Mathieu Laca is one of those artists who make you wonder. You look at his work and ask, “What on earth is this guy thinking?” He’s definitely a bold and daring artist who follows his own, perhaps controversial vision. It’s what art is all about. Given that, I decided I had to contact him. www.mathieulaca.com What I found is a super-intelligent and very insightful guy who cuts to the chase. Read on and see for yourself.
MICHAEL: Hello Mathieu, How are things in Montreal? I have to say that your work is wild! To me, your paintings are giant murals of crazy dreams one might have at night ... dreams that make you wake up and wonder, “What was that?” You’re quite a visionary.
MATHIEU: Hello Michael! Things are great in Montreal! I’m very busy right now. You are totally right with your question about dreams and their unexplainable language. I believe that dreams inform us and spare us at the same time. They’re tricky! They speak of inner truths that for some reason we can’t face directly. So they veil themselves, they wear masks, allowing us to tame them, to live with them without feeling threatened. This is why a lot of works, based solely on imagination, I find, bear more reality than works only mimicking the surface of things around us.
The unexplainable often creates strong esthetic emotions. This is why I make such a use of it in my works. With so much going on the canvas, I’m often asked about the narratives of my paintings. Is there a predetermined story line? What’s the message?
MICHAEL: Yes, what is the message?
MATHIEU: It’s embarrassing to say in words what I have strived for years to say with images! It’s a bit as if I was disarming my own artistic grenade! Well, that’s how I feel. The easy answer would be: Look, it’s all in the work! But very few people are satisfied with that. A work of art must almost build a kind of cocoon made of words in order to be more digestible. That’s where you come in!
MICHAEL: Yeah, but my words are only MY interpretation. Your thoughts are what matter most to me.
MATHIEU: When I start to think about a painting, I always have a very strong feeling about it. The problem is that usually the idea is also very vague. What I do when I sketch is that I dissipate the smoke, I cut the surplus, I add to the dynamics of the composition, etc. To be perfectly clear, I discover the work as I go along. To be an artist, one has to be very curious I believe. I always want to see where it’s leading me! Can’t wait, that’s why I do it over and over again. So there’s really no predetermined story. Sometimes the result is a shock. It has nothing to do with the initial jumping-off point. But something unexplainable endures … this irrepressible feeling, this desire that reveals itself, but isn’t given away.
MICHAEL: Your work seems to be fearless in that you're clearly not afraid of what to put on canvas. I think that if we can work past this fear of judgment, we can really get to the core of creativity, if not genius. My guess is that it would be so easy for you to paint nature landscapes (not that there's anything wrong with that), but you're actually doing what seems "natural" to you?
MATHIEU: You’re right. I’m not afraid of anything. I’m not afraid to paint fully erect male bodies. I’m not afraid to paint masturbations or ejaculations. All these things appeal to me so I paint them. Moreover, I glorify them by constructing large life-size visual altars for them. I’m also not afraid to show religious symbols in irreverent ways. There are so many things in this world that haven’t been painted before. I don’t want to restrain myself from representing anything. I once heard a prominent painter saying, “I don’t paint nude figures because that’s too commercial.” That shocked me! How can a true artist say, “I will disregard what has made the fortune of the Renaissance, the purest image of mankind… because it’s too commercial”? I came to think that it doesn’t really matter what you paint. You just have to paint interestingly, according to your own vision. But you’re right when you say that the bravado is an intrinsic part of what I do. It’s part of my virgin gaze, uncorrupted by commercial standpoints.
MICHAEL: Clearly your work is not for the faint of heart. What kind of feedback do you get? Do people buy some of your large murals? I don't see them hanging in a bank or hotel lobby.
MATHIEU: I wouldn’t see Guernica hanging in a bank either. That would scare the investors and maybe the bank robbers too! You see, for a painting to be decorative, it has to be toned down a little, muted, in order to blend itself more easily into the environment. My paintings are everything but toned down. They are punchy, bold, one could even say aggressive. I want them to make strong impact, even if that means being repulsive to some people.
MICHAEL: Doesn’t that mean many potential collectors would be frightened away?
MATHIEU: I haven’t sold any of the large ones you’re referring to yet. But the response has been tremendously surprising. My studio is a high-ceiling converted garage next to the house. One day, we had some workers doing a job on the driveway. One of them saw what I was painting passing by the window. He was struck. He asked me if he could come in during his break and until then he seemed totally absent-minded, as if he had been stuck by lightning. When he stepped into the studio, he was delighted. He stood still for a minute before speaking, processing what he was seeing. Then he said as he pointed out, “There is everything in there. Joy, pain, hope and despair … all of human experience. Every epoch is represented.” He smiled at some detail and asked me why I had put it in. Then he went outside and invited his fellow workers “to the museum!” It was an unexpected and wonderful experience. This is why I paint.
MICHAEL: Did he buy the painting?
MATHIEU: This guy can’t afford the painting he saw. But this work made a hell of an impact on him. It exists in his mind almost in a supernatural way. It was a source of visual delight as well as a source of reflection. What strikes people about my paintings are the vivid colors. It draws their attention first. Then it’s the deployment of my imagination, the action that’s represented. And then people relate to specific details, they try to make sense out of it. For example, in front of a painting of mine where there were abstract brush strokes coming out of a furious dog, this guy, a dog trainer, told me that he saw all the bad behaviors expelled from the dog. I smiled.
MICHAEL: Why did you smile? What were you thinking?
MATHIEU: I want to make paintings that reveal to the viewer something unknown about himself. For that reason, I shake him up sometimes. But I tell myself … if an older lady whose part of a church choir can email me from Germany to tell me that my work has touched her, well that gives me great confidence that my art will take its just place in the world. I stay convinced that most people are sensitive and smart when art is presented to them in a true and honest way, without scholarly bullshit.
MICHAEL: You know, there really seems to be two art worlds: the one I read about in art magazines and see at international art fairs and the one I see through artists like you. I feel closer to the truth with actual artists. The other art world, although fun, seems like smoke and mirrors to me.
MATHIEU: I don’t have extensive experience with the art market, but I think it’s very similar to what I experienced at the university doing my degree in fine arts. Everyone there was struggling to get the attention. The competition was ferocious. For example, for the undergraduate show, the jury chose the work of a guy who works in the student coffee shop, the guy who stands forward, comments on every topic, knows everybody and looks nice. His work was chosen among works of equal quality or even a little better. The very shy girl had little chance to be chosen even if her work was great. For one thing, it’s very difficult to agree on what’s great and what’s not. Secondly, it’s harder to reject someone when you know you’ll see him every morning pouring coffee inside your cup!
MICHAEL: Yes, social networking sometimes trumps talent.
MATHIEU: So juries tend to eliminate works that ring no bell. Being unnoticed is fatal. That’s part of the smoke and the mirrors you were pointing out. I think that, on a bigger scale, the same thing goes on in the art world. A lot of energy is spent on making a good impression. One of the tools used in that respect is what I call, “scholarly bullshit.” There are a couple of clichés that always pop up when we talk about contemporary art. For instance, the dichotomy of the public and the private space or the questioning of the consumer society. These ideas are repeated ad nauseam in art schools and supply the basic material for theoretical abstruseness.
MICHAEL: Uh yeah … what does that even mean?
MATHIEU: When I was in school, since I was a French-speaking student in an English-speaking establishment, I just had to drop a couple of quotes by some obscure French philosopher in my artist statement and I automatically had the consideration of the professor and the other students were at my knees. I have stopped a long time ago using those cheap tricks. I know that my calling is more profound than that … more serious!
MICHAEL: You’re cracking me up. You're certainly speaking the truth. As you know, talent isn't the only element of success. I've met quite a few very talented artists who don't seem to have much drive or willingness to work hard. You can see how they probably won't become successful ... at least by conventional standards. I've come to realize that everyone really has to define success for themselves and figure out how to get there. Our choices are really the things that make us different and whether someone becomes a "slouch" or "sell out," is their choice and they have to live with the consequences.
MATHIEU: You’re making me think a lot. I never really thought about success in clear terms. When I began to paint seriously, at the age of 17, I even thought there was something appealing in a tragic Van Gogh-like destiny. Until very recently, I was completely immersed in the search for my voice. I wanted to find something, to discover new venues of expression, to develop a unique language. The rest was of no significance. I even once turned down a major show because the works I was supposed to present didn’t correspond to where I wanted to go next, they were of my “old manner” sort of speak. I didn’t want to have success and be admired for something that didn’t represent me fully.
MICHAEL: Wow, it sounds like you knew yourself very early on.
MATHIEU: I still see art galleries a bit like traps. I see many artists who are represented by galleries and seem to paint the same picture over and over again. They stopped evolving. It’s so boring! It’s as if a work is worthless if it isn’t immediately recognizable by everyone. I feel sometimes that to be part of a gallery, one almost has to become a brand name.
MICHAEL: Totally. That seems to be the rule if you want to be “successful.”
MATHIEU: I truly think that I am successful already. I have a group of fans. I sell paintings occasionally although selling is not a priority. Having my works valued is. You see, I have the ability of not having to worry about my bread and butter. I’m not rich, but I have a wonderful husband who supports me and helps me so I can paint every day. For that reason, I never asked the government for any grants or loans. I know that most artists are much more in need of it than I am and I consider myself privileged. That’s why I try to make good use of what I have and as you said, success is something you have to work on, it doesn’t just happen mysteriously overnight. Having more shows would be great. A great accomplishment for me also would be to have a solo exhibition in another country.
I also know that success often comes with strings attached. It’s not always a pure blessing. And where does ambition end? I know a painter who is very famous here and I see what he does to captivate people. I could do the same, but I won’t. As you said, I want to define success for myself, a success that suits me and in which I’m comfortable. There are things that I won’t sacrifice for it. I prefer to be free and virtually unknown than to be famous for making crap!
MICHAEL: I can point out the works of some very successful artists who've taken their unique style and raised it to the level of a "brand." I must say I love their work, but as you've said, they're not the only artists out there. As we wrap up here, how would you say that Canada and/or Montreal fit into the world contemporary art scene? You know, that part of the world is very quiet and perhaps overlooked from my perspective.
MATHIEU: It’s true that the art from the province of Quebec and its main city Montreal doesn’t travel very far. Because most people here speak French, the language may be a barrier. There isn’t a lot of cultural exchange with the rest of Canada either. Culturally, I think Quebec is a microcosm, a mix between European and American sensitivity. That makes it separate, but that also makes it unique and interesting. The problem is, we are not different enough to be exotic and yet too different not to raise a little suspicion. That’s a shame because we are a nation of creators. What else can we do trapped in snow several months a year? I’m sure that there are more artists per square kilometer on the island of Montreal than anywhere else on the planet. The thing is … we all breathe the same air since the art market is very small here. I think we have a lot to learn from each other. Art is a great way to exchange our views of this world. I hope the art from Quebec and Canada will get more attention from the rest of the planet in the future. There are great talents here that, if you dare to be curious, are sure to rock your world. For example, a show with my works and works by Attila Richard Lukacs and Photograph Evergon … that would surely make some waves! Je suis sûr que beaucoup d’américains avaleraient leur langue!
MICHAEL: What does that mean?
MATHIEU: It means, “I’m sure that a lot of Americans would swallow their tongue!”
MICHAEL: I notice that you use your own image in your work. This isn't unusual. Many artists have done it. Why do you do it? Is it part of the whole personal dream thing?
MATHIEU: There are a few very down-to-earth reasons why I do it. I’m always available, I’m cheaper than a professional model and usually have a good idea of the pose I’m interested in. I also consider my body to be standard-looking so that makes it very versatile. I think that every work of art, in a way, is a self-portrait of its author. So it seems only natural to me to use my own image. When I paint, I also want to discover something about myself. I want to surprise myself and to engage myself in the process. Using my body allows me to become a character in my own personal drama, to reflect upon myself. Painting is very much like keeping a journal. Moreover, I find that to represent myself in a painting is like winking at the viewer. It’s very witty. It’s just like when you see Hitchcock appearing in one of his movies. It’s a signature without writing.
MICHAEL: Well, this has been a very enlightening chat. Thanks Mathieu. Much future success to you.
You can find out more about Mathieu Laca by checking out his website at www.mathieulaca.com