a contemporary take
written by: Erin Clark
The wind was already howling in the early morning of March 9th in Cape Town, South Africa. Some 30, 000 cyclists were getting ready for the Cape Argus Pick ‘n Pay Cycle Tour, a grueling 70 kilometer bike race, which is the country’s largest one day sporting event. Finish line scaffolding had already blown over, crushing three cars, banners were shredded by the 40-mile an hour winds, and an event tent had collapsed sending one woman to the hospital with a broken arm. Kyle Damon, an experienced cyclist, knew what lay ahead. His brother and tandem bike partner did not.
Cycling is a sport that is all about aerodynamics – moving through the air efficiently as possible. Kyle knew the best way to deal with the conditions was to find a big body on a bike and stick to their back wheel – anything to break the wind – but on a bike built for two, that was virtually impossible. “We were getting blown all over the road. The guy in front of us was blown dangerously close to a cliff. I’ve been trying to get my brother to do this stuff for years and now I’m thinking, ‘this sucks. The one time I get him on a bike and it’s awful.’ Our lowest point came as we rode down into this valley by the beach and now it’s a sand storm just pelting us. It was awful, but we finished.” Kyle tells the story like a boxer who, battered and beat up, has still gone the distance. The fact that Kyle was riding with one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, and he himself is an accomplished artist, didn’t matter. That day was about what it’s always been about for the Damon brothers: family first, finishing what you start, and total commitment to the cause. For everything else they figure let the chips fall where they may. Fortunately for Kyle and Matt Damon the chips have fallen pretty well.
They grew up in what Kyle describes as a “hippie commune,” in Boston –a “really urban part of Cambridge.” His parents split when he was young, and his mother hooked up with five other free-spirited teachers to create what would become a six family co-op. The pink aluminum sided house was condemned, and squatters had taken up residence. There would be no forced eviction, however. “We helped people find places to live first, and then we started renovating what was a dump,” says Kyle. “We spent four years, all of our high school years, living in plaster and debris.” The environment was chaotic, creative and supportive, and the politics were unapologetically liberal. They were formative years that shaped both brothers – politically, socially, and in career choice. “The work, the physical work, transferred for me,” explains Kyle. “Matt is very physical and athletic, but he doesn’t like work that is monotonous and repetitious. He likes the conceptual end of things, but when you are putting up a wall it is repetitious. You are putting up stud after stud after stud. I’m a geek that way. I love putting things together. Throughout those years when I was doing art, I was building things, and Matt was taking on characters. Matt was a big Michael Jackson fan. He would go into his room, put on a white glove and spin around. He’d get so pissed if I walked in and caught him.” Kyle smiles as he remembers those days. “We didn’t grow up with anything, but we didn’t know any better. We were happy.”
As products of left leaning Cambridge – Kyle calls it the “lefty” capitol of the world – 2008 was a watershed political year for both Damons. Both were outspoken supporters of Barack Obama. Matt actually got into a bit of trouble for being a little too outspoken. Many will remember his comments on Sarah Palin that became an Internet sensation. Kyle was with his brother in Miami when a top Obama campaign official called. “Matt had used aggressive language. He thought he was advancing the Obama cause in some way, but they said, ‘If you are going to use this type of vocabulary, we’d rather you not associate with this campaign.’ That was amazing,” Kyle says laughing. “No one talks to Matt like that. People need to talk to him like that, but no one does except mom and me. Matt got off the phone even more impressed with Obama.” For his part, Kyle wasn’t that overt with his support. He made a $50 donation, slapped an Obama/Biden bumper sticker on his car and hung a Shepard Fairey poster in his living room, but most of his energy and passion about the election went into his work. The flag series grew out of Kyle’s sense of patriotism, but he’s adamant about not wanting to project his political views onto the pieces. “I have one with the different images of characters from the campaign. It’s pretty even from left and right, and yet people who are ‘lefties’ will say I really like that Obama piece, and Republicans say that’s a great flag piece. People project their own politics onto it, and that’s really cool to see. I think art should do that.”
In manipulating an iconic American symbol, Damon knows he must tread lightly and with respect. “I don’t want to change any of the specifications of the flag,” he says. “I have the right number of stars and stripes, but as soon as you reveal a brush stroke or add anything to it, there is this feeling that this is strange territory. I don’t want to have a shock value from painting up the flag. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about finding my own relationship to it and inviting the viewer to do the same.”
Damon’s process is about striking a balance between the planned and the random. He starts with pieces of wood, assembled in a sculptural way that adds dimensionality. He then adds layers and layers of encaustic wax, shaving it like Parmesan cheese, adding color pigment and then melting it with a heat gun or propane torch. “The melting process is fascinating,” he says. “I have virtually no control and that’s what I like – the dance between having full reign over what’s in front of me, but still allowing for chance. Not everything can be controlled, and I have to accept that.” The adds-ons can be pictures, found objects or even dime store fringe, an idea he got from the military. “The Marines did it first,” he says. “If you really look at the Marines, they are very good with fashion. They are really tricked out – always looking sharp.”
Although the flags are front and center right now, Damon is simultaneously working on another series of paintings where he plays with the idea of scale. “Sometimes I’m preoccupied with the idea of what’s happening on a molecular level. I crawl into that space when I do these kinds of pieces. It’s exciting for me to see that when that imagery unfolds, it resembles a solar system. All of a sudden that scale changes,” he says excitedly. Although two-dimensional now, Damon thinks the next generation will involve more construction. He can’t help himself. He’s just not happy if he’s not “screwing something together.”
While his brother’s meteoric rise in Hollywood has been well-documented, Kyle’s career in art has been more of a slow burn, but no less auspicious. “I was really lucky,” he says. “I got a New York gallery right out of school.” Damon spent two years at University of Massachusetts at Amherst before transferring to Tufts’ Museum of Fine Art. Early on he focused on print making which satisfied his need for “hands-on,” but before long he moved into mixed media, more out of necessity than planned change of direction. “At the time it really was about money. I had no money. I lived in the warehouse district, and there was all this crap in the back alley. I would find old produce palettes, pull them apart, rearrange, and screw them back together and paint on them.”
Everything in his life revolved around art. He met his future wife, Lori, when she inquired about a painting. “It was the only one I had ever sold,” he laughs. “So I got to say ‘sorry that one is sold, but I have others if you want to come by the studio,’ hoping that would impress her.” Two years later when he was ready to pop the question, he did it in a gallery. Kyle was getting ready for a show, so he called Lori to ask for help. She was reluctant. It was snowing heavily and she was getting ready to go cross country skiing through the snow covered city streets – something you can only do until the plows get moving. She knew if she went into the gallery she would lose her opportunity, but Kyle was persistent and she eventually relented. When she arrived, the gallery was empty except for one piece on an easel in the middle of the room. Kyle had done it for her, and the ring was incorporated into it. “Fortunately for me,” he says, “she said yes. I looked over and the gallery owner and workers were all outside peeking in the window. It was great.” Kids came along a few years later, which Kyle says changed him profoundly.
“Before kids Lori and I worked all the time. I was driven, but as soon as we had kids it was this instant transformation. It was noticeable. I could feel the shift happening. I remember lying down, holding Jackson on my chest, and feeling I’m in the right place. I just need to take care of this little dude. It changed the intensity of my work. I still love making art and I’m passionate about, it but all that energy and what it means to contribute to the world was transferred to my kids. Family is everything.”
Damon still lives in Cambridge with his wife and two sons. His studio is attached to the house, so he is always in close proximity. Kyle’s longtime New York gallery closed a few years ago, but one of the players moved to San Francisco and opened space there, taking Kyle with him. “I’ve known Kyle half my life,” says Stephen Tourell of the Toomey Tourell Gallery. “Kyle has an amazing ability with his hands,” Stephen continues. “ His Flag pieces are unique and so well-crafted. They are more sculptural than anything else. And I’m swayed by the genuine patriotism.” Although there is the always the chance that any Flag piece will invite comparisons to Jasper Johns, Stephen says Kyle’s Flags push the idea in a new direction – a contemporary take on Americana.
Matt Damon’s career was launched by the movie “Good Will Hunting” based on a short story he wrote in college. His tremendous success had changed bank account numbers, but it hasn’t changed the core relationships. Family always has been and always will be at the center. The brothers see each other as often as possible. Kyle, Lori and the kids often go “on location” when Matt is filming a movie. That’s what brought Kyle to South Africa and the infamous cycling race. Matt was there filming the Clint Eastwood film “Invictus.” Kyle took advantage of the opportunity and talked his brother into doing the race. With a few Ironman triathlons under his belt and countless cycling races, Kyle thought it would be no big deal. As it turned out, the conditions made it much more challenging than expected, but the brothers, riding tandem, pulled it off. “Matt has done a lot of cool shit but he’s never taken his physical self to this extreme” Kyle says. “It was genuinely hard. It was emotional when we finished. To get that feeling you have to take the risk and put yourself out there. You can’t manufacture the process.” He pauses before adding, “It was epic.” It seems a perfect description for so much more than just a race.