Big Pictures: The Persistence of Matt Dibble

Printmakers, sculptors, those who excel at drawing – all who practice the visual and
plastic arts, are closely related in terms of temperament; and yet there are definite
frontiers between each mindset, guarded by mysterious affinities.

Matt Dibble, for instance, is a painter. Since his 1978 graduation from Cooper School of
Art, Dibble has splashed around in several manners on innumerable large and small
canvases.  Since the quality of the painted line has been his most abiding concern
through three decades of strenuous effort, you could call him a drawing-guy, rather than
a painting-guy. But that would miss the point. For a painter’s painter like Dibble, versed in
the tensions of Modernist work from Cezanne to DeKooning, the central activity of his art
is to choreograph an ever-more intense dance involving these two eternally incompatible

The long stretch of art practice is something like dreaming. It takes place as much in the
mind as in the studio, and time travel is commonplace. In recent large paintings on canvas
Dibble returns to themes and techniques that have preoccupied him since the age of
thirteen, when he began a series of small line drawings. Those involved fantastic people
and animals, mythic in feeling and rendered in a simple, uninflected graphic style
reminiscent of Henri Matisse, or Jean Cocteau’s vivid sketches of Paris café life. New
paintings like Year Without a Summer and Chinese New Year are mostly about wrapping
the pictorial space in a maze-like warp of precisely executed black lines. A tightly packed
series of bluish vertical columns form a background grid in another recent work titled
Bushwhack. Flickering in front of these are lines that evoke a mythological scene. Toward
the center a head is flung back along the broad body of a beast whose legs terminate in
hoof- or foot-like appendages. Other faces hover, upside down or sideways, among
marks that could represent landscape features. The total effect is like a vision of unknown
constellations, mapped across swathes of a digitally cloned sky.

Dibble’s earlier paintings belong in the context of late 1970’s “Pattern and Decoration”
artists. He shares that movement’s interest in orderly, colorful visual movement, both as a
Pop-like gesture and as a fact of world-wide craft decorative cultures.  Added to this is a
whiff of the brash figurative imagery typical of Chicago’s “Hairy Who” painters like Jim Nut
and Roger Brown influenced many Cleveland artists who came of age in the 1960’s and

The return that his current paintings make to early ideas  hints of the long series of purely
abstract styles that intervened.  A re-examination of abstract expressionism, for instance,
gave rise to complex paintings like his Quarry, which won a Juror’s mention from art critic
Peter Plagens at this year’s National Midyear Exhibition at the Butler Institute of American
Art in Youngstown. A tribute to Willem DeKooning’s 1950 masterpiece Excavation, Quarry
is exactly the same heroic (80 ⅛”/100 ⅛”) size and, like its model, is a complex weaving of
brushy graphic incident and form, filling the available space with brush strokes, half-
buried images, and the bones of old art.

Dibble’s studio at 2400 Superior Avenue is a large, clean, windowless space, full of all
kinds of paintings. Oil on canvas works predominate, but there’s plenty of variety.
Arranged along a shelf are several smaller panels that are not only painted, but smeared
with asub-flooring compound, scraped across pieces of the construction material Celotex.
And the shelf itself is part of a large group of experiments in presentation. Sometimes
Dibble will incorporate a magazine-sized painting into a free-standing structure that looks
like an Ikea end table.

For the past twenty-odd years Dibble has earned a living as a professional roofer.
Physically the artist has been shaped and tinted by long days in the sun and constant
upper-body exercise. Glinting behind glasses, his blue eyes focus cautiously, and a white
arc of T-shirt curves across his chest like freshly gessoed canvas. A Drew Carey brush-
cut completes his somewhat deceptive persona.

Not as typical is Dibble’s longstanding devotion to esoteric meditative practices, which
must also have a bearing on his fascination with visual repetition. In conversation about
his work and motives he stresses issues of practice. He remarks, “I’m interested in what it
shows me about myself. Immediately when I start to work I want to fall back on something
known….” And he touches on the deeper reasons for his uncommon perserverence:
“Mystery isn’t the problem, it’s the answer. How do you open to the feeling? I see there’s
something that’s nourished in me [by certain approaches to the work] and I try to push.
You have to be persistent; you don’t know what it is, but you’re preparing for something.”

Dibble will keep on painting and honing his skills as long as there’s paint in the world and
something to spread it on. In terms of his career, he hasn’t been completely ignored --
this year’s recognition at the Butler follows a Best in Show award he received there in
1993, and his work was accepted into three May Shows at the Cleveland Museum of Art in
the early 1980’s. But an exhibition record that stretches back nearly thirty years and
includes shows at SPACES (in 1984) and other major area venues should merit a higher

Look for Dibble’s work at St Paul’s Church South Wind Gallery in Cleveland Heights early
next year, and also at his studio during shows at superior gallery – which is in fact a
neatly enclosed corner of his space.

[Free Times 8/30/06]