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Our Harsh Reality

Matt Dibble's paintings share the gritty thrill of local life


Matt Dibble's abstract painting "Lake Erie Shoreline" feels like a long minute lived somewhere along Ohio's north coast. The small work mixes brutal masses of bluish black with streaks and splashes of white, as if the painter had ripped a cold chunk out of a March day. It's a painting that remembers intimate, difficult things — the way an early morning fits roughly over the night before, and how easily the wind unravels the sunshine.

At least that's the way Cleveland often feels during its long winter. And some of Dibble's latest oil paintings, now on display in Aspects of Modern Life at Tregoning & Company, bring it all back. Not that everything is so grim. A few of the works, like the large, almost impressionistic "Emptied Countryside," positively bloom, with bursts of light pink and gray-blue pushing around a six-foot-square surface.

Plus, there's the fact that this painter's rough, patched-seeming, highly textural visions often have a sort of curbside appeal. Not that Dibble's view is from the curb. There's no ad for a cozy lifestyle embedded in this work. The hard-looking surfaces he paints are often actually much like the curb itself — a place down by the cracked street, where mud and snow pile together during long gray days, filled with the harsh excitement of life's challenges. Like life itself in Cleveland, things may be hard in this painted world, but they're not boring.

Simply put, these are good paintings because they're about real things. They convey the daily contrasts of comfort and unease, effort and balance, while speaking also of qualities of the spirit. Determination, discouragement, and discovery are all part of the action.

Like 1950s action paintings, they're partly about the body's movements and partly about effort. Yet there is a big difference between what Dibble does and what the men and women of his parents' generation painted. His crossings and sudden combinations weave workmanlike solutions to a question that was rarely asked so explicitly in an earlier era: What does it mean — what does it look like — to build a practical exercise that has as few aesthetic or philosophical pretensions as possible? It's a matter of tense, too, and effectualness: What is the nature of the thing that has happened; when is a job done? If the individual expression that artists once sought now seems naive, it's still true that the problem of fitting the gray into the brown, or bending it across the blue, is entirely one's own business, like washing your feet.

That's one way these paintings do their job: by asking no more than that. But they're also successful because, in the process of asking and answering such purely physical questions, they end up describing specific places and states, in terms that have both geographical and spiritual elements. The fact that Matt Dibble has worked as a roofer for more than two decades (though he's been an exhibiting artist for even longer), and that he is able to make paintings that re-create aspects of that perilous and demanding occupation, is literally a big part of the picture here. There's a level of sensitivity that endless climbing and hammering and looking have made possible.

But maybe most important is the fact that the experience he re-creates in such tactile detail is part of the spirit of the place in which he lives.

In a way, Dibble's exhibition is about here and now, and about Cleveland. But it covers more ground than that. Two of the finest titles in the show are "Middle Is Everywhere" and "Starved Wolf." The first describes exactly what Dibble does. And with the other phrase, you can almost see Dibble's wolf chewing away at the empty spaces of the canvas. It's a reminder that every mark makes a home for the mind's zoo of images, and that every line feeds the spirit.

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