Matt Held Made Me (Almost) Famous!

Painter Matt Held is super hot right now.

Sharon Butler’s Two Coats of Paint broke the story in the art blogosphere of this Brooklyn artist poking around Facebook looking for people to paint. Soon after, art bloggers Tyler Green and Paddy Johnson provided some serious linkage.

Soon enough the MSM took notice and New York Magazine placed his Facebook portrait project on their infamous Approval Matrix (on the brilliant part of their spectrum & slightly towards lowbrow) and then the New York Observer published an article which included a shot of him among the paintings in his studio.

Matt Held with his paintings. Photo by An Xiao, via NY Observer

Well, I’m glad to report I’m included in Held’s little Facebook experiment and I’m painting #30, which means he is now at the 15% mark of his ambitious project which he projects will be 200 paintings in all–though I wonder if he’ll change his mind once he realizes what a Herculean effort it will be.


His style is fleshy like the baroque paintings of Jacob Jordaens or one of those other Flemish masters, but his figures seem bathed in a strangely even light (I suspect close-up digital photography is to blame). They run the gamut from super quirky to almost conventional. The original premise of his project was simple, you join his Facebook group–I’ll Have My Facebook Portrait Painted by Matt Held–and he was intending to paint your portrait. The problem is that with over 1,800 members there’s no way he’s going to make everyone’s Facebook art dream come true.

Held’s project comes at a time when some have been lamenting the death of the self-portrait (a big chunk of Facebook profile pics are self-portraits) or the very least it’s transformation (think Noah Kalina). So, the day I opened my email to discover an attached jpeg of the painting of me I started a little Q&A with the artist about his project and what it’s all about.

HV: The portrait looks great but did you change your mind halfway about the photo of me you wanted to use?

MH: I did change my mind. I think I had told you I liked another photo of yours? It was a close-up on your face with a green background. I was going through your other photos and there were quite a few that fit the loose criteria I have for the project. I went back and forth on a few of them, and I decided on the original one you sent me because of the clarity of the image, the peculiar glance, and the green shirt with the green tree and the grass with these bits of blue.

It’s interesting to see what little things in photos will grab me. Sometimes it’s the individual, sometimes it’s a certain color in the image that I feel the need to try and capture. It was a bit of both in this case.

Since we’ve never met in person, I’m curious what you imagined I was like doing the portrait?

That’s certainly a big part of the process, trying to determine or glean from your profile the “who” of you. Every individual sort of controls this online image or persona if you will, by releasing bits of information via the info page or status updates or comments, etc. You choose which photos to post either because you feel they are an accurate representation of who you are, your humor, your looks, your travels, your friends. Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, you want people to have an accurate account of who you are. But there is also this bit of looseness to it because people will make passing judgments, good bad or otherwise. I do try to imagine the environment outside the photo, what may have been happening at that moment in time. I hope to get it right, but I may not always.

How do you think this series upends or perhaps mimics the online network you are working with? Have you thought about that relationship at all and how they are similar or different?

When I started the project, it wasn’t so much the notion of mimicking the group, more just a vast resource of subjects for me to paint. I had been struggling to paint anything – total painters block. I started with a photo of my wife and then a few friends, and the more I thought of the group as this little community of your “everyday” person being built within the context of an online community was where I really started to understand what I was doing. There are more people in the group than I will be able to paint, I just don’t have the time or resources to paint nearly 1,800 people! But, I would love to be able to look at the collection at the end of the project and be able to say that it is an accurate representation of this community and that the relationships between these people and their origins are vast and different and interesting. However, I also feel very strongly that each piece can and should be able to stand alone as a sound portrait and that any viewer would be able to do the same thing with all of them together, and alone.

Turning to the style of the art works…I noticed the portraits have a fleshy feel to them that seems to hearken back to a baroque sensibility (thinking Rubens, Jordaens, etc.) and the subjects are placed in front of simple backgrounds that remind me of Manet’s portraits, was all this conscious? Why did you choose to portray these elements this way?

Yes, it is very conscious! I want the viewer to focus on the figure, not on the background. While something in the environment of the photo draws me to it, by the time it makes it to canvas, I will typically leave that environment out, placing the figure in color fields. I’ll choose similar color patterns to the photo’s background, however, sometimes, I’ll change it entirely if I just don’t feel it works. For example, with “Andy,” he was standing up against a brick wall and because the figure was set so far off to the side of the photo and therefore canvas, having an entirely red background drew you away from the figure. Lightening up the area around the head and changing the tones of red by the chest, put the focus back on the figure.

And how about the fleshy baroque feel?

Well, I am certainly drawn to the Baroque painters. I’ve studied Velazquez, Caravaggio, and Gentileschi in great detail. There is a great book, Velazquez The Technique of Genius by Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido that I reference often. The brush stroke and technique of the Baroque style is certainly inspiring being a figurative painter. I blush at the comparison and maybe it shouldn’t surprise me. I certainly find it flattering. But I also draw great inspiration by many contemporaries, Neo Rauch, Eric Fischl, Martin Eder, Vincent Desiderio. My all time favorite is Otto Dix.

What is your fantasy about the completion of this project? What do you think it’s going to feel like to be in a room of 200 of these portraits?

You know, when I started this project, that number didn’t exist. I would have been happy with 40 people to choose from, as of last look, I have 1,818. For this project to have garnered the attention it has in such a short period of time, and to have received such positive feedback feels a bit like I am seeing part of the fantasy come true already. I would love to have smaller shows along the way. I work in a VERY small studio (6′ X 10′) and I am running out of room storing the 30 I have completed so it would be great to get them out and into the public eye as soon as possible, if not to just make room for more. But at the end, to be standing in a room with 200 portraits staring back at me, I can imagine will feel like a huge accomplishment and a bit awe-inspiring.

Has this project taught you anything new about portraiture?

You know, when I was in school, I never could have imagine me turning into a “portrait artist.” I’ve always painted the figure, but never the portrait per se. But with this, I am having so much fun with each new piece. As challenging as it is to get skin tone as correct as possible – because each photo is taken from so many different types of cameras, and there are so many distortions in lighting, angles, etc, – it’s a challenge I welcome. I am really, thoroughly enjoying it.

7 responses to “Matt Held Made Me (Almost) Famous!”

  1. An Xiao Avatar

    This is a great interview, Hrag. I love that you focus a lot on the art of portraiture in addition to the concept itself.

    And nice picture too 🙂

  2. Hrag Avatar

    Thanks An 🙂 Someone had to focus on the art aspect of the project.

  3. Piper Collins Avatar
    Piper Collins

    I’ll be interested to see how the paintings transform over the life cycle of the project. I haven’t joined and not sure I will, but I love the concept, his style – not to mention he’s kinda hot!

  4. libhomo Avatar

    The painting makes it look like you are up to something.

  5. Drew Knapp Avatar

    c’mon, give me a break!
    Mention of Rubens, Jordaens, Velazquez, Caravaggio, Gentileschi and Manet
    in the same breath as this?

  6. hv Avatar

    Regardless if you like the painting or not Drew, it’s always good to cite the origins of an artist’s artistic language, don’t you think?

  7. Piper Collins Avatar
    Piper Collins

    Every artist has influences, no? Given that art is purely subjective, could someone look at your paintings, Drew, and think clearly influenced by Frank or DeKooning, and another say it’s an amateur attempt at abstraction? Either way, whomever you study, as an artist, with inevitably come through in your work. Any recognition of influence has relevance.

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