Absence and Presence in
the Works of Matt Kleberg

By Meaghan Ritchey, Guest Curator


“The threshold is a place of expectation.” —JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE

Just up the dusty road from the Cody Center stands Roger Feldman’s sculpture Threshold. Constructed for Laity Lodge out of local limestone, Threshold’s repeated geometric forms—wide circles complemented by narrow arches—somehow expand the perceptions of those who are inside. Closed off and yet opened up, the structure has an effect on your body. In the stillness and quiet, questions begin to arise. You are becoming reacquainted with your inner life.

Matt Kleberg’s architectonic works—portals, entryways, domes, grottos, and curtained alcoves—are meant to create similarly dynamic spaces, where questions abound and answers hide. Such is the case with the works included in his Cody Center exhibit A Slog and a Joy.

Kleberg revels in painting ambiguous spaces where multiple perspectives are free to run wild, in and out of shallow recesses and thinly veiled frames:

“I’m after a structured, solid sense of unknowing, a concrete expression of mystery and paradox. I stumble around searching for just the right color juxtaposition, just the right form, waiting to be surprised,” he remarked in Creative Voyage, a quarterly art journal.

“To be empty of things is to be full of God.” —MEISTER ECKHART

Emptiness holds profound meaning in visual art. The negative space of a work—or the deliberate omission of a subject within that space—is as essential as the positive space. Theologically this is the realm of the apophatic—asserting what “isn’t” in order to gesture towards what “is.” The vacant spaces in Kleberg’s paintings similarly prompt us to ask: What is this space? Who is it for? For what purpose? And why is it vacant?

Though Kleberg’s spaces are very evidently hollowed out, they are bounded by bright beams of color. Wavelike shapes and striations of oil pigment create a reverberating effect—a kind of joyful, pulsing enthusiasm to counterbalance the emptiness of the ground plane.

It’s rare for large works to be so formally pleasing—to retain such static symmetry and precision, while also being so gritty, humane, and gestured. For Kleberg, a painting’s surface texture is as important as its formal qualities of line, shape, and composition. Pink is never just pink; ten layers of underpaint could have been built up to create a final shade of green.


“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, all in one.”

Kleberg’s painting practice is bolstered by his prolific drawing practice, and he usually makes over a dozen drawings to work out variations on a theme before a painting results. Color tests, splotches of pigment, and ink-pen sketches of remembered storefronts fill the walls of his downtown San Antonio studio. Here in the Cody Center, he has pinned several hundred notebook pages to the wall forming a dense amalgamation of renderings that are meant to be read comprehensively as one immersive piece.

It is in these sketches that we get an intimate sense for how this artist sees. And we can’t help but feel the rigorous practice he has undertaken to achieve this vision. Simply put, Kleberg is always looking, always drawing.

“Abstraction requires contemplation,” writes Rina Arya, suggesting that works like these create space for prolonged observation and speculation. And contemplation asks for something more from a viewer who might be used to reading a work of art for content—eyes scanning the canvas for familiar objects and symbols. For one thing, contemplation takes time.

Thankfully, the pace of the Lodge allows us to slow down … to look … and then to look again. And again. This deliberate act of slow looking is not about finally finding the thing that a curator (or even the artist) suggests you ought to see. Rather, it is about the relationship you develop with the work of art through your own intuitive perceptions.

Try something: Stand back and take a look at Big Brazos. What do you notice about the layered tones of color? How about the long horizontal lines that stretch for twenty-five feet across the space? Now take a seat. How does it feel to be enfolded in the piece? Does the archway feel familiar and welcoming to you? Maybe not? Notice what you are noticing. Notice what you are feeling.

And if nothing is coming to you, keep “stumbling around searching” as Kleberg says he does, “waiting to be surprised.”

Matt Kleberg was born in 1985 in Kingsville, Texas. He received his BA from the University of Virginia in 2008 and an MFA from Pratt Institute in 2015. He is represented by the Brussels gallery, Sorry We’re Closed, and Texas-based galleries, Pazda Butler and Barry Whistler. Kleberg has been exhibited across the world from New York to Amsterdam, and he has been featured in the likes of the New York Times, Vice, ArtDaily, and Hyperallergic. His work can be found in public and private collections including the Williams College Museum of Art, the Addison Gallery of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and the National Gallery of Art. Kleberg recently returned to Texas, and now resides and works in San Antonio.

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