Matt Mignanelli grew up in Providence, Rhode Island influenced by the "huge mohawks" of RISD students and Shepard Fairey's Andre the Giant Has a Posse stickers. After graduating from high school, he attended the famed art school, then moved to New York City where he worked on commercial projects for clients including Michel Gondry, GQ U.K., and Akademiks while continuing to paint. After solo exhibitions in Glasgow and San Francisco and a number of group showings, he gave up the commercial world to focus solely on his own work.
Surrounded in his Brooklyn studio by black-on-black canvases and organized cans of paint, Mignanelli spoke to Complex about painting, the path of an artist, and what makes Bushwick Bushwick.
(Full disclosure: I was in Mignanelli's high school class. He was, and will always be, a much better artist.)
I like to offset the viewer. It makes the experience more interesting.
Your newer work is different from the paintings you were doing even two or three years ago. How did you get here?
The work has definitely evolved a lot. It started to get more abstract. It was a lot more colorful a few years ago. I've striped it down, looking for purity in the painting. There's something in the simplification of things, where it's become more about the painting. All my new work is architecturally influenced.
Did you study architecture at RISD?
No. Just painting. My work as become a lot more about my surroundings. [Looks over the Brooklyn skyscape through the studio's fourth-floor windows.] Before, while the works was abstract, it had a more landscape feel to it. I was creating unknown, almost surreal, environments. Those landscape environments were more zoomed out. I've slowly moved into the image. In my mind, the larger environment still exists, but the paintings I'm making now have become larger magnifications of the environments. The work is pared down now. There were small elements that called out to me, and they were the most pure message that I was trying to rely in the work.
I like creating these environments that are very mysterious and enigmatic. I like to offset the viewer. It makes the experience more interesting.
Why did you stop with the commercial work?
It's always been my goal from the beginning. Before, like any painter, you just do what you do to make money. I saw that side of it as my day job. It's been a slow transition. I'm a cautious and calculated person. [Laughs] But at some point I realized I could do it.
Any recent successes?
There have been a couple of things. I was really happy to be included in a show of New York painters in Copenhagen. The guys that are in the show with me are really respected guys. I knew their work beforehand, and I was honored to be included amongst them.
How do you become known as an artist?
It's not easy, and there's no book. It's an organic process. There are certain times when you think, "What can I do? What can I do?" but it always comes back to the work.
For me, it's been just being myself, but you have to talk to people and get out. That doesn't come easy. I've been talking to a lot of people. And when you do have small successes, you have to send them to people. [Laughs]
It does seem like you're genuinely interested in the scene, though. You're always posting images of work you like on your Tumblr.
That just happened. I was taking pictures of work anyway. I love to go to Chelsea. I love to go to the Lower East Side. That's almost like a second job. I go every Thursday or every Saturday. But that's what I do when I'm not painting. I don't do much else. I make art. I look at art. I figured I would just put the pictures out there. It's great for me to look at, too. I look at the work a little differently. I choose my pictures carefully. It's just a little curated thing I enjoy doing it.
I don't do much else. I make art. I look at art.
How much time do you spend painting?
About eight hours a day.
Do you work on one at a time?
I try to. But sometimes, I go between paintings. Right now, I'm working on this black-on-black series, which is really intense and repetitive. When I need a break, I go to the grays. [Laughs] It's two bodies of work that I'm building that are complementing each other.
You've started using different materials.
One thing I've noticed as I've pared down the color is that it becomes a lot more about the material. I've been working with gray acrylic. I use a lot of house paints. I use a lot of enamels.
For a long time now, I've been using industrial materials. It's always been a part of my process. A lot of my new stuff is canvas, but before I was working on wood panel. The industrial primers and wood painting brushes seemed really natural. With the canvases, I really love how the materials play into the subject matter. I love industrial shit. All the canvases are wet sanded down in multiple layers, and I love to use industrial paints with them.
Did you think you were going to be a fine artist when you were growing up?
I hoped. [Laughs] That was the goal. I've always been pretty calculated. Growing up in Providence, I wanted to go to RISD.
I remember going into the city with my dad in the 1990s when RISD was really crazy with the huge mohawks, the Andre the Giant Has a Posse stickers, and the Buddy Cianci billboards. I didn't realize until high school the stature that RISD had, but I always wanted to go there.
And now you're in Bushwick. Is it both a blessing and a curse being here because there are some many amazing artists that it's inspiring, but at the same time, there are so many amazing artists that it's hard to stand out?
It sounds obvious, but you build your own network. The thing I like about being out here is that when you're out and you're meeting people, everyone's studios are really close. That's really what's nuts. For me, that's what makes Bushwick Bushwick. It's not so much the openings, the open studios, or the "scene," but it's about the scene that you make for yourself. Everyone is centrally located. You can be a stop on the studio visits tour. That's cool. I think that's what makes it so unique. It's about location. It always has been. Soho in the 80s. People who were there were there.
It also must be nice to know that other people are making art close by. I imagine it can get lonely in the studio.
You have a lot of time to think. It's not always a good thing. You do question it. For sure.
What happens now?
Keep painting. More shows. It's on to bigger and better things, hopefully. I've started having a dialogue with friends about studio visits. That's a great place to get feedback. I like to have people in the studio. That's where it's headed for me. That's what really makes opportunities. You're out there, looking at art.
And I hope some new shows. I've been talking to some galleries and looking around.