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Comic's Dark Side: Matt Huynh

There’s something ultimately comforting about comic-like illustrations and their power to take us back to the early, cartoon-filled mornings of our childhood. Although their subject matter can range from simple to explicit and everything in between, the way they are presented almost acts as a type of buffer against their potential to confront their viewers. One of the most notable names to rise through Sydney’s graphic novel ranks would be Matt Huynh, who will be presenting his first solo exhibition in three years at the Australian Museum tonight. Matt never fails to capture the essence of the narrative, with his newer work conveying the ideal level of irreverence for the macabre. Death, ghosts and superstition all play a role within his work, urging the viewer to perhaps not take such topics so seriously. With hours to go before the festivities, Matt chatted to Side Street Sydney about how far he’s come.

I read that you studied law. How did you end up in illustration and why did you divert from the original path?

It's true! I ended up in illustration innocently enough. I was always making comics and self-publishing them, coming up with my own self-initiated art projects and, just as importantly, seeing them through. These gained some traction and I attracted the attention of some people in the creative community and some freelancing offers, so I started doing odd jobs on the side, but always as a bonus to my studies and work (I was working in a combination of legal and publishing roles at the time). I was fortunately able to keep a large sense of independence and self-determination over my projects because I didn't need to rely on the creative work for an income. Soon though, the work snowballed and I found myself balancing work with uni and a stint at an illustration collective. Eventually I gathered enough to have the confidence to strike out on my own after I was approached to join the fabulous Jacky Winter Agency and I haven't looked back since. So, it wasn't a dramatic cut between two seemingly disparate fields, but rather a gradual slip that made more and more sense as I gathered my training, experience and opportunities.

How did you eventually start to make a living out of your passion?
A combination of chance and working hard enough to be ready to catch luck when it presented itself. I had done the kinds of illustrations and comics that I wanted to and that fortunately attracted likeminds and opportunities to do more.

What was the beginning like for you? What were the initial challenges?
The beginning was easier than most I think because I did not go into this world with an agenda to 'make it' as an artist or practicing illustrator or anything like that, so luckily it came gradually and with enough space for me to develop with my early jobs. Balancing my personal and creative work with my other studies and work was an early challenge, but that's the nature of the industry.

What was your first big break?
It was quite gradual, from being accepted into comics anthologies to friends recommending me for unexpected jobs, like the South Australia Theatre Company. Winning the first Cut & Paste Design Tournament in front of Sydney's packed Metro Theatre was surreal for an insular, isolated, independent illustrator and attracted a lot of attention on my work.

You have worked on a range of commissioned jobs. What has been your favourite so far?
Lately I have loved working with bodies outside of the print and publishing world; outside magazines and comic books. My favourites would have to be collaborating with the Powerhouse Museum and Incu Clothing on a range of illustrative and comics themed events, installations and designs for a completely new audience. I had a great deal of freedom in these collaborations and everybody was very nurturing and supportive of my ideas. I had the opportunity not only to create the kind of images I liked, but also experiment with new rendering techniques (a risk with commercial jobs typically) and new mediums. I had never created work for crockery, cafes and window displays before, but the support to transform the drawings on my desk into floor to roof sized banners was fortunately there for me.

What is it about comics that draws you to them?
We will never have enough time! As a kid, I could recognise the human hand behind the lettering, the lines, the characters, the settings and the explosions - they were all equally fantastic and within my young reach. I knew I could create work within this medium immediately, and that's not something I connected to and recognised from listening to the radio or going to the cinema. So, it's a very accessible art form and it is very demanding of the audience. To get the most out of a comic, you cannot passively sit back like you would when watching a movie - there's an element of active participation and creation from even the reader. This reflects the way we interpret and understand the world - a perfectly multi modal blend of symbols and visual language. In our very visually literate world today, it's a more relevant medium than ever, and yet so young still. There is much to be explored; we still have our-Da Vinci, our Mozart, our Moby Dick ahead of us, and that possibility for innovation is very sexy. I love how intimate a comic is. You are drawn from your world into the four sides of a book ; then into the four sides of a page; then a panel; then a speech balloon - a comic is a whisper from the creator to a single reader. For all the richness of language and visuals that it can draw upon, the best examples use pictures and words in a poetic and economic way. It is a visual haiku revolving around sequence, juxtaposition and connections. In that sense, there is both an element of chance and destiny in how the medium works. It is a terribly romantic art form!

Where do you often look to for influence?
Strangely, much more beyond comics than inside comics. In the past, comics have looked primarily to books and, probably more predominantly, film for new possibilities for the medium. However, I have seen comics informed by architecture, poetry, music and maths, and I find them all engaging. I particularly had been interested in the lessons poetry and music have to influence comics. I don't just mean the mediums themselves, but also the mechanics of the process of coming up with a song or a poem; how we remember a song and how it lives with us in a manner distinct and unique from a story or a movie. These days, it is easy to be over stimulated though - I certainly feel as though I can become too passive of an audience member, endlessly gorging upon the fruit of other’s labours, so I think it's important to be able to draw inspiration and influence from personal experience, from everything around you.

Where have you been since you received the Design NSW Travelling Scholarship? How has it influenced your work?
I have been developing a new graphic novel primarily. I have also been taking some time aside to teach myself some new skills, things I felt I missed out on at school! I've also been taking some time to experiment and really try out a lot of new techniques and mediums, including wax, paints, pastels, charcoal, different inks and brushes, pens and quills. Some of these have definitely made their way into my current work and I think into my future comics work. All of this experimentation really came out of the travelling scholarship. Having spent some time in professional studios and under some of my favourite illustrators and comic creators, I had a sharp hunger to explore process and technique when I came back. I did a lot of sketch-booking on a regular basis once I got back and had developed routines to keep myself responsive and sensitive. I still think about the experiences I've had on the professional development trip to this day, it was completely nourishing for me and remains so, particularly in my field where there is relatively little education, history and role models to turn to locally.

Tell us a little about Asperatus. What spurred on the idea to create a new body of work? How is it different to your other work?
‘Asperatus’ approximates 'roughened' or 'agitated' in Latin. At this point in my art and my life, I felt it was personally and professionally fitting. The project started innocently as a handful of illustrations to update my professional folio whilst using some of the techniques and mediums I had fallen in love with whilst developing my comic - dream-like combinations of dry and wet media. It soon got out of hand once I started having a little too much fun with it and grew into a 26 illustration series. I thought these were a great opportunity to explore subconscious creative processes, ie relying on intuition, instinct, chance, dreams and other unconscious stimuli to construct symbols and compose images rather than deliberate and conscious scheming to reach a predetermined message. Of those 26 ideas, I developed 14 of my favourites to share with friends in a special one-night-only exhibition at the Skeleton Gallery at the Australian Museum.
'Asperatus' is also the name of a newly discovered cloud formation, the first in about half a century. They are very strange in both their ominous pretense and behaviour - they tend to disperse without a storm despite their dark, heavy appearance. For me, this is quite a fitting visual metaphor for our culture, our economy, the health of our planet and our own behaviour towards one another. We live in times where our actions are abstracted from their consequences and we are having to deal with these lateral problems with abstract thinking - quite a stretch for our monkey and zebra minds!

What are you going to be up to next?
I have a few collaborations in the background - both comics based in unusual contexts and live performance/drawing. I would love to do more writing, and I will consciously try to devote more time and energy into my graphic novel. It is a frustratingly slow burn, but I am being very patient with it, so I hope it will treat me right too.

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?
There is so much to say! I would start with impressing that they need to love themselves and love their own work. I don't just mean take pride in your work, but loving your own work also means knowing when you need help, when it is in bad health, when it should nurture it and protected. Also, I don't mean to sound glib, but be wary of lessons and advice. The path to your goal is so personal, I have never heard a how-to talk or book that was of too much relevance to me. Catering someone else's experiences to your very idiosyncratic goals – there's just too much room for disappointment. I have had to unlearn as much as I have learnt about art, creativity, expression and its role in my life!

Matt Huynh

interview: Seema Duggal


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