The Quality, not the Quantity
“Because for me, it is really about the quality, not the quantity. This may seem like an antiquated philosophy, but in an age of immediate gratification and disposable culture, it gives me real satisfaction to work as long as I do on each piece. The map work is not about the novelty of the idea. With each piece, I honestly attempt to create something that will hold up next to a Velasquez or a Vermeer.”
Matthew, I am extremely drawn to your piece “Bonnie.” What meaning does this piece have for you and what is the story behind it?
Funny you should ask, because before I even met my wife, I had been making work that had deep connections to Texas, “Bonnie” being a perfect example. It is a post mortem portrait of Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde). It is based on a photograph taken within an hour or two of her being gunned down. It is a gruesome photo, but underneath all the bullet holes and blood, there is an expression of real blissfulness. I had to work and rework the piece for a couple of years until it finally came together. I may return to this image for another piece. I still think about it all the time and now I actually live in the exact neighborhood where both Bonnie and Clyde grew up and are buried.
“Birds of Fire” is a video project I put together while I was a resident at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha. It is one of an ongoing series of video montages in which I appropriate and manipulate car chase scenes from Hollywood movies. In this montage, I have distilled the car chase scene to its explosive climax. The explosions are projected at different intervals onto one of the ten central planes of a decagon. The additive layering of light from the overlapping projections will at times coalesce into both the pentagram and its inversion. The soundtrack is a digitally processed combination of a twelve-second sound bite from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and various recorded sounds of solar eruptions and galactic radio and plasma wave emissions. The geometric organization of these visual and aural materials within the matrix of a pentagram is an allusion to the Pythagorean belief in metapsychosis—the transmigration of the soul through reincarnation, an event thought to take place at both the beginning and end of life. But at its core, Birds of Fire is an exploration of the field of ambiguity generated by a collision of opposing forces, in this case, the trance-like contemplation that can accompany the repetition of destructive imagery.
Where did the idea for your ‘Defacement’ work come from? How do you choose which pages of old textbooks you use along with what words you choose from each page?
In the process of collecting maps to use in my work, I have acquired a bunch of old geography textbooks. They got me thinking about how as a kid I would often get in trouble at school for marking up textbooks with offensive commentary. In a smart-ass, troubled 5th grader kind of way, I think I was critically questioning what was being taught. So, with these rediscovered old textbooks, I decided to have a go at it again, only this time I found a way of dealing with the questionable content by scraping and sanding away everything on the page but a few words and a single image. It is a process of redaction, not to conceal, but to prevent the promulgation of a stagnant didacticism. My goal is to complete an entire textbook. This is why I also leave the page numbers intact, so that once it is finished, I can have them rebound. The pages I have completed are the only ones that have worked out so far. A lot of times the page will tear or the remaining words aren’t potent enough. The words are chosen through a combination of process and poetry. I try to stay true to the voice of that smart-ass 5th grader, only with a little more hindsight to his advantage.
Your piece ‘Back in Black’ is striking and beautiful. From where did you draw your inspiration for the dark biblical imagery and constellations?
This piece was made shortly after my daughter was born, when the miracle of life had inspired me to contemplate the heavens and my own religious beliefs. Having been raised a Catholic, my understanding of God was completely entrenched in biblical imagery. Yet as an adult, I had become agnostic in my beliefs. ‘Back in Black’ was an attempt to reconcile these differences.
When I first came across your work , I had never seen anything like it. I was fascinated by the way you use maps as your ‘brush’. How did you first start to develop this technique and how difficult is it for you as an artist to find the right maps for your work?
About nine years ago, frustrated with paint and brushes, I just started experimenting with some maps I had laying around the studio. I found that maps have all the properties of a brushstroke: nuance, density, line, movement, and color. Their palette is deliberate and symbolic, acting as a cognitive mechanism to help us internalize the external. And furthermore, since each map fragment is an index of a specific place and time, I could combine fragments from different maps and construct geographical timelines within my paintings. The maps also enabled me to achieve both a cut, hard-edge and a more nuanced, almost impressionistic one.
At first it was very difficult to find the right maps. I was using only maps that had been donated by family and friends. It wasn’t long before I realized that to do this properly, I would need to find other sources. At this point I’ve amassed quite an inventory of all kinds of maps. The funny thing is, all in all I think I have spent less than I would have buying quality paint and brushes.
The detail on your work is astounding … I don’t want to make any assumptions but you must have a lot of patience … Do you find that creating art this way requires a lot of time & patience?
You have no idea. I try and pace myself so that I can occasionally enjoy the fruits of my labor, but basically I work all the time and still only produce very few map works. Because for me, it is really about the quality, not the quantity. This may seem like an antiquated philosophy, but in an age of immediate gratification and disposable culture, it gives me real satisfaction to work as long as I do on each piece. The map work is not about the novelty of the idea. With each piece, I honestly attempt to create something that will hold up next to a Velasquez or a Vermeer.
What, if any fascinations, do you have with Geography, Topography and Cartography and how do those fascinations translate into your art?
I have more of a fascination with history and cultural narratives. I enjoy looking at maps as much as the next person, but I end up retaining the colors, shapes, and patterns rather than the spatial relationships of different locations and phenomena. Like many of the sciences, I am inspired by Cartography, but I don’t think of myself as a participant. I’m a visual artist and the purpose of my endeavors is intangible. Geography, Topography, Cartography—these fields provide us with tools and information to obtain very concrete results. Maybe that is why I am drawn towards these materials, because of their utilitarian nature.
What other mediums do you use in your art besides maps?
Bibles, old textbooks and encyclopedias, engravings, sumi ink, walnut ink, coffee, acrylic.
I read that you were born in NYC, a haven & Mecca for many artists over the years … Why did you leave for Dallas?
I am lucky to have grown up in New York City and it will always be my home. It is an amazing place. But I was ready for a change. Dallas is where my wife’s family lives, so it was easy settling down here. I’ve really grown fond of Texas. Most New Yorkers think everyone out here is super conservative , but they are very wrong. There is just so much going on here, in music, art, architecture, literature, grassroots living. I don’t think we will stay here forever, but for now it is working out great.
In your piece “Ether,” where do you find the text that you use for your work and is there any order to the disorder in the meaning of the text?
Ether is constructed from two books—a mosaic of pages from an old Western Civilization textbook forms the ground, and a dense cloud of parachute-like forms cut from the pages of a Catholic school bible create the foreground. The piece is meant to create a dense field of information being drawn from these two conflicting sources. I conceived of it as an epic battle being fought to occupy the Ether. It is one of my favorite pieces. It explains everything without having to explain anything.
Is there any one specific cartographer’s work or map over the centuries that you really regard?
I would love to get my hands on the only existing copy of Waldseemüller’s “Universalis Cosmographia”, but I’d be just as happy with any edition of Abraham Ortelius’s “Theatrum Orbis Terrarum”.