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A Man Apart

Matt Lively straddles the worlds of commercialism and fine art. Is he a sellout? Or has he just figured out how to work the system?



Across town in a studio at Plant Zero, a different story is on display. Whimsical pictures of bumblebees on wheels. Friendly, off-kilter exteriors of homes. Small paintings of living rooms tacked up in a row. They're funky, colorful illustrations, the kind of thing you might find in a pediatrician's office.

Yet these two visual worlds are the work of one Richmond artist: Matt Lively.

So why is the art in his studio so different from the art in the show?

"It's because the ones in the show are all Matthews, but the ones in the studio are all painted by Matt," Lively says, even though he painted them all himself.


Split personality?

No, pen name.

"Writers have pen names and musicians have band names they can hide in," Lively says. "Matthew is the jazz where I release my demons. Matt's where I give people what they want and make money."

Few artists get lucky enough to do their own work for a living, unencumbered by commercial restraints. More often than not, those who dedicate their lives to art face two unappealing options: starve or sell out.

Lively has figured out how to have his art career and feed his family, too.

In order to preserve his artistic integrity and have the freedom to try new things, all the while supporting his wife and two children, Lively has subdivided his artistic career into several alter egos he calls his "pen names."

Lively, 36, looks like a political science major and has a wristy knack for making arguments that are simultaneously charming and perverse. His dry sense of humor and measured monotone make it difficult to know when to take him seriously.

Matt and Matthew each has his own Web site, and Lively talks about them as if they're separate people capable of making independent decisions.

His body of work signed "Matt Lively" is basically a commercial line. "Matt" uses bright colors to make cartoony, approachable pictures — not necessarily something that would challenge the viewer. A repertoire of stock images — chairs, window, fans, ironing boards — populates the work. Interior designers looking for paintings to brighten a client's kitchen, eat them up, but Lively bristles when people he knows from the fine arts community comment on them. He worries that people who believe in art for art's sake think they're silly and cheap.

"Matthew Lively," on the other hand, paints darker images. He uses muted colors and deals with more serious themes, like the space between life and death. They don't sell nearly as well, but Lively's friends in the fine art world see them as more legitimate.

Between Matt and Matthew, Lively's figured out a way to game the system. Without a boss or manager, he's pulled in as much as $120,000 in a year. He paints pictures all day, while his wife watches the kids at their home in a Brandermill subdivision. Artists think he's crazy for moonlighting as a suburban dad, and who knows what the other dads think about his day job. He dodges the expectations no matter which circle he travels in, and that's what makes it work.

And maybe something else has happened, too.

Heide Trepanier, a successful painter with gallery representation in New York and a close friend of Lively's, calls the whole thing a "vast performance piece."

Sculptors work with stone, painters use acrylics and oil. Lively's medium is the art world itself.

Lively's income isn't all from his commercially focused "Matt" line. He's had help from three other alter egos: Andy Trinko, Hunter Boxley and Holbrook Rather.

Each time Lively wants to experiment with a new material he gets another pen name. All the Andy paintings are pictures of boats made with a wax process called encaustic. Hunter deals with physical boundaries, specifically where the grass meets the sidewalk, where the sky hits the horizon, and where the ocean meets the sand. They're all silk-screened prints of collaged photographs.

"You understand, of course, that these are all real people and we could call them right now?" Lively asks.


So we do.

A nervous Andy Trinko answers the phone. He sounds like a man caught with a Playboy — nothing to be ashamed of, really, but not something he's eager to own up to. He is a real person, a Coast Guardsman living in Tennessee, hence the boats.

Trinko and Lively grew up together and now, as Trinko puts it, he "helps Matt out with his art." At first, Trinko just gave Lively permission to use his name and suggested boats as the subject. But recently, Trinko created some nautical doodles and mailed them to Virginia. Lively plans to reproduce them, incorporating them in Andy's future "work."

The real Hunter Boxley shared an apartment with Lively in college and now sells wine. He's a little more hands-on with his line. He went to the Savannah College of Art and Design, and the photographs Lively collages together were taken by Boxley. To him, the arrangement's not that big a deal. "I have these ideas and they wouldn't be expressed otherwise," he says. "This way they get out into the world."

The Andy Trinko and Hunter Boxley creations get into galleries on Lively's coattails. And here's the kicker: In exchange for their somewhat minimal contributions to the creative process, they get 20 percent when a piece with their name sells.

"I think it's really as simple as trying to do the right thing," says Lively's wife, Wendy. "He's using their persona. It's right to pay them for it."

In the professional art world it's not uncommon for artists to have assistants help with their work. Usually they stay behind the scenes and the artist takes the credit. With Lively, it's the other way around. His goal is to have the commercial careers of his alter egos eclipse his own "Matt Lively" commercial line.

His approach is not a secret, exactly. Lively insists he tells people about his pen names and they forget, or don't care.

Once he entered an Andy Trinko piece in "Think Small," a show at the Art6 gallery on Broad Street. The way Lively recalls it, well-known Richmond artist Chuck Scalin, one of the curators, was so impressed he offered "Trinko" a solo show on the spot.

It just so happened the real Trinko was in town for a NASCAR race and swung by the opening to see Lively. He bashfully sucked down a Big Gulp, while Lively tried to slide in and answer Scalin's enthusiastic questions about Trinko's artistic process.

Scalin says he remembers the Trinko piece. He wanted to buy it, but someone else got it first. He says he doesn't remember meeting Trinko or offering him a show, though. When he learned that Lively did the painting and sold it under a pseudonym, Scalin laughed a little nervously. "I can never tell with Matt," he said.

The idea of using different pen names makes sense, says Carrie Gundersdorf, a painting instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But she's never heard of anyone doing it before. That Lively can supply enough work for not one but many separate careers is even more impressive, she says: "The percentage of people who just even keep producing art after grad school or undergrad is pretty small at the level where they're showing and selling work." She's heard estimates that as few as 5 percent of art school graduates continue in the field, let alone make a living from it.

In order to avoid financial hardship, Lively's forced to do paintings he thinks are boring. But collaborating with people like Trinko and Boxley rescues him from accusations of selling out.

Lively's business plan moves his work as a whole into another realm, too. The art is in Lively's ability to play gallery owner and buyers off their own expectations. "The art of making a living is a lot more interesting than an individual painting," Lively says.

Lively was born in 1970 in Richmond and his baby pictures were all full color. Baby pictures of his brother, four years older, are all in black and white. So as a child Lively was under the impression that he'd brought color into the world.

The family lived for a time in Louisville, Ky., where his father oversaw a Philip Morris cigarette factory. Lively's parents divorced when he was 11. His father became an executive for Philip Morris International and moved to Switzerland, leaving his mother with three children and a big house payment. She was a nurse and would teach Lamaze breathing classes in their basement to make extra money. Lively would wander down and see all the anatomy diagrams.

Mostly he was left to his own devices. He followed baseball and "Star Wars." He spent hours in his room alone drawing out scenes from the movie so he could see them again. One night he got to stay up late and watch "Saturday Night Live" and saw a skit where one of the characters joked that artists get to sleep all day and sell their work for millions of dollars. Lively was sold. A supportive art teacher in high school encouraged him to refine his technique. Lively graduated with a degree in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1993. Sculpture students got to use all the fun tools, Lively says, but he always wanted to paint. Manipulating materials, like sculptors do, has remained important.

Right out of school he married Wendy, and they moved to Atlanta. Lively was aggressive in trying to make it as a painter. He rented a studio with a soon-to-be-famous painter named TL Lange. (Lange committed suicide in 2002 but his abstract posters still sell all over the country.)

Together, he and Lange "concocted" a system — "all we needed to do was make stuff look important," Lively says. "We were just vague, really." He speaks dismissively of his work at the time. But it was in Atlanta that he had a breakthrough in terms of his painting process.

Colors show up with greater intensity on dark backgrounds. But when Lively was getting started black paint was too expensive. Instead, he started to tar his canvases before he painted them. Tar is oil-based so it dissolves the oil paints and eats away at them in tiny speckles. The colored pigment literally falls into the background and gives the painting instant depth. When he adds the pigment to the dark background, he's using the color to show the spaces between things. He's refined the formula a little since then so the paintings last longer. An artwork's life, or "archivability," is crucial in the art market.

Lively's paintings began to sell especially well in the interior decorator's market, and Matt Lively earned a following. Lange was represented by an art dealer named Daniel Deljou and got him interested in Lively. Deljou offered to be Lively's exclusive dealer worldwide, but Lively didn't want to be restricted that much. Instead, he asked for a contract with a monthly fee in exchange for a certain number of pieces. That way he'd be free to contract with other galleries.

Deljou turned him down at first, but eventually he came around. Lively was peeved by his initial hesitancy, however, so he offered up "Holbrook Rather" instead of himself. "'Holbrook' because it's my middle name and 'Rather' because I'd rather be doing my other work," Lively says.

Working as Holbrook Rather, Lively carved linoleum stamps with images of apartment buildings and trains. Between those stamped images and tar-backed living-room scenes, he made $60,000 in his first year out of college.

Soon Lively began to fear he was falling into a rut. The "Matt Lively" brand he'd built up was too recognizable. Collectors showed up at shows of his more "artistic" work and got confused. So Lively tried to open another channel by contracting with a second agent. He signed a contract with the second rep, earning a minimum of $3,600 a month for five years. Lively hoped this would be the beginning of a whole stable of contracts for pen names with different reps.

When Deljou heard about the deal he was furious and tried to cancel the Holbrook Rather contract. The legal battle dragged on for months after Lively left Atlanta and moved back to Richmond in 2000. Finally, Lively told his lawyer to settle. As a condition of the agreement Holbrook Rather will never paint again, but Lively recouped his legal expenses. With the little he had left he took his pregnant wife to Disney World.

Wendy Lively says that since having kids, "the one big change that I saw in Matt was that he wants to works a lot harder. He wants to provide for his family and make sure we're taken care of."

Ask Lively what the "Matthew Lively" work is about and he's a little vague. He says he likes that Matthew's work doesn't have to answer to anyone else, that he doesn't have to worry about whether it will sell.

Jerry Cullum, senior editor of Art Papers and a freelance art critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a fan of the work conceptually, but not necessarily aesthetically. "He's not to everybody's taste, and most of the time he's not to mine."

But he defends what he likes about Lively's art. There's "Money Rabbit," a surreal juxtaposition of a rabbit with the head of George Washington. It's a one-liner, Cullum says, "pushing much more into bigger concepts ... in an outrageous way."

It's possible that Lively's not sure what Matthew's up to yet.

Lively talks about the tragically short career of his former colleague Lange. Deljou, their rep, has said that if Lange had lived he could have been one of the best painters in the country. Lively's not so sure. If Lange had the patience to give it 50 more years — perhaps, Lively figures. But Lange was trying to fit 50 years into just five. Lively spins out his entrepreneurial schemes to fulfill his financial obligations to his family, but maybe that work's helping to carve out enough time so "Matthew" can have a crack at the 50 years it might take to come into his own, too.

att Lively's May show at Main Art, the one with the oversized rabbit, is a test run for a children's book he's developing. Janet Giampietro, a Richmond Magazine columnist and former Style managing editor, is writing the text. Lively's story centers on another childhood misunderstanding. Since his dad's factory made cigarettes, Lively thought everything in the world was made in a factory. The Wind Chill Factory fills the demand for cold air produced by global warming.

A visitor at the opening cornered Lively and gave an impassioned reaction to one of the pieces. It was the largest one in the show, the outline of a landscape like a topographical map and it spread over two panels, one light orange and one pale blue.

The visitor told Lively that, to him, the painting showed how much damage people can do to the planet and how badly a sane response was needed to such an overwhelming problem. Lively looked a little stunned, then said, "Thank you for thinking about the work so much."

Lively hopes viewers respond to his art, but after the Main Art show, he talks about how apolitical he thinks his work is. A lot of the hand-wringing about global warming is unfounded, he says. It still gets warm in the summer and cold in the winter, and if we didn't hear about it on the news all the time, no one would know the difference. He thinks it's arrogant for puny humans to think they can impact the climate.

"When the earth gets tired of us, it'll just shrug us off," Lively says. "I love hot dogs and baseball, but I don't listen to the news because it depresses me. As long as nothing's happened in my house, I'll listen to music until someone tells me buildings are falling down."

When the buildings did come down on 9/11, Lively heard the news over the radio. He says that after the first plane hit he reached for the phone and called his dad. Lively had been renting a studio on Main Street. He told his father he thought the art market wasn't going to be good for a while and asked if he could start storing stuff in a barn his father owned near Lively's home in Brandermill. He wanted to save rent on his studio. His dad said that would be fine and asked his son to watch his cat and dog when he was out of town in exchange. Lively agreed and hung up. Then the second plane hit.

For Lively and his wife 9/11 became a challenge for the family. They'd just had their first child, and people bracing for an economic slowdown were not spending money on art. Fortunately, Lively has an entrepreneurial streak that generates business ideas as quickly as pen names. He started screen-printing some of his recurring images on T-shirts and called the business Beecycle.

"We always look back to September 11," Wendy Lively says. The art business may have gone flat, "but people still buy clothes." So Matt does the art, Wendy takes care of the business, and Hunter Boxley, a Lively alter ego, handles sales.

Lively's in the process of getting another business started. He and Trepanier are working to open Ink Tank, a printing service to help artists get their images screened onto whatever material they want. Lively plans on taking commercial-sized orders for T-shirts (somebody else will print them), as well as creating images and designs that can be licensed to customers or used like clip art.

"We're also trying to get some income for ourselves that's beyond our artwork because the market is so fickle," Trepanier says. "Things for artists can take a steep dive in a very short period of time." Their goal is to build into Ink Tank's business plan a regular donation to a nonprofit, probably Art 180.

Art 180 provides after-school art classes to inner-city kids. Its office is also in Plant Zero. Although Wendy Lively had been aware of the organization for some time, she says her interest peaked after the New Year's Day murders of Bryan and Kathryn Harvey, their two young daughters, and the Baskerville family.

"You just think about the youth in Richmond," she says, "and … I think if you can catch those kids early and give them another outlet, that's important. Matt's a huge believer in what they do and we decided, jointly … that we would give back to them."

By some fluke, Matt Lively has shows in Richmond galleries scheduled for the same month at art6 and Project Space at Plant Zero. The November shows will feature a high volume of smaller paintings — clouds and other simple images — arranged in huge grid patterns. The paintings will be Matt's, easy to read and easy to reproduce, but the display will be Matthew's because the paintings' impact will change with repetition in a grid of 100.

"The beauty of it is that when it's all over," Lively says, "I can sell off the paintings individually." Even Matt works for Matthew.

Lively's been trying to get Matt and Matthew to work together more often. There's a loyal buying public that trusts the Matt name enough to bring him home. By slowly introducing elements of Matthew to them, maybe Lively can keep his hold on the market and start sending out things that are more meaningful to him.

One afternoon in Lively's studio the conversation turns to Matthew Barney. Barney is one of the world's most visible contemporary artists. He's fathered a child with Icelandic pop star Bjork, makes enormous sculptures out of Vaseline and starred in a five-film cycle that mythologizes the biological genesis of his own testicles. Pretty high caliber stuff. He's the type of guy people interrupt during lunch to ask for his autograph.

"If somebody stopped me at lunch," Lively observes, "I'd have more signatures to give." S