Ralf Jean-Pierre visits Matthew Benedict, whose work deals with nostalgia for old friends and lovers, drawing from mystical sea-faring tales and exotic adventures. A resident in Greenpoint since 1988, Benedict doesn’t believe in the construct of time.
[ Waves crashing ]
[ Buzzing ]
[ Soft electronic music ]
Ralf: Greenpoint was always a part of Brooklyn
that was out of time with the rest of the borough.
It was always a little more serene and chill around here.
But during the pandemic, things have slowed down so much,
that serenity has now become eerie.
Instead of Greenpoint being out of time with Brooklyn...
it seems like time here is standing completely still.
[ Door knock ]
[ Rock music playing ]
-Come on in. -All right.
Ohh. Let's see.
[ Laughter ]
Thanks. Thanks for letting me in.
Can we do no masks? Is that okay?
It's okay if we're this far apart.
-All right. -As far as I'm concerned.
I respect it.
How long have you been working here, Matthew?
From the start. From 2014.
The owner, Tony, is a very good friend of mine,
and he's the one who created all of this.
Like, so, when he was building it out...
I was one of guys who came to help him.
I'm not from here, but I've been here since '88 or '89.
I can't imagine how different this area was back then.
It was desolate then. I meandesolate.
You know, now there's trendy cafés
and restaurants and bars and, you know doggy daycare
and, you know, all -- Pilates studios.
There was none of that.
I moved to Brooklyn because I could afford it.
I've lived on the same block since, you know, then.
Now Brooklyn has been completely branded
and sold as a thing.
It's likethe place.
It wasn't when I came here.
The pandemic -- my life changed from one day to the next.
[ Fingers snap ] Like that.
You know, I think my last shift that I worked here
was right around St. Patrick's Day.
And then, you know, all bars closed.
So it was like --
So I went from working three or four shifts a week to none.
You know? Um...
And then I went into kind of serious self-quarantine
for a few months, you know?
And I just completely stopped working.
I think it was easier for me
because I've been most of my life --
Before I worked here,
I've been alone in my studio all day.
That was my job. So I'm used to being alone.
So, you know, that was easier for me
than I think for a lot of other people, you know,
who were freaking out after one month.
And I was like, "It's only been a month.
What's the big deal?"
I'm always fascinated by the -- [Clears throat]
I'm sure Manhattan is like this, too,
but by this capacity that Brooklyn has
to, like, be, like, the most densely
populated places in the world and also feel like a small town.
Greenpoint is definitely a small town. Definitely.
I mean, we're being invaded by this huge wave of people,
but that's been going on for a decade at least.
And it continues.
Like, the fancy new people that are moving in here,
they don't really come here.
Once in a while, like, someone walks in
and says, "Can I see a drink menu?"
And, you know, we laugh.
[ Pool balls clacking ]
When I was a kid, I always imagined
that I would get good at pool.
It's not -- It's not my destiny.
I don't play pool, either, which is kind of funny.
[ Laughs ]
So, you said you started working here in '14. 2014.
Yeah, so, before that, I think I understand
you were just, like, a full-time artist?
I was very lucky. I've been that for most of my life.
I think all the time about, like,
the small ways that I get to, like, make art for a living,
which is all I've been working toward my whole life.
And when I think about that,
and, like, anybody who makes that possible is, like --
They mean everything to me
because, like, that's all I want to do,
is to be able to just make art for a living.
It's -- It's like a dream.
It sort of doesn't seem fair
that, like, other guys are laying brick,
and, like, my job is to have fun for a living.
You put it beautifully. Like, wow, other guys, you know,
or people are slaving away in their cubicles
in jobs they hate, and I have this dream job
where I kind of just do whatever I want,
and then other people try
to sell it for me, you know? Wow.
I mean, it does seem kind of too good to be true.
I usually average, like, a show every year or every two years.
Obviously it's up and down.
It's like one year, you know, you have a show,
and you sell a bunch of big paintings
and you do really, really well,
and then the next year, maybe you don't have a show.
You know, it's not like having a job with a regular paycheck.
Would you take me to check out your old studio?
You see that -- the big building with the pencils on it?
I was in the next building. That brick one.
It was all part of the same, like, factory
which made Eberhard Faber pencils.
Do you work out of your home now?
Do you miss the studio, and, if so, what's
the biggest thing you miss about it?
I don't miss paying for it. That's for sure.
[ Laughs ]
Matthew: This is Ahab from "Moby-Dick." King Ahab.
This is from the part where...
he hallucinates that he has -- he's wearing
the Iron Crown of Lombardy,
which is the Crown of Charlemagne.
You have two pieces from --
Matthew: I have probably 25.
That's the number-one obsession, is "Moby-Dick."
I've probably read it 10 times at least.
And it's a big book, but there's so much in there.
It's like reading the Bible, you know?
It's -- It's everything.
Ralf: Mr. Bishop would be so ashamed of me.
We were assigned to read it,
and I just sat the whole time pretending that I read it.
Matthew: It's a lot. It's a lot.
This is actually Vishnu,
the Hindu god who has these avatars.
In the book, he's called Matsya Avatar,
which is kind of a sailor's corruption
of what he actually is.
This one is a scene from a novel by Wilkie Collins
called "The Moonstone."
This is a study of -- for a much larger painting
which is now in France. Hm.
The finished painting is 7 feet by 5 feet.
This is my nephew.
This is one of my very best friends, Glamamore,
who's a very famous drag queen in San Francisco.
What they're doing is
they're searching for this huge yellow diamond
that has been stolen from an idol in India.
And it's made it into the hands of the English aristocracy.
So, like, in the -- in the finished painting,
they're standing in front of the diamond.
I don't know. I feel like there's some sort of mystical,
like, incantation happening in it, and, like,
I feel like one is happening to me as I'm looking at it.
Wow. That's great. I like that.
Yeah. It's, like, hypnotizing me.
This is also Glamamore, one of my best models ever.
This guy is Holgrave
from "The House of the Seven Gables."
He's a character who lives in the house
who's actually a photographer.
Did you invent his face, as well?
No. This is my buddy Mike from upstate.
Okay. That's what I'm saying.
Usually I do this casting where I think,
"Who could be Holgrave?"
And then I, you know, photographed him
and painted him in this way.
These are the stories that I lived
or read or related to.
So, yeah, it is my life.
Like, all of these people are super-close to me.
You know? These guys are also my friends.
This is a study for this commission I had.
These were panels in these painted doors.
And these two guys live across the street.
They're both my friends. Richie and Ajee.
This is Nicole.
She used to work at the Pencil Factory bar on the corner.
This is my first partner, Alejandro.
I moved in to this apartment with him.
He was a schoolteacher.
So, that was actually how he went to school every day.
Like, this guy is an old friend of mine.
Robert Flow Rider.
He was kind of a legendary go-go dancer...
Hm. ...in my club days.
I made a big paper-mâché rock for him
which I used to have for years, but I finally did --
And he doesn't have this hair, either. I added that.
What are all of these guys here?
You know, I closed my storage.
I didn't want to pay, you know, $300 a month
for the art storage, so I got rid of it.
Ralf: It makes me pretty sad that, like,
one, that I didn't get to enjoy it as well.
But, two, that, like, it feels like Brooklyn was,
for a long time, this, like, hidden quiet haven for artists
that was, like, cheap to be in and there was space.
And now all of a sudden, because of the artists themselves,
because of the value you guys have added,
it's, like, become so much more expensive.
So it's, like, more expensive to have a studio
and to have a place to store your work.
I'm happy I still have my apartment, you know?
I'm rent-stabilized here.
I've been here since 1992 in this apartment.
So they can't throw me out.
And I thought, well, I'll make this work, you know?
'Cause I don't really believe in time.
To me, it's kind of all the same.
It's -- It's simultaneous.
It's hard to explain, but...
I believe in it in the sense
that we all have to live within it and work with it.
Like, I had to be there at 9:00 this morning.
Like, that's a real thing. Like, okay.
It seems real, but it's not actually real.
Ralf: That's such a big, like, philosophy.
And does that reflect itself in your painting?
Yes. How so?
Because a lot of people say,
"Why do you work in this nostalgic style?
Why is it all about the 19th century?"
They don't get it,
why it doesn't necessarily look like contemporary art.
I mean, it does to me, but...
Definitely it's reflected, you know,
in the style, in the images, in the stories.
If you're saying that time is not really a concept
that you hold onto
but you work in, like, an nostalgic style
and you're reaching back into the past,
to me, it feels like
if time doesn't really matter to you,
then reaching back to the past
is almost the same as reaching forward.
It is. Exactly right.
There isn't a past. That's what I'm saying.
There isn't a past and a future.
To me, it's all the same.
Ralf: That's hitting me like a ton of bricks.
[ Laughs ] Sorry.
It's so nice and quiet here, right?
Has it always been like this?
Yeah. It's super quiet.
Ralf: Time stands still in Matthew's work.
In the past, I'd have said his paintings seemed
to keep the time of some mysterious, far-off world.
But right now they seem
to keep pretty accurate time for this one.
New York in 2020 is standing just as still.
So much is happening and yet, so little,
but artists keep working.
They'll find a way or imagine one.
Buket: You walk around and see all these people,
like, crowds, but everybody seems so lonely.
Especially New York and big cities like Istanbul.
Even before the pandemic, I was, like, trying to capture that.
How trusting each other,
being comfortable with each other is important.
And now it became more, like, because we can't even have
the simplest things right now with loved ones, even friends.
We can't even meet or see them.
We are not free to even breathe. We are not free to touch.
[ Chuckles ]
This is taking it to this new level.
I don't know. I think -- A lot of people I know
have moved out of the city -- a lot of artists.
They just couldn't take it.
It was like, "Well, now I have permission
to get the hell out of here." [ Laughs ]
I know. Yeah.
The people who can move out or have other places to go.
But even, like, four months being locked down...
Like, you know, I'm an immigrant,
and also, like, the other people who don't have families
or, I mean, anywhere else to go, we were just here.
So much pressure.
Yes. And trying to --
I mean, in the beginning,
I was thinking, okay, it's a great time,
not worrying about work or other things.
I can focus on my paintings.
But no. No way. Mm.
So, Buket, how long have you had this place?
Buket: Oh, thanks.
I've been here a little bit over four years,
but my partner has been living here longer.
-Okay. -So it's kind of...
We are lucky, but who knows?
How long can we be here?
You know, everything keeps changing.
I was born in Istanbul, but, with my family,
we were living a city very close to Istanbul,
just an hour away.
So I grow up there.
And I used to be a landscape architect.
I guess, again, because of financial reasons, I guess,
my parents, they never encouraged me
to become an artist.
But I always wanted to paint. I wanted to be an artist always.
If I move somewhere else
and if I start my life from zero,
then I can maybe study painting.
That's what I was thinking.
And then I couldn't wait for that even,
because I didn't know how it's going to be.
How am I going to move somewhere else?
Because with Turkish passport, it's not easy.
Then my cousin, he won green card and moved here.
Then I applied, and I won it.
You won the green-card lottery? Yes.
And then I applied to Pratt Institute.
That was the only school I applied, actually.
I don't know what was I thinking.
If I wasn't accepted, maybe I was thinking
I will go back or something. I don't know.
This is kind of an older piece, I can say.
This is going to be, actually, opening soon.
It's going to be my first solo show in U.S.
Ohh. That's amazing. That's so exciting.
Where is it? In Cincinnati, Ohio.
In the beginning, I was worried about
that I'm like, "Oh, is it going to happen or not?"
I have to finish these paintings.
And I'm like, "Oh, maybe it's not even happening."
You're hoping you're going to sell work there, too.
Yeah, I hope so.
And, also, of course, the opening,
it's going to be social distancing.
Yeah, it's complicated.
And they will take people, you know,
with numbers or something, you know?
-Just let them in. -Yeah, one by one or something.
So we'll see. I don't know how it's going to...
[ Both laugh ]
Can we go in here? Yes, of course.
So, this is where the work gets done.
This is, like, your little studio.
The magic happens here. Oh, I love it.
So, this one is in progress.
All of them, I start with a pink ground.
Right. I saw that on the outside of the one.
On the edges, you can see that, too.
You cover, like, with a pink gesso?
Yes. And then you -- How do you --
What color do you use to paint the underpainting in?
Uh, I don't do exactly underpainting,
but I do the drawing with green.
Don't care about the drawing. You know, it keeps changing.
I do it very fastly. And then...
Yeah, usually, in the first layer,
I use the most worn out.
It looks that way. I love those kind of marks, though.
'Cause they're so free 'cause you don't care.
I know, you know? And then later it gets precious.
I'm like, "No, I want to be free, but, no, it's hard."
It's beautiful, I love the composition.
Thanks. It's really moving.
Recently, lately, I'm having multiple people
in the paintings, and I really enjoy that.
And then I added my cat there.
Ha! Yeah. In the green, yeah.
Yeah, that's how I start, and then it goes color.
Did you take a photo of all of these people at once?
I was in an artist residency in Leipzig, Germany.
These are all artists there at that moment.
And I asked them, "Oh, we are all here.
Can you pose for me?"
All other paintings, I'm, like --
I ask them, wear something -- things colorful,
and I put around this floats, toys,
objects, fabrics for the color, and now I pick them.
And then they do whatever they want with them,
and I am like, "Yeah, you can go naked,
or you can, whatever, put things on your hair."
They pick whatever they want.
So, why oil paint?
I don't know. I always want to use oil.
It was a challenge, you know? I was so scared about it before.
Like, color. I was so scared of color, too.
My process is very kind of random.
It's never planned. Mm.
As I said. And I can show you the other. Yeah, please.
As I'm kind of lazy, I don't clean my palettes much.
-Mm. -This is usually like this.
-[ Chuckles ] -Oh, it's nice and heavy.
Sophia: Yeah, that's long hours of mixing.
So I mix the colors.
I always use the same palette and same colors.
First, I prepare some -- the common ones I always use.
Then, as you can see, they get messed up later.
Well, the thing they seem to have in common
is that this has, you know, your brighter, warmer areas,
and then your cooler darks,
and it kind of seems like you're situating,
like, a similar thing with both.
And also, it's about
that day which part I'm painting.
I start with mixing those.
Of it's the flesh or if it's one object,
that color kind of goes like that. Mm.
You know, painting wet on wet is more fun,
and everything flows easily. [ Laughs ] Yeah.
I really like that, yes.
But, also, as I said, I never kind of plan how I should do.
I'm like -- Yeah, I was like, "Okay, I will do this."
And then, oh, no, I'm doing this now.
So it goes -- Yeah, I don't plan a lot.
Oh, this is drying or do -- It never goes that way with me.
While I'm painting, I listen to very loud music.
Music really helps. What kind of music?
Heavy metal. Heavy metal?!
[ Laughs ]
[ Heavy-metal music plays ]
But I like that since I was 12.
I've been listening heavy metal.
And I guess it makes me go back.
That's how I was feeling back then.
And all that energy and, you know, hopes.
And makes you feel stronger, kind of.
Do you feel like, when you're painting,
it's something spiritual?
I can say it's like a meditation, isn't it?
First, you worry about, oh, how am I going to paint this?
Then, after a while, you forget about it,
and your hand keeps doing it, but your mind is, like, going.
And like anything -- I don't know. Free flow.
-Hm. -And that's the best feeling.
Almost is best than anything. I love that feeling so much.
Yeah. And it's always the best result
comes out when you feel that way. Mm.
If you think about, when painting,
"Oh, like, it's not happening," you worry about it then.
You can see it in the work, too, that part of -- Yeah.
Someone that's being too controlled and insecure
or worried about something.
But you are happy?
I'm happy to be here.
I miss things about Turkey, of course,
but I don't think I could live there,
especially everything's going even worse.
I mean, comparing to when I was there,
it wasn't this worse, like, right now.
It's, like, you know, the government and everything
is getting everything more conservative.
That was even when I was there, kind of completely,
but it's worse now.
I feel like going back and forth in Turkey, also,
that two cultures, and being there and being here,
I'm sure it affects my art, too.
And, in time, you feel like you don't belong there anymore.
And totally you don't belong here, too,
so you're in between.
It's like observing everything from an outsider area kind of.
I could never imagine even
I will be a full-time artist painting.
Even I am painting for other people,
that's still being a full-time artist.
-Mm. -I could never imagine that.
I could never imagine I will have shows or something,
because, I mean -- I was like --
At that moment when I was first trying
to, you know, quit my job and get into school for painting,
yeah, I could never imagine those,
that it will be possible.
So I'm happy about that,
but, still, you know, it's human nature, I guess.
We always want more. [ Laughs ]
Of course, I want to be a represented artist,
like, showing internationally.
That's the dream.
Also survive through my paintings, my art.
That's the kind of -- Yeah, success.
Not have to do other jobs.
And also keep doing it. Never give up.
Because so many people give up, I know.
I know it's frustrating. I get every day also.
Even, you know, looking at social media,
I feel so stressed.
It gives me anxiety because I'm like,
"Oh, I need to post something. I need to promote my art."
But I'm like, "I don't want to worry about this.
I just want to paint, actually."
I can say this, also, honestly.
I was -- A couple of years ago, I had very bad depression.
Even my psychiatrist, he was telling me this.
I always am trying to remind myself to --
He kept saying, "Your art will save you,
your art will save you, your art will save you.
Focus on your art." [ Laughs ]
You think this is true?
That's true. Yeah. Yeah.
[ Waves crashing ]
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