Illustrating heartbreak: the candid art of
However you cope with a breakup – be that endlessly stuffing your face with custard creams for a month straight, stalking your ex-beau on Facebook until 4am every night, or sleeping with a series of questionable rebound partners – it’s likely you won’t be sharing the depths of your despair on your sheeny social media accounts.
But what if you could harness your angst, and make something actually worth sharing? One person who’s channeling the grimness of being detached from a lover into something worthwhile is Bristol artist Matt Dickson, whose relationship breakdown has sparked a furious series of unapologetically intimate portraits of himself and his ex, created while in the throes of heartbreak.
Ahead of his first exhibition, we caught up with the ascendent artist to ask him about his hatred of emojis, vulnerability, and how Thorny, a new night in Bristol offering a gleeful stage for expression, is giving artists a new platform to share their ‘shame’.
How would you describe your work to someone unaware of it?
I think of my work as the Instagram picture or the Facebook status you should never post. We’re all living on social media, posting the highlights, but where are the bad bits? When you’re desperately in love? When you’re heartbroken in the bathtub? These are moments we all experience but never share. This is my way of documenting my life with my own hands. I see it as a reaction to emojis too – we all use these little things but how emotive are they really? That one little tear drop is not enough.
Are there any specific influences for your work? What inspires the characters you depict?
They’re all paintings of me or my ex-boyfriend. I started painting him when we were together because I thought that was the grandest gesture I could make – a painting of him so he’d know I loved him. I wanted everything to be really dramatic and romantic – I’m really drawn to that mentality. I like the idea of the muse and the obsession of the muse. Then the tears came, and it felt like I was painting an honest portrayal of how I was feeling. Your first love can be pretty overwhelming. I was crying quite a lot. But I’ve found that you can get some good work done when you’re heartbroken. I’m still painting him and recreating the stages of the breakup. I guess it’s my way of letting him know I still think about him. Sorry, it’s all starting to get a bit Adele now.
What is your starting point for a piece?
I use a lot of photos from my phone, usually ones that are a bit too intimate to post anywhere. When I turn an image into a painting, I get to control it, and take ownership of it. It’s the way I see a situation. The titles are important to me too – words and clichéd phrases inspire me. My sketchbooks are full of titles yet to be painted.
Your work is clearly very emotive and autobiographical. How do you feel when sharing it with an audience?
This will be the first time I’m showing my work to anyone in real life. I’m nervous. I post stuff online, and while people might stop and double tap, they’ll keep on scrolling. It’s different when it’s hanging there and you can’t click off it. Someone said to me recently that it’s a wonder I don’t have any shame about my work as it’s so honest, but I’ve never thought of it as something to be ashamed of. I guess it is kind of cringey, and maybe I should have some pride or try and keep some dignity, but I get a kick out of being so personal. Sometimes I’ll finish a piece and just stand back and laugh thinking, ‘I can’t wait till he sees this.’ I don’t see the point in trying to save face. What? I’m supposed to act like I’m not checking all your sites every day? Or looking at photos of us? Everyone’s doing that. There are pieces that are more based on my own unhappiness, that I guess I might feel a bit vulnerable about, but hopefully people will relate to them. Hopefully I’m not the only one crying on the bathroom floor.
How did you get involved with Thorny, and what is the night providing for Bristol right now?
I was asked to do the poster for the last night they put on. [Thorny founder] Joseph Bligh has been so supportive of me and my work and it was really exciting to work on an image that wasn’t so personal. People seemed to really like it. Our tragic, desperate aesthetics go well together. Thorny has been a really great platform for a lot of creative people to push themselves and express ideas that they didn’t have a stage for. It’s a night that doesn’t have like a forced queerness. It just is. It’s not about tribes, it’s not about hyper sexualised bullshit. It’s about sharing a sense of otherness, and experiencing art and performance that’s not so easy to digest.
The I HAVE NO SHAME exhibition is showing artists exploring themes of gender, identity and otherness. Can you share some of your favourite artists or creators dealing with similar themes?
My work is about identity or leaving some sort of trace of yourself. When I’m painting I always think of [David] Hockney’s domestic scenes and the drawings of boys in bed. He’s been a huge influence on what I use as a subject matter. The everyday scenes or the private moments and turning them into something colourful. I also really connect with Tracey Emin, who also uses her private life in a really open and raw way. Her neon has been a strong influence. They portray declarations of love or sadness, and make statements that can make a person seem weak or desperate. She’s using that emotion and making it your strength – that’s what I’m trying to do.
What can we expect from the exhibition?
It’s a joint exhibition shared between me, Stephanie Elizabeth Third and Sophia Jowett which is really exciting. Steph is an incredible photographer and filmmaker, and Sophia makes stunning illustrations. It’s been inspiring to share ideas and work with them. We all use different mediums, but there’s an over-arching idea of having shame put upon you. I think shaming is such a prevalent thing in society and when you become aware of it, it can be hard to get away from. The concept of rejecting this shame really clicked with all of us, so I’m excited to see how our work interacts when it’s in the same space. The opening night should be fun – a lot of dancing, and, knowing us, a lot of fabulous outfits.