Featuring dead birds, underwater towns, and ranch hands dining in the pastel dusk, Matt Kleberg’s paintings, now hanging at JohnSarahJohn, seem to conceal rich tales just beneath the thin layers of oil. Look closely at the finch outlined by the cream and brown stripes of “Right Now But Not Yet,” and you’ll see the base layers of paint from an earlier version of the ranch piece hung beside it.
Best Visual Artist nominee Matt Kleberg’s “Ordinary Time” hangs at JohnSarahJohn through August, and includes paintings like “Pan de Campo,” which explore moments when disaster and relief arrive at once.
“You approach a painting with this grand concept for it, and the painting takes over,” says Kleberg at JohnSarahJohn, the auto-shop-turned-design-space. In this case, he started with a painting of men known in Texas as vaqueros—roughly, Spanish for “cowboy”—dining from metal plates on his family’s ranch. When Kleberg hit a dead end with that concept, he covered the piece in thick stripes to form the bird study, only to recreate the same ranch scene months later in a different piece.
Kleberg’s tendency to rework a canvas and to tease out just the right contrasts within it keeps his latest show, “Ordinary Time,” both engaging and unpredictable. “Disaster and relief happening at the same time—created by the same force—is what I was interested in,” Kleberg says.
Within one composition 7′ across, the head of a realistically rendered sparrow carcass is painted on a second, gold-hued canvas separate from the body beside it. In another painting, parallel black lines represent birds falling from the sky during a freak die-off in Arkansas as a man facing the other direction tends to an old hatchback at an outdoor car wash. Across the gallery, the emerald water of a swimming pool tops an aerial rendering of a flooded town. The brown flood water sits on the roofs of small buildings, submerged as engineers inundated some towns to save others when the Missouri and Mississippi rivers breached their levees this year.
Since graduating from UVA in 2008, Kleberg has displayed his work in more than a dozen spaces around town. He’s hung skillful portraiture, impressionistic landscapes and surreal compositions of animals against abstract backgrounds. His latest paintings continue to evolve, interposing more dramatic geometric elements with the soft lines of his figures. The intended effect is a study of the jarring divide between certainty and calamity, between the identifiable and the abstract. Whether or not Kleberg’s themes are clear, the work’s open-ended storytelling leaves viewers with plenty to ponder.
For a painting called “Louisiana,” he initially painted a swamp with a quilt in the middle. “There weren’t any open-ended questions. It was all spelled out for you,” Kleberg says. So he covered three-fourths of the 9′-long canvas with an opaque blue color field bearing a single green square near one corner, because he felt the composition would create a more intriguing dialogue between the image and mind considering it.