Matthew Grabelsky Explains his Surreal Take on the NYC Subway

By David Jenison

Matthew Grabelsky Explains his Surreal Take on the NYC Subway

New Girl star Max Greenfield once said, “I always feel like people in general are much weirder and insane than anybody really wants to admit. How dare somebody watch anything and go, 'That's not real!' Go on the subway. For five minutes."

Artist Matthew Grabelsky would seem to agree. Many of his pieces feature realistic portraits of subway-riding couples in which the male character rocks an animal head. Mythology inspired the hybrid characters, but Grabelsky placed the ancient inspirations into one of modern society’s most unique cultural settings, the NYC subway system. In doing so, the Los Angeles- and NYC-raised artist taps into the beauty of nature and the subconscious by fusing symbolically rich imagery from contrasting cultural narratives. PRØHBTD spoke with Grabelsky to learn more.

What are the narrative elements of mythology that appeal to you as an artist?

I am captivated by the way in which mythology makes use of imaginary creatures and events to suggest that there is more to our day-to-day experiences than what we are normally aware of.

What cultures claim the myths that inspire you most?

As a kid, I was first exposed to stories from Greek Mythology. Since then, I’ve explored a wide range of world mythologies and have become fascinated by the fact that there seems to be a universality in the ways that people from all cultures have conjured up animal representations to illuminate and expound upon the mysterious elements of human nature. Examples range from the bull-headed Minotaur in Greek Mythology to the Indian god Ganesh, with an elephant head, to the Kami nature spirits in Japanese culture, among many others.

What role do animals play in mythology, and do elements of this role play into your use of the animal heads?

Animals play a variety of roles in mythology. The one I am most interested in is the way in which animals symbolize various elements of our subconscious. To a painter, mythological animals supply the means to visualize what would otherwise remain hidden.

The creatures in my paintings serve to inject an element of surrealism into the subway, one of the most commonplace experiences of life in New York. The characters are symbolic of the kinds of thoughts that lie under the surface of people’s minds, and they reveal that the most extraordinary can exist in the most ordinary of everyday settings. This theme is communicated through the juxtaposition of these ostensibly irrational images with otherwise completely mundane scenes. My idea is that my creatures are not original but are ultimately part of a much larger cultural continuum. My paintings are not intended to be explicit fantasy; rather, they are representations of the subconscious on which viewers are invited to form their own interpretations.

Your characters are placed in everyday situations like riding the subway. Do the characters simply add surrealism, or do any of them reflect animal-like passengers you encountered on the subway?

My central concept is that everyone has a hidden aspect of their mind that can be revealed with an animal hybridization. However, there are certainly many times when I’ve been on the subway and have seen people who are practically fantastical creatures in their own right.  For anyone who has spent time on the subway in New York, the animal characters in my paintings are not that much of a jump from what you see there every day.

Images (left to right): Van Cortlandt Park, Jones Beach, 66th Street, Penn Station, Columbus Circle, Lincoln Center, Franklin Street, Grand Central, Times Square, Union Square, Brooklyn Bridge, Houston Street and Canal Street.

What would be an example of something strange you saw on the subway?

One time, there was this guy dressed in a full-on leather Matrix coat, and he had a white rat sitting on each shoulder. He was just standing there with a completely deadpan and nonchalant expression on his face, as if rats on his body were a totally normal occurrence. Somebody surreptitiously took a photo of him, and he didn't react. Then, someone else outright asked to take a photo, and the man just started to smile, play with the rats and pose for photos.

Many of the characters hold reading material. To what extent does the headline reflect the specific scene?

It depends on the painting. Sometimes, the choice is purely aesthetic. For example, in Grand Central, the man has the head of a polar bear. I chose to dress the couple in black and white, based off of the black nose and eyes and the white fur of the polar bear. The girl is holding a copy of The New Yorker, the cover of which shows two women walking down the street in New York—one dressed in black and the other dressed in white.

Other times, I build the painting around a specific magazine. Lincoln Center features a couple reading a recent issue of GQ. On the cover Amy Schumer, dressed as Princess Leia in the gold bikini, poses suggestively with C-3PO. I cracked up when I saw the magazine on the stands, and I knew I had to use it in a painting. My idea was to create a visual dialogue between two pairs consisting of a woman and creature: one on the cover of the magazine, and a second sitting on the train reading the magazine.

In a new offshoot for this show, I painted a couple of pieces portraying father-and-son pairs, with both figures having animal heads. In Houston Street, a father in a business-casual suit sits with his son whom he has just picked up from school, and he reads Babar and his Children to the boy. Both of them have elephant heads. It shows that they feel like they're elephants, or maybe they really are, and Babar is just a normal person in their world.

What was your personal art style like early on, and was there a particular piece that set you on the current path?

Up through high school, I mostly made sculptures. Animals and mythological creatures have always been prominent themes in my work. I attribute that to all the time that my parents spent taking me to the zoo and reading all kinds of stories to me when I was a child. Early on, I worked mostly with clay as well as mixed media. In college, I began a series of semi-translucent metal sculptures constructed with wire mesh. These pieces depicted animals, figures and creatures from mythology, including the Minotaur, Ganesh and a number of dragons.

My interest in painting started during my freshman year in college when I took a few art history classes. Prior to that, I had always loved impressionism and post-impressionism, but I had never really looked at the more realistic classical paintings from earlier eras. The visceral way in which they were able to visually tell stories enthralled me and set me on the path to learning to paint realistically.

The first painting that directly led into my current work was one that I did when I was living in Paris. I wanted to paint stories from mythology, but I wanted to paint them in a way that made them contemporary and relevant to people today. I kept trying to figure out how to have it make sense, and then one day I had an epiphany: The paintings didn’t have to make sense, and I could do whatever I wanted! Soon afterwards, I was visiting my family in New York, and while riding the the subway, I snapped a photo of an attractive couple sitting across from me. I looked at the photo later, and the idea to give the man the head of a bull just popped into my mind. My entire current series evolved from that moment.

As far as schooling, what took you from astrophysics to art?

I come from an artistic family. My grandmother was a painter, my father worked in film and television production, my mother was a dancer, and I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember. My interest in science arrived much later. One summer when I was in high school, I worked on a research project with my uncle who was an astronomer. The experience sparked my desire to learn more. At that point, I decided I wanted to pursue astrophysics. In college, I studied both art and science, and I graduated with a BS in Astrophysics and a BA in Art & Art History.

By the time college ended, I had already been accepted into astrophysics grad school programs, but I was feeling pretty burned-out, and I decided to defer grad school for a year. I moved to Florence, Italy and began studying classical drawing and painting. After about three months, I was hooked and decided that art was where my heart was. I ended up staying in Florence for four years, painting and immersing myself in that amazing city saturated with Renaissance art.

If you were to put a soundtrack to your art, what music do you see playing in the background?

Incorporating sound with my work is actually an idea I’ve been thinking about since the time I painted my very first subway piece. For the opening of [my 2016 exhibit] Underground, I created a sound installation piece. I made a 15-minute recording on the 6 train traveling downtown, and then I looped it. During the opening, the recording was playing through a hidden speaker in the gallery. It provided the auditory sense that one was actually riding on the subway. The recording was made on a relatively empty train, so what one heard were the ambient sounds—the train going over the tracks, the bell indicating that the door is opening, the conductor announcing the stops, etc. It worked beautifully as an interactive experience. The voices of the people in the gallery served as the human component, thereby completing the realistic soundtrack of being on the train during rush hour when everyone is talking.

Your dad was a producer for the movie Dirty Dancing?

Yes. This was actually how I ended up in New York. We were living in Los Angeles, and my dad was hired by the production company, which was based in Connecticut. My mom didn’t want to live in the suburbs, so we got an apartment in Manhattan, and my dad commuted. I’ve never thought about it before, but in a very real sense, Dirty Dancing is responsible for my making paintings of the New York subway.

When you hear the song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” does it drive you nuts or give you pride?

It gives me pride. My dad was the Executive in Charge of Production, and he had fun working on Dirty Dancing. He’s told me that he thought, at the time of production, it was a sweet little movie, but he had no idea that it would become such a gigantic hit. After it blew up, my friend’s mother explained to him that it was a perfect teenage fantasy movie: A girl goes somewhere and meets this guy from the wrong side of the tracks, leading to an unforgettable romance. It's funny because he had no idea that it was going to turn out that way.

David Jenison ( is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.



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