Matt Sesow’s painting “A Choice” (2016) is a total immersion into his creative world. It’s a large-scale painting dominated by hot hues—a bright red, an electric blue, a simmering yellow—depicting a young man in a bed with a woman standing over him. His right arm glows with a healthy pinkish shine; his left arm is a smudge of dull blue. Surrounding them are small, devilish bunny figures. All—the male and female figure and the bunny creatures—have similar mouths, which Sesow renders as a pair of straight-line lips sandwiching chunky white teeth. Such a mouth at rest would look expressionless on a face in real life, but as rendered in Sesow’s rough-hewn brushwork it bounces among a range of emotions, from death rictus to ecstatic smile, from pained grimace to mourning scowl.
In the upper left-hand corner is a block of text, which reads, “you have a choice: either lay here in pain and die, or you fight, get up and live an interesting life.” The painting is one of more than 150 works included in Matt Sesow: Shock and Awe, on view at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md., through June 4, 2017. And its imagery springs from a distinct memory Sesow had when he was an 8-year-old kid in Nebraska in the mid 1970s. He lived near a rural airfield, which provided a nice, flat space for kids to play the game: spud, which involves a ball and everybody getting a number. You throw the ball in the air and call out a number and whoever has that number is supposed to catch it.
“I thought to myself, ‘What happens if I call my own number when I threw the ball up in the air?'” Sesow recalls during an interview at his studio, located in Washington, D.C’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. He tossed the ball in the air, called his own number, and ran down the field just as a plane was landing. “I didn’t hear it and everybody was screaming at me. It landed, the propeller cut the arm off and drug me down the runway a bit.
“I woke up in the hospital and that was the next thing I remember,” he continues, holding up a copy of “A Choice” that appears on the postcard announcement for his AVAM show. Doctors were able to reattach his arm, which had been removed near the shoulder, but his hand wasn’t getting enough blood and was amputated just below the elbow. At some point in this process Sesow remembers waking up and seeing his gangrenous hand.
Today, the 49-year-old Sesow is more than 20 years into an accidental career as a self-taught artist, living completely off his artwork since 2001. He took up computer programming as a teen, studied computer science in college, and moved to the D.C. area in 1989 to work for IBM. He started painting in 1994 while living in a group house that included some recent art school graduates. They would often sit around a table together and work, and one night he joined them. At first he copied print ads for bands he came across in the local alternative weekly, reproducing designs and layouts in his own style and with whatever colors were at hand.
He quickly realized he was enjoying it. Sesow got into listening to and going to see punk bands as a teen in Nebraska as well, and he says some of his earliest original paintings reflected his interest in music and politics, an animating presence in D.C. punk. “Then, I started painting about myself, about my accident that happened when I was eight,” he says, adding that his work began exploring disability and trauma. “I’d paint myself in various states of anger or frustration. I painted a lot about that stuff because I had never really—I mean, I talked about it, of course, but I hadn’t really thought about it. The art gave me a way to put more emotion behind how I really felt.”
Just as Jean-Michel Basquiat’s vocabulary delivers a defiant rejoinder to modernist artists’ appropriation of African artwork imagery, Sesow’s complex depictions of physical and psychological trauma read like visceral antipodes to heady artists who map philosophical and existential horror onto the body such as Francis Bacon and Barnaby Furnas. In July 2003, Sesow and his wife, painter Dana Ellyn, initiated their 31 Days of July project as the Iraq War started. Every day of July, from 2003-2013, each made a single painting informed by daily news stories. “Fallen Soldiers,” one of Sesow’s paintings inspired by the first 100 casualties of the war that is included in Shock and Awe, depicts four fallen U.S. service personnel. The reference photos for the portraits were probably the affectless, tightly cropped headshots that appear in media, but when filtered through Sesow’s bright color palette and aggressive figuration, they become deeply moving reservoirs of anger and pain. These are the faces of the dead coming from a man who remembers being a kid who had his arm hacked off by an airplane. The emotional power in Sesow’s work isn’t metaphorical or abstract; it’s an ineffable rip in consciousness shaped by lived experience.
All four fallen soldiers have the same inscrutable mouth that appears in “A Choice.” A cursory scroll through the mammoth body of his work archived at his artists website reveals that Sesow has created an assortment of recurring motifs that run through his work, from the bunny figure (a self-portrait icon), a line crossed by a series of hash marks that resembles stitches (what he calls the trauma scar), airplanes, raised fists, and his mouths, where lips are often painted in a bold red he says is inspired by Soviet-era propaganda photos.
Sesow’s mouths are potent leitmotifs, and he says his approach to painting them might be his interpretation of an Abstract-Expressionist master. “When I first started painting I would go down to the National Gallery of Art and just sit in front of a painting and try to deconstruct it as a programmer would, into separate parts,” Sesow says. “I think I picked [the mouth] up from Willem de Kooning, his ‘Woman’ series. I think that’s kind of a take on that.”
His mouths appear to have more teeth, flesh, and chaos than de Kooning’s, and Sesow self-deprecatingly explains that early on his attempts at human form were “a mess and a disaster because I didn’t really quite know how to do great representations of things, and I still don’t.” But his impassioned and purposely non-naturalistic approach is one of the most distinctive elements that gives his mouths, and his work as a whole, its disturbing jolt. “I think it’s because the way you can’t really tell if it’s screaming, or laughing, or happy, or sad,” Sesow says of his mouth forms.
That constantly vacillating range of responses is precisely what makes Sesow’s work so indelible. Spend time with any of his works and the brain races through every emotion the psyche musters, never settling on a single one. Sesow’s work is like a memory library of life’s overpowering tumults, those moments that leave physical and mental scars that shape our lives. For Sesow, his painting “A Choice” captures the memory of being “that 8-year old kid, in the hospital bed, on morphine, with my gangrene hand, and this woman coming and telling me that I have that choice of whether to die and leave the world and have a nice, happy eternity in heaven or wherever, or I could live and have an interesting life,” he says. “Of course I chose the interesting life.”