Matthew Rose is an American artist who lives in Paris. I saw his work online www.matthewrosestudio.net and found it fun and poignant. I wanted to find out what inspires his collages and why he left America for Paris, France. Here’s our cool chat.
MICHAEL: Bonjour Matthew! Okay, I see you sitting in your home with a pair of scissors in your hand and you're surrounded by stacks of magazines, newspapers and old documents. Take me back. How did this all begin?
MATTHEW: It starts in the early 1960s, undoubtedly, as I sat outside on a pile of bricks in Brooklyn watching my Grandpa Abe build a Sunoco station. He was a bricklayer and a wonderful man. Easily one of my earliest memories, I clearly see him mixing his cement/mortar in a wheel barrow with his trowel and pasting layers of the stuff on a fresh line of red bricks, then placing bricks atop the frosting. He was something of a magician. Another time, we were sitting at his kitchen table on Pine Street and he was eating an orange. He gave me a slice and I ate it, but spit out the pits onto a napkin. I didn't see him spit out the pits so I asked him: "What about the pits? You didn't eat the pits did you?" He said he did and that soon an orange tree would be growing in his belly. I suppose that was my first experience with Surrealism.
MICHAEL: Hmm. Is this where I say an artist was born?
MATTHEW: I was drugged on color – the orange, of course, lemons, blue skies, snow, red bricks and the textures and the multiple and potential meanings that poured out of the world into my lap. Magazines, black and white television, talk radio and the way all these things piled up, accumulated. There was the abundance of nature (piles of cut grass, raked leaves, fresh dirt and rocks) and the rapid growth of refuse, garbage, trash and pop culture detritus stacked up way above my head. It was a joy to be a kid in the early 60s. And I was very fortunate to have a father involved in advertising. My father (along with his brother, my Uncle Herbie, until 1964), ran a display company producing window trimmings and backgrounds for retail stores; the core business was silkscreen printing. I would spend my Saturdays there slamming nails into wood, or painting or watching the guys print stuff. Later on, I worked in the art department and then worked in the silkscreen department. So I was necessarily introduced into the world of mechanical reproduction – Walter Benjamin and all that stuff. I then went off to Brown University where my literary interests were indulged and then mixed with the prospect of free canvas, cheap paint and a space to play things out. I've never stopped.
MICHAEL: What did you do after college?
MATTHEW: After college, I began the twin careers of writing about art and making art. In the process, I met people who have since added a good deal to my "theories." Ray Johnson, James Rosenquist, Richard Serra, Yoshimoto Nara, David Wojnarowicz, John Himmelfarb and a dozen others; I've written about them and have had the opportunity to correspond with many of them. And because of these artists and others, I've never looked at a brick in the same way. My work uses those textures (and the ones from the 30s, 40s, 50s, etc) to reconfigure a consciousness that is contemporary. I think of it as my theory of everything in that there is very little I won't touch and try to co-opt into my canon. I find that cutting and gluing to be the most efficient, and fastest way to think out loud. Now I'm creating my own wall papers and looking to do what my father did; fill storefront windows.
MICHAEL: It looks like you create collages from clippings from everywhere. Do you leave them as collages or photograph them to make large posters? It seems like both approaches would work well.
MATTHEW: The source material appears in the form of found magazines, books, discarded papers (yes, I've rooted through dumpsters to pull out 50- year-old shreds of wall paper from plaster blocks) and objects. They come to my studio and I discuss the world with them and sometimes they don't like my version, so they disappear into the trash; the others are okay with my dadaistic dictatorship and accede to becoming part of something unusual, strange and far more meaningful than incineration or a landfill. I rarely photograph the works as works (only for prints are the collage works scanned); they are documented, however. My work is very raw in this sense, and a kind of realism, if you will, in that they bear witness to the world (however altered) in their non-digitized presence on paper, board, canvas or whatever.
MICHAEL: Making collages seems a lot like piecing together a puzzle.
MATTHEW: The process is something like the clean up after a tsunami. I go through all my old books and magazines and scraps of paper and objects and study them the way perhaps an archaeologist on LSD might study Etruscan shards or Roman ruins. I'm putting them back together in order to generate the conversation or narrative (with or without words) in order to hear it and see it. I've always said I make these things in order to see what they look like. That, to me, is the same impulse an architect has or a kid making a sand castle. To see what it looks like. But I'm aware that building up surfaces creates yet many more hidden surfaces out of bits of consciousness (images, words, detritus) that are necessarily hidden. So I'm not shy about scraping them away again with steel wool or sandpaper or hot water or even sometimes a rifle. I shot a number of my wax box works some years ago. It was very revealing. As for the paper, sometimes the paper is fine art paper, at other times it’s found like the source material. I've found much to my joy, abandoned canvases in Paris, Berlin, London and New York. I rescue them, save the bits of the existing work I like, and rework it. It's like collaborating with the world.
MICHAEL: Wow. What have collages taught you about art and life?
MATTHEW: Well that's the easy lesson from Ray Johnson's school, The New York Correspondence School. Ray used to invite people to his "Nothings." He'd send out a letter to different people and tell them that there was such and such "Nothing" (as opposed to a "Happening") at this church or this park. He'd watch people come in or wander around. Sometimes he'd make an appearance, sometimes not. He told me on the phone that these people moving around, chatting with each other or not, then leaving, the church or park emptied at the end, was a collage. Mysterious. He was also sending me the word "nothing" backwards. Then, because I was moving to France, he sent the word "rien" (nothing in French) backwards. I would photocopy them and put them up on the telephone poles in my town. So, what was your question?
MICHAEL: But surely the accumulation of material and not only the re-purposing of it, but transforming it into art is a metaphor for something?
MATTHEW: Do you mean making art (whatever that is) is a metaphor for something? Or gathering the materials for making art? Or thinking about making art? What about not making art if you’re an artist? Or if you’re a musician not playing music or an architect not building? A stock trader not trading? There, however, is an inherent value in "holding" or "not buying." Transforming nothing into something is something of course, but because it's a metaphor (let's say it's a reflection of life and death), doesn't mean it's especially important. I sometimes kid people and tell them that this is my most important contribution to contemporary art. It's my Principia Mathematica. And I hand them a blank sheet of paper. "Here, have it, it's yours."
MICHAEL: How did you end up in Paris? How is your work received there?
MATTHEW: I was living just outside of New York, in Port Washington, Long Island, making art, writing and going nowhere. I had a real interest in languages; Spanish, French, German and wanted to plunge into that. I thought I could do the same thing in Europe. There were perhaps a dozen people I knew, French and American, living in Paris, so I just did the paperwork, lined up some writing gigs, packed my things and moved. That was September, 1992. November of that year, Bill Clinton was elected President. For a decade or so, it was sunny day weather every day. It was then I began to make art every day and put it out there. Where I lived in Ivry-Sur-Seine, I showed work every year. In 1993, I did an exhibition in a large, cold cement loft called Bouteilles Chiffrés (coded bottles) during the annual Ivry-wide portes ouvertes (open doors). I showed ensembles of wine bottles with numbers and words on them. An artist friend of mine who did rather traditional works (I called them paintings from the 19th century) said to me: "You are making work about le vide – the void." I didn't fully agree, but there was a touch of that. No one bought anything except for one or two works, white painted bottles in a box marked "au choix" (your choice), for 10 francs. One little girl bought one. She must have been 6 years old.
MICHAEL: How are things now?
MATTHEW: For the past 20 years or so, interest has grown and I began to work larger and more freely. The French by and large recognize what I'm doing but oddly, it's Americans and British and Germans and Belgians who take an active interest. The French are famously late to the party. My work has been published in British, German and American books. Funny, I've lived in Paris for some 20 years and the galleries here think I'm a tourist. Maybe when I'm dead they'll put a plaque on the building. Maybe I should do it now. Glue it to the building.
MICHAEL: The art world seems to be in a curious place right now. Blue chip and high end art is doing great as super-wealthy collectors snap up
modern masters yet emerging artists continue to suffer in this worldwide economic slump. What do you think?
MATTHEW: Selling art today is not that far from selling rarefied versions of Coca-Cola; something unique, yet popular, recognizable but distinctly strange, and therefore valuable. Art collectors have more gems now than ever before and there are more of them. Art collecting is more than fashion. It’s the willful concentration of aesthetic capital in a world that hyperventilates over the stuff. Big money galleries suck up all the oxygen in the art world tent and become the cartoon heroes in this strange (and unregulated) commercial/aesthetic trip called the art market. The question people have always had about contemporary art (whether they have money and taste or not) is whether the world is actually "good." It's very, very hard to know. So you have dealers selling the work as "genius" or "important" or "critical" works, much like you would have folks buying diamonds from Harry Winston. They are packaged as valuable and a good investment. And they probably are – not to diminish their aesthetic value. The really fine art works on the planet are indeed rare. Regarding the economic slump, it’s probably true that if there were more money floating around in the hands of the world's middle classes, more artists would be able to sell more work and buy more supplies. Yes, it’s been a hard day's night. And so, why do prices for some artists fall after a big high? A decade or two of reflection grinds out (or grinds down) the genius and tests the aesthetic theories or the talent of an artist. Or maybe the artist dies, always a good career move. Or dies too young, the best career move. Or some curator discovers the dead, young unknown artist and fills a museum with his or her stuff, the world loves this kind of Van Gogh story. Part of the story, however, will always be about money, politics and sex. The other part will be about talent. The biggest part of the story will be making a scene, getting seen and having someone with gravitas; a dealer, collector, big name artist or curator, give you the artist, the “Good Housekeeping Investment Bank Seal of Approval”. In the meantime, it will be a long slog in a long night of long slogs.
MICHAEL: Life is always a struggle for emerging artists.
MATTHEW: Yet, there is still the artist and the work he or she produces. Whether it is a work of genius produced out of what the world has made and reflecting the world back at itself in real time like Christian Marclay's The Clock, or some real world composition of found-in-the-street blue and white papers, rinsed, sanded and glued to a canvas by a guy like me. Not all blue chip art started out that way. Bill Traylor was drawing his dime art works on discarded boards in Alabama, Pollock traded a drip canvas for a case of beer, Ray Johnson mailed his work to people he met by chance. Emerging artists are so-called because the market hasn't fully recognized them, but their art might be fully developed. Some collectors and dealers are indeed pioneers. Think of Gertrude Stein or Leo Castelli, or Julien Levy. They did take a chance on Johns (Castelli) and Cornell (Levy). But they also managed their well connected network to scramble to collect these works as well and Castelli probably took the editors at Art in America and other magazines out to lunch, or dinner, more than once. Why do you think they call it the “Art World”?
MICHAEL: Sure. Networking still matters today.
MATTHEW: The Occupy Wall Streeters had a splinter group recently stand in front of the doors at MOMA in New York City. They were "protesting" the high ticket prices, the manipulation of art and by extension, art prices that essentially isolate the 99% of the folks protesting. What they fail to recognize as artists is that whining and bitching isn't going to get them into MOMA. Making art will. Maybe. But it is also true that in Texas they sometimes execute innocent people, right? I'm working here at home, waiting for them to come and get me.
MICHAEL: As you know Matthew, many Americans have a romantic view of Paris. What gave you the courage to just pick and go there? What is Paris really like? Did you know French when you arrived?
MATTHEW: I remember my first morning waking up in France. I'd rented a space from the French artist Orlan in Ivry/Seine, a suburb of Paris. I was in a tiny space and my stuff was all over the place in boxes. The "room" was the top part of a loft with the roof slanted and the space giving onto the main living area. I could hear people talking and smell food cooking. I asked myself: What the fuck did I just do? I felt at that moment I'd thrown away a perfectly good life in New York. Change has its price. Over time I adjusted, changed spaces, expanded, began working, making art and finding my rhythm. I have no idea what I'd be if I'd stayed in New York. It wasn't romance as much as a chance to challenge myself, remake my linguistic coordinates and my aesthetic sensibility. A few long walks seduced me, really. And since the end of that first week, every day, I can honestly say, is quite different. Now, years on, it feels like 15 minutes ago when I arrived that day in September 1992. I'm cursed with a severely fine memory. I had a pretty good grasp of written French and obviously knew what I was saying when I spoke it, but it took a good six months before I figured out what other people were saying. My accent, I'm told, is "charmant." I don't really care. Language for me is like paint; plastic, colorful, sticks to surfaces, can be scraped away. But yes, now I can scream and curse at errant and criminal taxi drivers. And gain respect for it too.
MICHAEL: And what’s Paris like?
MATTHEW: Paris has changed, of course, like anywhere else. Gone are those 1960s cafés with their orange plastic chairs and cheap beers and 80 centime coffees. Now the chairs are high-end Chinese imitation 60s style masterpieces and the coffees are 2.40 euros. Starbucks is everywhere, replacing the old time holes in the wall kebab places. But I have to say, it's still a beautiful place. Last Sunday, I took a two-hour walk with art dealer Fred Dorfman and his wife along the Seine (they closed the roadway) from the Louvre to the Bastille. It was a spectacular day, a day meant for seeing blue skies, 17th, 18th and 19th century architecture and the Seine with all its attendant activities; old men fishing, kids roller skating, bums sunning themselves and others watering themselves with cans of beer. We ate roasted chestnuts out of a cone of newspaper, purchased from a street seller who cooked the nuts in a shopping cart and oil can. We stepped off the quai and headed over to the Maison Rouge, a private museum that exhibits only private collections. This collection was spectacular – the German Olbricht – in a show called Mémoires du Futur. Afterwards, we had a cool beer ourselves at a café, our faces pointed towards the sun. It couldn't have been a richer day. That's the kind of Paris that keeps people coming back. And all the while, the giant art fairs at Le Grand Palais and the Slick and whatever else are here and had people moving through the day like culture warriors. Paris, like New York, helps you enjoy just being. Jerusalem and Venice have this effect on me as well. Stand in a place and understand your molecules an eyelash better.
MICHAEL: Finally Matthew, What are your future plans for your work and yourself? Will you ever return to America?
MATTHEW: My plans are to work larger soon. I'd like to do billboard-sized works, or at least Métro-sized works, even on canvas.
MATTHEW: While I appreciate your interest in books and my works are almost pages out of a book as many are created in books or at least series, scale has to be around the corner for me. It's not so much that collectors want large works (they do), but the challenge I've denied myself is getting a little long in the face. Some years ago, I worked in a giant studio in Ivry/Seine (across the garden from where I first landed). There, I produced fairly sizable collage works, or built works up from smaller units and assembled them on the walls. It was really something to stand back 20 feet and look them over. It's a very different visual vocabulary. It demands different things. Composing large-scale demands that you produce film; the way I'm working now, it's television. Which isn't bad, it's just different. I'm also starting to simply paint and examine that in a way I've always wanted to. It's a bit like what Robert Motherwell once told my painting class at Brown: "I take a piece of blue..." That intrigues me. So I've stocked up on canvases and I'm on the prowl for pieces of blue. Return to the United States of Love? Probably. I have a small dream of owning a two-story brick building on some leafy but slightly run-down main street somewhere, perhaps in the Hudson Valley. A storefront where I can work on a large table down stairs and take a nap upstairs and when the day is done take a walk, have a beer and stand on some bridge and watch the trains go by. That could work.
MICHAEL: I LOVE the Hudson River Valley. That could work for me as well. Thanks Matthew. This was fun.
Check out Matthew Rose’s work at www.matthewrosestudio.net