One of the first things you notice about Matthew Dunns work, is the atmosphere. Dark, often brooding and full of monochromatic wonder, his work is, despite first appearances, quite adaptive. With undertones of playful subtext, and with humourous irony dotted throughout his pieces, Dunn isn’t afraid to humanise his creations – lending a bright spark of light to what would, otherwise, be fairly gloomy representations of urban wastelands and decayed civilizations.
As an artist who has left the 9-5 behind him, Matt delves into this mental landscape with abandon, doggedly following the many paths that his subjects take him down. From symbolic iconography to characters veiled in masks and streetwear, and with frequent nods of the head to the world of comics and to the music that he loves, the assumption that his work is all about the darkness and its denizens is highly superficial.
Its for those reasons, and, simply, because we love his work so much, that we wanted to catch up with the artist before his upcoming solo show "The Justice Will Be So Fantastic" this week at Artboy Gallery in Prahran. So read on for an insight into this amazing artists world, his love of comics, narrative art and the powerful imagery behind his work …
How did you come to find yourself within the maelstrom of the art life, and when did you discover that it was taking over your world? Tell us a bit about your background …
Art has been a big part of my life since childhood, especially the world of comics. The majority of my books in high school generally contained more sketches than school work. A few years ago, with a supportive kick in the pants from my wife, I finally quit working my 9am – 5pm job to become a full-time artist (which, as it turns out, is often an 8am – 2am job – but those long hours are spent doing something I love, so it’s a worthwhile trade off).
A lot of your pieces have a darker, gritty urban feel to them – where does this dystopian vibe come from, and what influences drive the pieces that we see in this style?
While the world of comics have had a strong influence of my art, the themes I gravitate towards have been more heavily influenced by film and music. I have a strong fondness and fascination with horror and post-apocalyptic films, something that started as a youngster and has only grown stronger.
The idea of mostly abandoned cities and barren wastelands were always powerful visuals that never lost their impact on me. Urban landscapes carry a dirty beauty within them, and I consider the environment to be just as big a character in any tale as the people that populate it.
Plus, I just get a big kick out of drawing people in hoodies and gas masks.
You’ve done a fair bit of comic work in the past, what got you into this and where does your comic work fit in with the fine art work that you produce?
I grew up with a stack of comics by my side which always offered me an escape and source of inspiration. My love of comics has resulted in me taking a strong overall narrative approach to my exhibitions. As I bounce between comic art and non-comic art on a daily basis the lines are sometimes blurred between the two, which has also had a big influence in regards to my approach to the composition of non-comic pieces.
Can you tell us a bit about your comic character "Leroy" – the world he inhabits, and the stories behind him and the evolution of the character?
Leroy was introduced in my first graphic novel "Lonely Monsters" for the simple reason that I wanted one of the characters to wear a gas mask, and he was originally going to be killed off a few pages after his introduction. However he soon took on a life of his own and ended up dominating the book and my career in some ways. After Lonely Monsters I started developing the character further via stand alone pieces of art and t-shirt designs, and in 2010 had an entire exhibition dedicated to the character. I
‘m currently working on a new comic series that follows on from "Lonely Monsters" and also delves into his past. For me Leroy is a working class hero, just an average guy who found himself in a situation where he suddenly had something to fight against, but who lost a part of himself in the process.
He’s also quite clumsy and unhinged.
So, what is it with the gas mask behind the character? What is it about masks that you believe can give characters such flagrant power of character?
I find masks to be very powerful visual images, always carrying a degree of mystery and vagueness. There’s an exciting creative challenge involved in trying to capture the emotion of a masked character as you don’t have the standard emotive facial features to rely on. Having masks as a recurring theme in my art also means that I can place my characters in some very intense and dark situations, but the lack of a human face seems to reduce the shock the setting may carry, which then gives me more freedom to push things a little further.
You did a year long daily sketch project, where there would be one sketch a day, with only 20 minutes for each sketch – what form of discipline did this require, and what did it help you to achieve?
It started out as being something to share while I worked on other things that I couldn’t post publicly at the time. It was also a good place to experiment and play around with different brush techniques and subjects (I’ve only been using brushes regularly in my work in the last 12 months, prior to that everything was done with pen).
When I hit around the 150 mark I decided that each new daily sketch would be one panel of an eventual comic, however the story I had in mind was something that I decided would have a better impact when read in its completed form, rather than random daily images. So while I’ve continued to do these panels daily I stopped posting them publicly, but the rest will eventually be seen.
A quick morning sketch is the creative equivalent to stretching before a run, it helps to loosen up the muscles/brain.
What are some of your favourite mediums in use, and how do you apply them to your work? We’ve seen a lot of ink in amongst it all .. but what else does your hand enjoy applying to paper or canvas?
I think ink will always be my favourite medium as it offers me a unique combination of control and chaos, and combining the two never gets tired for me. For the most part I start with very detailed line work, then on top of that apply rough brush work and ink washes. I’ll sometimes work with watercolours as well. Stencils and spray-paint are also a medium I enjoy working with, and prior to laying down a stencil I will usually work with a few layers of acrylic to work up some underlying colours and textures. For stencils I’ll spray on anything, from canvas to skateboard decks and wooden panels.
I sometimes work with charcoal, but I’m a heavy-handed lefty so it tends to be a very messy process.
You have a solo show coming up at Artboy Gallery pretty soon – what will the show entail, and what format will the work be in? Tell us a bit about what is driving the makeup of the show.
The September exhibition, "The Justice Will Be So Fantastic", is a collaboration with Crippled Black Phoenix. I’m using their last 3 albums as the basis for the entire exhibition and creating visual interpretations of all the songs from those albums. Some songs are split across a few pieces, some interpretations are very literal, others are more inspired by the mood of the music. The exhibition will include ink illustrations, acrylic + stencil paintings (on a combination of canvas, wood panels, and skateboards) and some 1/6 scale custom toys.
You collaborate a bit with the band Crippled Black Phoenix, and they are also featuring in your upcoming show at Artboy Gallery in September – tell us a bit more about the band, and these collaborations between you?
Crippled Black Phoenix are a band who, as I listen to them constantly, became the unofficial soundtrack to my art. A lot of the themes and moods that exist in their music are in the same realm as my art, so it became a daily ritual for me to listen to their music as I dove into my work. When I was working on ideas for my next exhibition it just felt natural to create a more concrete connection between their music and my art.
I approached the band about the idea for the exhibition, which they were instantly into and very excited about. Since then I’ve worked closely with Justin Greaves, the driving force behind CBP, and I’ve gone on to produce tour designs for the band and am also working on the new album. As far as collaborations go this one is a dream. The themes of our work, and the approach to its creation, are so similar between us that everything that happens is very natural and smooth.
Where would you like to take your art, and where do you see it in the future? What are your upcoming plans beyond this next show?
I have a form of creative OCD and always have numerous projects developing at the same time, so when one is completed there’s never any pause to think "What will I do next?", it’s usually a case of "Okay, what do I want to do after I finish up these other six things?".
I’ve started mapping out my next two exhibitions, am continuing work on the new Leroy comic, as well as my current web comic "The Secret History Of Skullboy" – plus a toy project that’s been developing for awhile now, two new art books, more Crippled Black Phoenix, and somewhere in amongst all of that I might even find some time to have a nap.