The Zen of colors

"And the band played on" by artist Joe LaMattina

Visual artist Joe LaMattina makes a statement

“Being creative can seem daunting in a world that values logic over imagination, practicality over dreaming,” visual artist Joe LaMattina points out in his artist statement. “In my work, I love to experiment and play, to mix it all up.”

"Be still" by artist Joe LaMattina
“Be still” by artist Joe LaMattina

Experiment he does. Playing with bright, bold, vibrant, empowering colors, mixing them all up, and at times even with other materials, LaMattina creates art that makes a statement, and fascinates and mesmerizes all at the same time.

Color, itself, becomes an interesting…character that sometimes takes on a personality of its own in LaMattina’s paintings. Yet, it was not always a significant presence in the artist’s earlier paintings. “My background is much more conservative, in terms of color,” LaMattina said. “When I went to high school, I was really amazed at how other kids had a way of dealing with color, where I was more careful, and they were much more spontaneous. And so, I really strove to not be that afraid of color.” 

He went on to work as a printmaker and became drawn to artists who were capturing the human figure in a realistic way. So, he tried to “test” himself in making his human subjects look real too, and discovered that that was not an easy task. Inspired by Edward Hopper’s paintings, famous for their subtle colors, LaMattina began capturing human figures appearing lonely, isolated, as if frozen in time, in paintings that evoked a somber, quiet, and reflective mood. 

After a while, though, he realized that his “vibe” was completely different in terms of color. Hence, he started to embrace it, and, over time, color has become a signature element defining his work.  

LaMattina also started painting abstracts, a process he discovered to be quite meditative. “It’s like a Zen when I do the abstract pieces,” he said. “That’s kind of where I am now.” Hence, his more recent body of work is “a marriage” of abstract and human essence paintings and sometimes a coexistence of the two expressed in abstract collages, what the artist also calls “recycled consciousness.” 

The energy and vibrance captured in many of his art pieces come through in the artist’s personality, as well as in his painting style, in the actual process of art making. He has several canvases “going” at a time and usually bounces back and forth between working on an abstract image and a more realistic one, or the “black squiggles of ink” he’s having so much fun with at the moment. “But,” he said, “if I had to go on into my studio right now, unless it’s a figure that really jumps out of me, I tend to go right for the abstractions now, and my squiggles. 

“When I was younger, I used to plan things much more carefully and now I just love to be more spontaneous,” he adds. “When I paint, I never really plan ahead; I just start something and see where it leads.” He goes on, “I don’t really have a studio. I have a little room in my house that I use as a studio.” He also doesn’t get his paint from art stores. “I like to go to Home Depot or Lowe’s or Family Stores and always buy what I call the ‘oops paint’- that is any brand of paint that the company custom mixes but the customer, for whatever reason, doesn’t like it or sometimes there’s a mistake in the color-mixing process- and they sell [this paint] at discounted prices.”

Joe LaMattina is a retired art teacher. He loved teaching and loved his students, and his students loved him back. Years ago, they encouraged him to check out Facebook. “’Mr. L,’ they said,” LaMattina comments, trying to mimic his students’ voices, “‘you have to get on Facebook.’” He ended up following their advice. He uses Facebook to post samples of his work and connect with his followers through his artwork.

"Creme Brulee" by artist Joe LaMattina
“Creme Brulee” by artist Joe LaMattina

Becoming an artist was never really his plan and perhaps it wouldn’t have happened if not for a fellow teaching artist, who, when he retired, encouraged him to start showing his work. But, while trying to figure out how to do just that, LaMattina quickly discovered that the art world is a business. “And I’m the furthest thing from a businessperson that you could imagine,” he said with a laugh. So, he spent a year learning about the business of art; how to establish himself as an artist, how to price and network his artwork, and so on. 

That was about a decade ago. Nowadays, his artwork can be seen in-person and online, in various shows across the country. 

It’s easy to lose track of time when looking at LaMattina’s artwork. It’s also difficult to choose just one favorite. A painting that catches the eye right from the start is a self-portrait the artist calls “Self-Portrait Digital-esque.”

He was teaching art at the time, and it was a “quiet period” in terms of creating art, he recalls the story behind this art piece. And he realized that if he was going to teach his students how to create art, he needed “to step up [his own] game. So, I started painting and I was really stiff [at first]. I would [work on the painting] in my classroom, so the kids would see me working, and used that as a learning tool for me and for my students.” He would work on the painting, and then have a dialogue about it with his students. “That was really the first piece that got me back into painting, and when I look at that piece, it flashes me right back to where I was about 14 years ago.”

"Do you hear what I hear" by artist Joe LaMattina
“Do you hear what I hear” by artist Joe LaMattina

The “Road to Rehoboth” painting is one of those rare, colorless paintings, and captures people walking through a tunnel. “I made it black and white to give it an older, volatile look. All three versions involving the “Road to Rehoboth” image were done in black, white, and grays. The original painting took on a very dated, nostalgic look, which I wanted to maintain,” the artist said, adding that Rehoboth is a beach town in Delaware. 

“Be Still” sold as soon as he posted it on Facebook. “I love to post my [art-making] steps on Facebook,” he said, “and as I do, people seem to enjoy watching the process unfold. And sometimes it leads to a sale before I even finish [the piece], but I ask people to wait until it is officially finished for the simple reason that a painting could make a sharp turn as it’s being developed.”

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” was inspired by one of the many dance-inspired photographs emailed to him by a dancer, teacher, and choreographer friend. 

“Creme Brule” is a complex, abstract painting. “There are so many levels and layers of not only paint, but non-traditional painting materials thrown into the mix, hair dye, and coffee grinds being two of them,” he said with a smile. It took the artist a year to finish it. That’s because the oil wasn’t drying or wasn’t drying the right way, and he’d have to “slice” it open and “let [the oil] drip out.” He adds, “I just love this piece, maybe it’s because it took me so long [to finish it.]”

"Limitation is moltivation" by artist Joe LaMattina
“Limitation is moltivation” by artist Joe LaMattina

“I’m Sooooo Busy” is a recent piece. It was juried into a show at Studio Montclair, opening towards the end of this year. 

Sometimes LaMattina exhibits with a group of artists. They call themselves The Bluefield Artists. “[We’re] a small group of painters, photographers, sculptors, and friends,” he explains. “Occasionally, we invite guest artists to show with us…or present Q&As on Zoom.” They show their work “here and there,” in various places. A piece he titled “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is one of six included in such a show, Dark, at The Corner Frame Shop in Nyack, NY.

Recently, he has also won a visual artist in residency program at the Oyster Point Hotel in Red Bank, New Jersey, and ended up having a one-person show throughout the hotel, a show that opened in February of last year.

Joe LaMattina continues to experiment with colors and create art, which, in turn, continues to be featured in shows across the country. “That’s the game I’ve been playing for the last ten years. I listen to the universe, and it tells me what’s the next step. That’s the truth.”

Also, don’t miss Joe LaMattina on Lisa and Michael Save the World.