Master Executioner: Artist Matt Coyle

Matt Coyle’s finely crafted drawings have a disquieting, dream-like quality that weave a fine line between storytelling and film noir. A new exhibition of his work opens at Melbourne’s Anna Pappas Gallery this week.

As a young student at Sydney College of the Arts, Matt Coyle became so obsessed with producing a serial comic strip for the campus newspaper Honi Soit that he subsequently flunked art school. Regular deadlines and the hours required for the detailed drawings proved more engaging and demanding than Coyle expected, precipitating his decision to leave to pursue his ambition of producing a full-length graphic novel, publishing Registry of Death in 1996 and Worry Doll in 2007.

“I didn’t really choose the medium; it just happened,” says Coyle. “Growing up, I thought I would be a painter, but I particularly loved the academic drawings of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo. At the same time, I had a fascination with good comic art, especially the Conan comics of the ’70s and ’80s. I’ve always been drawn to the dynamic use of lines to define shape, and black pen really lends itself to this.”

Artist Matt Coyle in his Hobart studio.

Working from his Hobart studio, where he lives with his wife Yvette and their three young daughters, Coyle uses Arches hot pressed paper and the Artline felt-tip pens he has used for 18 years in the execution of his complex, layered drawings. Painstakingly hand-rendered to almost photo-realist clarity, the individual artworks possess graphic strength and a raw, black-and-white “truthfulness” that is blunt and shocking. This is not pop cultural pap. In an age of instant gratification, Coyle’s high intensity, time-loaded artworks are almost an anomaly.

Matt Coyle Hot Mess  2012, pen on paper, 68 x 89cm.

Coyle’s style of drawing is far from free. It’s a hard slog, where most of the work is done with a lead pencil, rubbed out, pencilled in to more detail and rubbed out again, to the point where the image is mapped out perfectly before it is worked over in pen and ink. “The ink is fluid and gives a wonderful line but it’s also unforgiving – you can’t rub out ink,” says Coyle. “The pressure is on to get it right first time.”

Given that each piece of work can take upwards of 60 hours to produce, it’s no wonder Coyle rattles at the concept of drawing as merely a precursor to other art forms. “Not all drawing is something artists do when they are having a break from their main discipline. I draw in pen and ink because I want the final effect that it alone can create.” The ideas for the drawings come from random objects – a discarded toy, a mask, a building, “something that singularly speaks to me”, occasionally from a broken dream – which is then worked into a narrative.

Matt Coyle In Your Dreams 2011, pen on paper, 53 x 69cm.

Working solely in black and white, light is particularly important, often concentrated around strong lighting at night to produce desired contrasts and deep shadows. “The imperative is to create drama,” says Coyle. “The images are concerned with a pivotal moment, a point of tension where something uncomfortable demands one’s full attention – the idea of creating a visual drama, like my previous graphic novels, which compell the reader to turn the page no matter how frightening or disturbing the next reveal may be.”

In The Shades, a series of drawings commissioned by Art & Australia magazine from 2009 to 2010, the protagonist is digging up a descending staircase in his back garden, looking… for what? He emerges in Hobart’s colonial Theatre Royal (where Coyle has a casual position), and we are left uneasily to wonder whether the artist is using an archaeological analogy, digging up Tasmania’s somewhat murky, violent convict past, or if it is an allusion to film noir? The images unfold a continuing narrative, but each is complete on its own.

Matt Coyle Shot 2012, pen on paper, 38.5 x 58cm.

“I like to portray suspense, like in a dream,” explains Coyle. “I’ve been attracted to darker subject matters since I was a child. Producing pictures that have an edge excites me, but I don’t go out of my way to produce disturbing work – it took me quite a while to learn that less is more. Sometimes it’s hard to keep it in check when you’ve been working on a single image for three or four weeks.” Seeing his recently finished drawing In Your Dream, his sister, London-based actor Zoe Coyle, commented, “It’s so deeply strange – you can see that, right?” Coyle laughs, “I want the images to disturb, but it’s not why I draw. I’m drawn into the narrative, the unfinished story. I like there to be some mystery, even to myself.”

Matt Coyle shows new work at Anna Pappas Gallery, 2 – 4 Carlton Street, Prahran Vic. 23 August to 29 September 2012. Opening Wednesday 22 August at 6pm.

This story was first published in Vogue Living July/August 2012.

Text: Helen Redmond
Photographer: Nicholas Watt
All artworks appear courtesy of the artist and Anna Pappas Gallery.

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