An honest workshop is covered in distress. There’s paint everywhere, reminders of projects of the past litter the corners, while the masters of the present loom on the walls, daring the rest of us to join their ranks. A slick grime covers everything, while the scent of paint drying dances through the air. The brushes are dirty, and the ghosts of creativity linger. That’s what a working class workshop feels like. A dirty radio, and a tattered copy of Mad Magazine on the floor with a boot print; a working artist moves daily, restocking his wares instead of pondering a brush stroke’s meaning. Dedicated to the preservation of the hard knuckled, blue collar Americana of the past, Matthew Ryan Sharp is a priest with out a church, a soothsayer of the vaudevillian temperament with fate at his heels. A working artist, Sharp is the face of a Midwestern work ethic, which plainly put is a grinding dedication to craft and willingness to fail.
People in the Midwest rise earlier, work harder and stay longer – ask anyone who’s ever worked a dock, or runs a crew out in the early morning putting up a building on the south side of Chicago, it ain’t easy. It takes effort to break your back to perfect a job, but whatever it takes, the job gets done. Crafting a heart-pulling reality of art is something all artists strive for; achieving it is a whole other dog and pony show. Creating a world loaded with skewed realities, and black blooded creatures that blur the line of concept and desire, Sharp’s work is transient. There’s a certain jarring quality while lost on the tracks of freight headed toward a low sunset somewhere tragic. That’s the essence of Sharp’s work: the American Soul and the struggle to maintain an identity as authentic as our citizen pain teaches us. Sometimes the mask is on tight, while other’s it’s a loose-toothed clown with eyes that slink into the unknown. There’s a continual thought process to his aesthetic, a demand of the details. Juxtaposition is a common thread throughout his work. The clashing of two worlds and theories drive the tiniest of nuances, giving birth to a piece potentially quiet, but now booms with depth. There’s a relative truth to growing up in Joliet, Illinois. The scenes are haphazard one block, while a mile away are stately mansions. It’s hand to mouth with zero regard for change. No kid from the East Side sat on the school bus looking at those houses and dreamt “that’ll be mine”. Those houses were nothing but an illusion meant to remind people of the plight of the existence of the working class and in most cases through out the city, the working poor.
In Joliet, graffiti covers everything. Beer bottles lay broken in gutters, while dealers hide in the shadows. It’s a rough place to grow up, but an enriching one at the same time. School only teaches so much, but seeing the world from the ground up instills humility, dedication, and understanding that hard work mean everything. Self taught, Sharp’s ability to mix mediums and challenge critics is not by design, but by necessity. When there wasn’t any paint left, he moved onto working with colored pencils, sharpies, whatever could leave a mark. In that beautiful desperation to create came the ability to seamlessly mix otherwise intangible mediums into caustic, tonal creations.
The most important thing though, is always the dedication to the past. Bold outlines, striking panoramas of bright colors married to dark ideas. From hand painted signs, to boxer clowns with broken noses, Sharp’s work is a vast reflection on some of the most American of themes.
There’s always an slight nod to the underground, but not without a strong influence to many masters of the past whose work might not be in a gallery, but on a sailor’s skin, or the store front of a hardware store.
Knowing and using those influences to take your work to a place so real and so raw is a powerful thing. It’s respect for the past, and dedication to history’s masters of the common man that strengthen the resolve of Sharp. He’s honored to sit with an old timer and learn the craft the right way, and more than happy to relate those skills to the kids coming up behind him.
Matthew Ryan Sharp lives and works in a small farming town in the Midwest.
~Robert Dean – Texas, 2014