Classical Form Submerged

Refractive, Distorted, Prismatic Realism in this Series of Underwater Paintings

Matt Story’s hyper-realistic oil paintings of women submerged in water will have you blinking with disbelieve. No, they are not actually photographs, but paintings created with an immensely impressive photo-realistic technique. ‘Up close, my finishes,’ he told us, ‘though deliberate, are still painterly and I’m not strictly aspiring to mimic a photograph or hide my brushwork (as is consistent with those genres).’

The setting of water allows Matt to paint the models in fluid and exaggerated poses never painted before, as they would be so unnatural out of water. He explains that he was striving to put classical forms in contemporary settings in a new way. ‘So instead of Manet’s Olympia reclining nude on a sofa,’ he added, ‘I have her doing a backflip underwater in a bikini! -Take that École de Beaux-Arts!’

Matt has worked as a technical illustrator and graphic artist since his early teens, and has worked extensively throughout North America in film and television production. However, since mid-2013 he began a long hiatus with his wife on the Isle of Palms near Charleston, South Carolina, where he has been painting his water series, among other projects.

We asked Matt some more about his craft:

The Plus: What drew you to start creating this series?
Matt Story:
I’ve also always been attracted to rendering extreme lighting conditions (such as with my cityscapes at night in the rain). The natural light underwater is extreme, it seemed technically impossible at times; so naturally, I thought it was the ideal brick wall to begin pounding my head against.

TP: Do you have any particular sources of inspiration?
Yes! Much of my inspiration comes from studying the work of classical painters: Titian, Caravaggio, Velasquez, Courbet and Ingres, to name a few; also sculptors such as the Italian mannerists, and Rodin, among others.
I also love rendering anatomy and the human figure. This is part of what I get out of the underwater setting as well, to represent the human body in exaggerated poses. And I admit it: there is nothing more beautiful to me than the female form. Some of this beauty in unusual figural poses was explored by Rodin.

TP: Are the subjects in your works made up or are they based on real people?
Both. I take zillions of photographs as source material (since my paintings take me hundreds of hours to complete and I can’t hold my breath all that long underwater!) But I don’t paint from any single photograph. I’ll piece together elements from different photos and even different models and manipulate those images.

TP: What is running through your mind while you are painting?
Do I look fat this morning?…How long is it gonna take you to paint this goddamn foot?!…How much bourbon did I drink yesterday?…I wonder if Maroger medium would work as hair gel…I really need to learn how to meditate…
All kidding aside, your question is excellent, and I’ve never been asked that. I am surprised by how much concentration painting requires. It’s a very internal, non-verbal exercise. Transcendent. On a practical level, I’m always mindful of how my last mark contributes to the thing.

TP: Do you have a favourite piece from the series so far?
Yes. The one that immediately comes to mind is called “White Top Jostle.” I think I like it because it’s so unlikely as a composition. It has a very unpredictable balance and almost inverted symmetry (it’s grounded by the dark patch at the top from which the figure looks almost suspended).

TP: How has your style and skill progressed over time?
Some of my greatest growth has come from my contact with critics and collectors. Putting yourself out there as an artist takes courage but the benefits are enormous.

TP: Any exciting projects planned for the near future?
I’ve sold a lot of my original work this year so I’m painting like crazy going into Art Basel in December. I plan on more time in New York and the East and then a very long stint in Europe. I’m also setting up a print studio as to begin offering limited edition prints of my work directly from my website later in the year.
I am completely energized by my current idiom and feel I’ve only begun to develop my understanding of it. Lucien Freud said, “The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and ironically, the more real.”