Matt Coombs is sitting outside the new Beau Monde Collection on State Street, smoking a cigarette with his knees tucked under his chin and aviator sunglasses shielding his eyes. The combination of nicotine, nonchalant posture and shades is deceiving.
Coombs looks like he could already pass for a jaded New York artist, except that he’s neither jaded nor living in New York.
At 24, he’s ambitious, inquisitive, business savvy and so passionate about making art that he has little time to do anything else, including play his guitar — his favorite pursuit outside of art.
“Painting is my hobby, my job and my playtime,” Coombs says. “What makes me a good artist is that I’m never done finding new ways to say something a little more effectively.”
Now in his third year as a fine-arts student at Ringling College of Art and Design, Coombs’ name might sound familiar to local contemporary art collectors.
In addition to serving as the exhibition manager for Zig-Zag magazine, an underground art zine founded by his friends and fellow Ringling classmates, Brent Lindstrom and Van Jazmin, Coombs has shown his work at a variety of established and up-and-coming galleries, including the Englewood Art Center, the Historical Society of Sarasota County, Clothesline Gallery in downtown Sarasota and Cayuga Community College near his small hometown in upstate New York.
For a student artist, he’s had a lot of visibility. This, says Coombs, is not a fluke.
“I have a good group of friends who are equally committed to pursuing things now as opposed to later,” Coombs says. “It’s an important part of the learning process, to establish yourself now while you’re still in school. A lot of people wait for their turn and that’s kind of a pitfall. The more shows you have under your belt, the more credibility you’ll have down the road.”
For his next step toward credibility, Coombs will showcase his work alongside Ringling grads Mark Humphrey and Dustin Juengel this summer at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, a Division of Ringling College of Art and Design.
When that show, which opens June 26, comes down in the fall, Coombs will spend the first semester of his senior year at an artist residency hosted by the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
“It’s a huge deal,” he says. “My goal is to end up in New York, so the fact that I’ll be there my senior year means I can begin to integrate and network before I even graduate.”
For now, he’s happy to network in Sarasota, where currently his work can be seen lining the walls of Beau Monde, where Coombs’ oil paintings bring a sort of snap, crackle, pop to the white sunlit gallery space.
Like a lot of his recent work, his “Life on Mars,” which hangs in the store’s front gallery, is a dizzying arrangement of space and design.
Rendered in bright oil paint and bold brush marks, at first glance the scene looks like someone’s outdoor patio. But from what angle? From inside the house? From outside the house? And where’s the floor? And is that an astronaut in the background?
“Mars is one of those spaces that exists in the public imagination,” Coombs says, curling up cross-legged on the floor beneath the painting. “It exists, but we can’t go to it. My work is about exploring unknowable spaces and scenarios, places that are matters of secrecy. I originally wanted to paint space women adjusting to a new world and then I realized you can’t see gender in a space suit, so it didn’t matter whether they were women.”
Trying to make sense of Coombs’ work is like trying to make sense of the movie “Inception.” The beauty lies in the irrationality of the landscape, which is exactly the point he hopes to convey.
“I read a lot,” he says. “Some of the concepts are pretty esoteric. I hope that doesn’t make me sound pretentious. I’m interested in the big questions, ya know? Like, why am I here? Why are we all here?”
He rises from the floor to turn down the music pumping through the gallery.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he says, dialing the stereo down several notches. “I can’t think with that music on.”
He resumes his post below “Mars” and explains that most of his friends back home are on completely different career paths. One friend is a journalist in the Army. Another friend installs lightening rods for a living. A couple guys went to school for business.
None of them is surprised by Coombs’ commitment to painting. At 16, he was selling giclée prints to students and teachers. By his senior year he was exhibiting work at art festivals.
“What inspires me is learning about the world,” Coombs says. “I’m forever exploring our different systems. The cluttered cities and structures ... these are just additive systems that become deranged over time. It’s like painting. To add something or change something you have to add more paint. You can’t just scrape away the whole thing and start over.”
And, then, of course there’s New York City, a “system” that will undoubtedly inject further chaos into Coombs’ work once he begins working next fall from a studio in Brooklyn.
“It’s not that intimidating,” he says of New York. “I walked the Manhattan Bridge at dawn with my friend, Walter, and we were the only two people on it. In a city of 8.3 million people, I might just be individual enough to have a chance.”
COOMBS’ KINDRED SPIRITS
“He was able to do every type of image-making without losing his original idea.”
“He came out of the New Leipzig School in Europe. His paintings are very elusive. They deal with buildings, architecture and space.”
“She’s a top-notch colorist.”