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The Myth of Matt Lamb; It All Started in a Chevy Nova

A new book about the self-taught Chicago artist blows more hot air into his big baloon.



The Myth of Matt Lamb

When Richard Speer, art critic for the Portland, Oregon, alternative paper Willamette Week, decided to write a biography of Chicago artist Matt Lamb, he shadowed the controversial self-taught painter for a year, traveling to his far-flung studios in the States and Europe. Then he spent another year getting the project into print. Matt Lamb: The Art of Success was published by Wiley this month, and last week Lamb was signing copies at an opening of a retrospective of his work at Judy Saslow Gallery, holding court in the same Brie-and-bare-floors setting Speer uses for his opening chapter. In the book the name-dropping former funeral director gets the better of an art-world snob by rattling off his international connections and making a grand exit in his chauffeur-driven limo. When the collector is left to sputter, "What kind of a starving artist's life is that, anyway?" the foundation is laid for Speer's poor-little-rich-boy spin on the painter's life.

The book is a velvet massage, but Speer has managed to make it a brisk read. That's no mean trick when the subject is a devout family man with nothing more to own up to than a drinking problem he's already licked by the time he becomes an artist at age 52. Speer turns up the heat on descriptions of everything from the art ("These are the flowers Stephen Hawking would draw if he could") to his own job ("To figure Lamb out will be an epic challenge, because his has been an epic life") and makes the most of Lamb's potty-mouthed, melodramatic persona.

Though Lamb couldn't pass Catholic high school admittance exams, he and his brother made a success of the business they eventually bought from their penny-pinching father, the Bridgeport funeral home they lived above as kids. Capitalizing on relationships with the church and the community (offering, for example, free funerals for police and firefighters killed in the line of duty), they built Blake-Lamb Funeral Homes into a multibranch, multimillion-dollar business and spun off a bunch of related start-ups. By the 1980s, Lamb says, he was heading up 36 companies and had been knighted--twice--by the pope.

But in the 80s he also had a scare. Told by his doctor that a combination of hepatitis, mononucleosis, and sarcoidosis of the liver was likely to do him in--and before a second opinion pronounced him perfectly OK--he vowed to change his life. After years of dealing with death, Lamb saw the importance of making good on unfulfilled wishes, and he had one of his own: he wanted to be an artist, and no mere Sunday painter but a recognized major player whose work would carry the world a message of love. Leaving the funeral business behind (it was sold, but family members are still involved) and working without instruction, he developed a technique for treating canvas with concrete and gesso, creating textured surfaces and finding "spirits" in them that he delineated in vivid, heavily applied color.

Local dealers Carl Hammer (who Lamb says wanted him to curtail his voluminous production), Ingrid Fassbender, and Saslow all presented him as a self-taught outsider, but in 2001 there was a first attempt to kick him out of New York's Outsider Art Fair. The reason, cited by a fair organizer in an e-mail to his east-coast dealer, was his status as a "savvy and successful businessman with a keen awareness of the art world and marketing techniques." That attempt failed, but his dealer was barred the next year, bringing Lamb a windfall of publicity and a cache of controversy he's still mining. According to Speer, Lamb's story is a "case study in the ways in which the gallery system can control and commodify the artist." Or as Lamb characterizes gallerists' treatment of artists in the book's closing interview, "Feed 'em shit and keep 'em in the dark."

At last week's opening Lamb said he's given away 80 percent of his work, which is now in institutions from the Rockford Art Museum to the Vatican. He has also given financial support to galleries that represented him, used PR experts to build his myth, and created a global Matt Lamb industry that includes centers in places like Germany and China. This biography looks like another ingredient in the marketing mix--and in the art world, where critics are routinely paid by artists and gallery owners to write catalog essays, it wouldn't be surprising.

Speer insists the biography was not commissioned, but when asked whether Lamb paid any of his expenses he said, "I'm not saying he didn't. I'm just saying I'd rather not get into the details of it." He says Lamb saw the manuscript before it was published but didn't censor it, and insists he made a point of talking to Lamb's detractors.

"Many people who've read it have come out thinking Matt would hate it," he says. "There's a quote about Matt's popularity in Europe where I say for Europeans subjected to nihilistic avant-garde Eurotrash for the past three decades--for those people Matt Lamb is the perfect enema."

It All Started in a Chevy Nova

Thirty years ago three young artists--Bob Horn, Bob Meyer, and Ruth Thorne-Thomsen--hopped into a borrowed Chevy, spent a week cruising Chicago, then made work reflecting what they'd seen for an exhibit titled "Views From Ricky's Nova" at NAB Gallery. NAB had been founded the year before at the North Side Auditorium Building--better known now as Metro--by 11 graduates of Southern Illinois University hot for a space to exhibit experimental art. Over the years it moved several times; members dispersed, and exhibits, which for a long time ran about monthly (and guaranteed a good party), dwindled to as few as one a year. Since 1991 the gallery has been housed in the Lake Street studio of painter Craig Anderson, and the group's membership has shrunk to a hard core of two: Anderson and Horn.

But this weekend a reunion show of the Nova threesome will launch what Anderson calls NAB's rebirth. Horn, who's spent many of the intervening years restoring the work of WPA-era sculptor, muralist, and designer Edgar Miller, will show ten of his own small, humorous oils; Meyer, who's been writing and directing in Paris for 20 years but is in town to direct a film of his play Drunkboat (starring pal John Malkovich), will display six large drawings; and Philadelphia-based Thorne-Thomsen, known for her pinhole photography, is bringing something she's just ventured into--collages that combine photo elements with surrealistic painted faces that don't look like anyone she could have spotted from Ricky's Nova. The opening is Saturday, April 30, from 4 to 7 PM at 1117 W. Lake.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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