This Chicago Artist Looks to History—And His Own Mind—To Create


Artist Matt Bodett flipping through papers with two historically inspired paintings behind him

“I’m not creating the original paintings identically,” artist Matt Bodett says. “I begin with that, but I know when to back off.”

For Matt Bodett, the brain is a powerful muse. A visual and performance artist, poet, and professor with a downtown studio, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder as an undergraduate. But Bodett, who went on to earn his master’s in painting and printmaking from Boise State University, prefers the more archaic, somewhat romantic expression of “madness,” with its connotations of creativity and heightened access to emotional expression. 

piles of historic images, papers with drawings and collages and and poetry

Bodett uses reference photos for his historically inspired paintings and drawings. "I often look for pivotal characters and moments in art history," he says.

an abstract historically inspired painting with scribbles on top

"I tend to pick imagery that has an underlying story that could be perceived as mad," the artist says. Internal Correspondence was inspired by a Caravaggio painting.

paint tubes, paint and brushes on a white table

"I start working with the intuitive nature," Bodett says. "I navigate the idea of not trying to make art, but to be in a state where the things that I do become art."

Two historically inspired oil paintings leaning against a wall

Help (left) and Haldol are inspired by the Western canon.

“In our contemporary discourse, disabilities can be too tied to ‘How do we fix this?’ rather than ‘How can we channel this experience into something meaningful?’ ” says Bodett, who works as a disability advocate. “For me, the most powerful way to manage my symptoms is to embrace the madness and create artwork around it.”

With painting being a major focus of his practice, Bodett often embarks on oil works using an image culled from reference photos of the Western canon—Napoleon, Hercules, St. Francis or Jesus, for example—by such painters as Rubens, Caravaggio, Gérard and Michelangelo. “As a culture, we share a rich visual vocabulary of the ‘masterworks,’ ” the artist notes. “But when we look beyond the traditional narrative—in history, religion, mythology—well, often that person seems crazy!” Among Bodett’s female subjects are Eve, a passel of saints and Botticelli’s Three Graces. “Throughout history, women have been viewed as either subservient ciphers or magical creatures. If they dared to take on a more assertive role, they were deemed ‘hysterics’—think Joan of Arc,” he adds. 

After capturing the essence of a person or scene on canvas, Bodett switches gears. Working intuitively, “in that mad place where language and the physical experience of the world is slippery,” Bodett describes, the artist disrupts his compositions with scribbles, scraps of poetry, over-washing and spots of color. His goal, after all, is not to replicate old masters but to illuminate the processes of a mentally disordered mind and engage the viewer on a visceral level. “The experience isn’t about the preciousness of the art commodity but rather about sparking a response in the moment,” he explains.

Bodett, whose works will be exhibited at Artruss this fall, is like a visual DJ—sampling images and layering elements to create works that thrum with emotional resonance. His paintings defy easy interpretation while daring you to look away.