Matt Gondek

I know we could go on chatting about art and NFT’s for hours… but we are almost out of time so maybe we can wrap this up with some advice for any future creatives out there dreaming of making a living in the art world? 

I mean, you know, I’m very much my dad. My dad worked his fingers to the bone and I do think the only reason I got to where I’m at is because of the insane work ethic I have just like him. And I always respected artists that treated their art practice as a business. I have always had a studio, and I have studio hours, I’m here ten to five. I think if you’re trying to get anywhere and you’re just a nobody like I was, and you’re trying to get anywhere, you have to really put your head down, and treat it like a job. I think about the colors I developed for Discipline like the pink that I used was probably the 300th pink I ever made. Until I was like “Oh, there it is! Finally I figured it out!” But it took me all those tries, you know? I just think it’s a lot of trial and error.  There’s really nothing magic about anything I do.  It’s actually very straightforward. It’s just painting. But, I’ve been doing it for a long time now, and it’s all I do. And it’s all I talk about!

Well, thank you for taking the time to talk to me about it today.  Good luck with Discipline and can’t wait to see what else you have in store for us in 2022.

“Discipline” by Matt Gondek will be open from Saturday, February 5th to Saturday, February 12th

Located at:
Bucareli 120 Colonia Centro, Juárez Cuauhtémoc
06000 Ciudad de México, CDMX Mexico

The opening reception will be held on Saturday, February 5th
4:00 pm to 8:00 pm

All Photo’s & Text (unless otherwise noted) Copyright 2022 Matthew A. Eller.  Follow me on Instagram @elleresqphoto 

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