In his paintings, crisply composed scenes populated by archetypal figures and iconic landscapes, artist Matt McCormick toys with nostalgic fantasies familiar to most Americans — or to anyone who’s ever watched Deadwood or marveled at desert sunsets. In his painting “To Say Good Morning And Really Mean It,” the shadow of a hatted cowboy leans in a glowing doorway as the sky appears to lighten outside. In the recent collage, “But It’s My Life,” a gorgeous image of amber ground beneath vast blue sky floats on the left side of empty, off-white paper; a cowboy, loosely rendered in charcoal, chases a wayward horse out of the landscape, onto the blank page. The drawings with text recall the raw graphics of artist Raymond Pettibon and the cool, ad-inspired work of Richard Prince. “I WON’T BE LONG WHETHER I’M RIGHT OR WRONG,” reads the all-caps lettering besides the right shoulder of a lanky cowboy who smokes while holding a rope and sitting on a fence.
“When I started working with the American West, it was rather subconscious,” says McCormick, who lives and works on the Eastside of Los Angeles. Later, he realized that his interest had roots as far back as childhood. “When I was a child, there seemed to be a constant stream of idyllic western imagery present,” he says. He recalls idolizing the Marlboro Man, listening to Lone Ranger radio episodes, and dressing up as a cowboy as if the costume was a suit of armor. “As I’ve grown older that cowboy suit has evolved several times,” he says, “but the thinking behind it has remained relatively the same.”
McCormick, who never formally studied art, has been surrounded by it since childhood. His father, a painter, and mother, a photographer, raised him in artist studios and dark rooms in Marin County. “Art was kind of everywhere so it just seemed like a necessary part of life,” he recalls. “Eat, sleep, make art.” Only years later did he realize how few people grow up knowing that artmaking can be a viable vocation. “At this point, I fully understand the rarity of that scenario,” says McCormick.
After high school, he left Marin County for Seattle, where he meant to attend community college but didn’t. He had a small exhibition with a friend there, then visited New York, fell for the city and decided to move East (to pay his way, he held another art show back in San Francisco). A few years later, he was back in California, living and working in Los Angeles, and exploring the West as his environment and his subject.
Sometimes, McCormick works on more than 10 paintings simultaneously, some of which take months while others take days, as he moves between careful renderings and quick gestures. The iconography in his work traverses a slippery terrain, in which the rugged individual often becomes consumed by pop culture. Occasionally, his figures seem to actually be on movie sets: in “Some Kind Of Innocence Is Measured Out in Years,”an unbridled horse bucks in the grass while a stoplight hangs above and a ladder lurks in the background. But other moments in his work are quieter: power lines against the sky, cacti against sunsets, horses getting their shoes. “The mundane moments really capture my attention,” says McCormick, “a mundane moment on the surface may actually be quite novel.” One image, of a lost-in-thought cowboy lighting a cigarette, appears repeatedly in his paintings, drawings and even in a weaving he designed. The simplest rendering of this figure is in charcoal on paper, with text in the upper right corner that reads, “WHAT I FEEL I CAN’T SAY.”