With influences and inspirations stemming from his early love of cartoons and comics, deconstructive pop artist Matt Gondek has made a career turning influences and inspirations from American pop culture such as comics, The Simpsons, and baseball into fine art. For the last fifteen years, Gondek has created a body of work that is informed as much by Warhol, Lichtenstein, and KAWS, as by a DIY-punk ethos, and Hot Topic.
We talked with Gondek about some of his recent works and projects, including his podcast Clean Break, new merch site Blackbook, and recent NFT project Fight Club. He also caught us up on everything he’s doing in Toronto for this year’s Yorkville Murals.
How did you get your start?
Very early on, I was influenced by comic books and cartoons. When I was a child, I would make my own comic books and everything. And I was always drawing. And that worked itself out into a freelance illustrator position where just from drawing all the time, being in a lot of punk bands growing up, I started to do T-shirt designs and album cover art for other bands around my area. And then from that, I worked my way up to bands on bigger labels who toured and everything. That’s how I got started at Hot Topic. All those T-shirts they sell at Hot Topic – metal punk bands – all that stuff I did.
When did your painting career begin?
So when I turned 30, I started painting. I’m from Pittsburgh, and Andy Warhol casts a big shadow over that city. I’m not the biggest fan of Warhol’s work, but I respect how he did everything. He started as a freelance illustrator too and didn’t really like it, and he just figured out ways to get his art into the public. I really respected that and used what he did as a guide.
I’m a big fan of KAWS. I saw an exhibition he had in Philadelphia, and it was the first time I ever saw a cartoon painting in a museum. And that opened my eyes. It was similar to my growing up and seeing independent comic books. It wasn’t Marvel or DC; it was just something somebody put out. I’ve always liked people who do their own thing – that DIY-like punk ethic. And my favorite artist is Roy Lichtenstein. I love how he took the replication of pop culture, stripped it down to its basic elements, and made it fine art.
So take all these elements, shake them together, and you get me: A deconstructed pop artist.
There’s a lot of hate out there for successful artists. Have you experienced haters dismissing your work because of your success?
Have you ever heard the phrase, crabs in a bucket? I’m from a small city, and there were other artists there I was palling around with, and I found that when I became successful many of them were like, “Well, fuck this guy.” And it happens all the way, the whole climb. One of my assistants is from a small town. And now that he’s out in LA working with me and having his own art shows, he’s telling me how his friends back home were like, “Well, you’re too cool for us. You’re not a real artist.”
And I’ve always been unabashedly yelling off the top of every place I can to promote my work, and I’m trying hard to be successful. I don’t give a shit. Everything I do is to propel my career, to make everybody on earth see my work. I’m trying to become a really good artist and get better.
You have a bunch of things going right now – opportunities for different audiences to interact with you and your work. What are some of the bigger projects and releases you’ve been working on recently?
I run my art practice like a business. It started in Pittsburgh doing band shirts and then putting up stickers. I put up stickers because I wanted everybody to see something I made, right? Now I found other ways to have everybody see what I make – it’s a painting, a print; it’s a toy. Now it’s an NFT. It’s just another branch of the whole tree of my art. And that’s what my new NFT project, Fight Club, is all about.
Fight Club is an edition of 300 hand-crafted spiked baseball bats. These bats are a metaphor for the deconstruction, bright colors, and punk rock elements that are prevalent in my work. I wanted to make 300 so I could also release a print with all 300 bats on it. I was inspired by a poster I saw of all these old graffiti cans lined up that I’ve always really loved. I made 300 unique bats for Fight Club and wanted to offer them as an NFT. That way you can either burn the NFT in exchange for the physical object or keep the NFT, and I will burn the original bat and send you a limited edition print.
I recently launched my online store, Blackbook. The store came about because I still want to release merchandise, but do it properly. I found really good people to work with that actually know what they’re doing. We did our first release in May. We did clothing – some hoodies and shirts – and then we did another release of a Plush Duck. The idea behind Blackbook is to offer a little more elevated merchandise than what I used to release.
How did you get involved with Yorkville Murals?
My manager, Andy, lives in Toronto, and he met Alan Ganev [check out our interview with Alan] – who runs Taglialatella Gallery from Toronto. Taglialatella – which is super hard to say – they’re in Toronto, New York, Miami, and Paris. So Andy became friends with Alan, and Andy told me, “Hey, you really should meet Alan. He’s really just a nice guy.” Like most industries, the art world and who you work with comes down to who you like.
So I met Alan. Then I met Brian, the New York Taglialatella guy; they’re just nice guys. I could see myself being their friends, and I become their friends, and we’re just talking. And then I come back to LA, and my artist friend Mikael Brandup is telling me how he works with Taglialatella. He’s painted a mural at the Taglialatella Gallery in Toronto. So all my friends are already just talking about it. It’s in my head. So finally, Alan asked me if I would like to be a part of Yorkville Murals.
Originally Alan wanted me to come up during the festival and paint a mural. And I was like, “Well, let’s go bigger. Let’s do more than that.” I went up a few months ago; I did my mural on the front of their gallery. But during the week when everyone else is painting, I’m doing a pop-up for my merch site, Blackbook, and I’m doing several talks. So the public can come to my Blackbook opening, hang out and talk with me. But the real sweet bread and butter thing is I will be interviewing all the artists in Yorkville Murals during the week.
In addition to everything you’re doing during the week at Yorkville Murals, you’re also moderating two panels during the second weekend?
I am! I’ll talk with some artists from this year’s festival. We’re going to touch on different themes, but there’ll be a lot of stuff about the business of art – similar to what I talk about on my podcast, Clean Break.
Finally, what’s next for you?
I’ve been painting for quite a while, and thank God that the thing I love doing became successful. I don’t want to keep painting Bart Simpson blowing up. It was a ladder to success, but at what point does that ladder become a crutch? It’s cool, but I’ve grown. So the newest challenge for me is figuring out how I move forward, doing what I’m known for, but also showing I’ve changed a lot in the last eight or nine years I’ve been painting.
That’s the challenge I’m facing right now, and I’m making a whole body work right now that I think is the next evolution of what I’m doing. It’s a bit different, but it’s still me. And I’m excited about the work for the first time in a long time. I’ve always been super fucking grateful for everything, but I think artists go through waves of creativity, and I’m just on a high right now and feeling really good. I hope everyone else likes it too.