Tony Matelli interview: Human echo (2014)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 11 February 2014
This interview was previously published in Sculpture magazine, 33(1), January/February 2014, pp. 54-61. It also was sold at the counter of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College on the occasion of Matelli’s solo exhibition, which witnessed a controversy generating massive media coverage in 96+ countries. For more information, see our focus on Matelli’s Sleepwalker media coverage.
tony matelli art
Tony Matelli art: F***ed (Couple), (2005). Photo: Ole Hein. Courtesy ARoS.

Tony Matelli interview

Tony Matelli’s imperfect human figures and macabre self-portraits might be described as expressions of hyperrealistic angst. Over the past 15 years, he has reinterpreted the human condition through an interplay of humor and horror, a strategy best demonstrated in Total Torpor, Mad Malaise (2003). In this grotesque parody of a classical reclining figure, a deformed, nude man overcome by boils smiles curiously at us over the remains of his bingeing— a reference to the foot of Tracey Emin’s iconic Bed (1998), with its carpet-strewn garbage and associated questions.

Tony Matelli has exhibited extensively in solo and group exhibitions across Europe and North America, including “Personal Structures,” a collateral event/exhibition at the 2011 Venice Biennale. His most wide-ranging solo exhibition, “Tony Matelli— A HUMAN ECHO,” was shown at ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark in 2012. Matelli grew up in Chicago and Wisconsin and received a BFA in sculpture from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and an MFA in sculpture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He now lives and works in New York.

R.J. Preece: To what extent are your works autobiographical?

Tony Matelli: Less and less. Early on, I was really interested in the possibility of my work operating within a Romantic framework— work that stemmed from my daily experience, that tried to give form to my emotions and feelings. I was thinking of Munch. This was important to me for a few reasons. I wanted to connect with the viewer in an empathic way, since I was disillusioned with what I saw as the largely intellectual work around me, which all seemed academic and dry. I thought that this was hurting art, making it detached and boring. I felt that if I could connect with a viewer’s empathy, then that would empower the work. My first serious work was a self-portrait, a sculpture of an open cardboard box with my name printed on the side. It was a kind of declaration: this is how I want to be— like an open box, empty and ready to receive. Through the years, I’ve inserted my own image into the work a lot, but I have started to move away from that because I think that in some ways it reduced the possibilities of the work. My interests are now in reducing the work’s focus. I am still interested in an empathic connection with the viewer, but I’ve largely removed myself. I want the work to be more expansive, which is to say more abstract.

tony matelli art
Tony Matelli art: Josh, (2010). Courtesy Andréhn-Schiptjenko, Stockholm Leo Koenig Inc., New York.

R.J. Preece: How do you go about choosing your subjects?

Tony Matelli: Slowly. I typically start with a very loose notion, a feeling even. For instance, with Josh, I was thinking about personality, individual character, and how those things can weigh us down— how we can sometimes become imprisoned within the accumulation and inertia of our own character. I was thinking about what it would mean to be free of those things, how liberating but also how terrifying. I envisioned an empty cup floating on the surface of water— buoyant but also very precarious, ready at any moment to fill and sink. I then thought of the body in equilibrium. Levitation. One thought leads to the next for me until I have an unshakable image in my head. Then that’s the thing I try to make.

R.J. Preece: Do you start with an idea, a subject, or a material?

Tony Matelli: I guess it starts with a vague subject or idea. Sometimes a vague formal notion can spark a work. Sometimes I just want something to sit in space like this or that, but I never begin with the material. Materials are there to serve ideas.

R.J. Preece: What were you going after in F***ed (Couple) (2005/06)?

Tony Matelli: I wanted to make a sculpture about romantic love. Since “love” is such an old and, in some ways, clichéd or debased idea, I needed to find a way for it to feel fresh and relevant. Sometimes the best way to speak to something powerful is to powerfully represent its opposite. I wanted to represent all of the possible adversities to romantic love and to humanity in general— to absurdly represent the complications of life through extreme cartoon violence— and I thought I would make the power of these figures’ connection even more potent and visible. The two figures are impaled and suffering all kinds of absurd trauma, yet they still manage to move forward. They still manage to hold hands. On his arm is a tattoo that says, “True love forever.” This is the arm that holds his partner; in fact, their joined limbs are untouched by violence— those arms are pure.

R.J. Preece: What are you trying to say in Total Torpor, Mad Malaise (2003), with its grotesqueness, classic pose, and staged quality?

Tony Matelli: Total Torpor, Mad Malaise is my third self-portrait. I was most interested in the combination of a body dysmorphia, grotesquely reified, and a comically stoic disposition. This gets back to my idea of empathic connection with a work of art. There is an almost anxious identification with this sculpture. It is a sort of reimagined Greek statue, one that has been disfigured by the anxieties of contemporary life.

R.J. Preece: It must be fun to watch reactions to this work.

Tony Matelli: I honestly don’t enjoy watching people look at my work. It feels too personal, and I’d rather be in another room or on the plane home.

tony matelli art
Tony Matelli art: Old enemy. New victim, (2007). Courtesy Andréhn-Schiptjenko, Stockholm Leo Koenig Inc., New York.

R.J. Preece: Do you see Old Enemy, New Victim (2007) as an illustration of earth’s interspecies and environmental battles?

Tony Matelli: Absolutely not. I was thinking about my relationships to other people. I wanted to make a work that represented two sets of victims. There is a former oppressor, the fat chimp, and a present oppressor, the emaciated chimp. How viewers read the work— and which character they identify with— depends on how they perceive their current position in life. Although I use elements of nature in my work, I don’t care about nature as a subject. These are just metaphors for me. I don’t really care about chimps; I don’t really care about weeds: I only use these things to talk about us.

R.J. Preece: How do you go about making a hyperrealist sculpture like Old Enemy, New Victim?

Tony Matelli: I try to think about the best, most interesting way to express an idea. After that, it’s almost all execution. I start with a series of small maquettes or collages to get the composition as I want it. Then, I move on to posing and photographing models in positions based on my collages. Next, I start constructing armatures for the clay work, while keeping in mind how things will get molded and cast and reassembled.

This one was particularly involved because every little thing needed to be custom-made, including the teeth and eyes for all three chimps. The mold-making was a bitch; and all this is before reassembly, clean up, painting, and all the hair work. Obviously this is done with assistants. The entire process for the first edition of Old Enemy took about eight months. The subsequent two editions were much faster, because the mold-making and sculpting were already done and we had the learning curve under our belts.

R.J. Preece: Which work in the ARoS installation was the hardest to make?

Tony Matelli: Jesus, everything is hard to make. Lost & Sick was difficult because it was the first big thing I ever made, and I did it all myself while working art assistant jobs. It took about a year with that schedule. Aside from that, Old Enemy takes the cake. It was complicated and involved many new things for the studio. After making that work, I felt like I could make just about anything that I could imagine.

R.J. Preece: Your works rely very heavily on craftsmanship. How did you learn, or learn to manage, this?

Tony Matelli: I suppose I’ve always had an aptitude for it. When I was a kid, I was really into building models and dioramas, which incorporated almost the same skills that I use now. Unfortunately art school erased a lot of this. I think that I lost manual skill because I got interested in different things. I ignored those skills for six years. I remember being in figure sculpture class and thinking that it was the dumbest, most irrelevant thing in the world. Then, when I actually wanted those skills, I had to learn them on my own. Now I’m able to hire technicians and other artists who are much better than I am at these very specialized things. Ultimately the work would suffer under my own technical limitations.

R.J. Preece: You’ve used mirroring and the appearance of “dust” in Josh (2010) and Arrangement (2012). Is this about offering another viewpoint? And why is “BITCHES” spelled out in the dust?

Tony Matelli: Sometimes it’s simple and sometimes it’s pretty complicated, but these pieces have related, though different motivations. With Josh, I wanted to create a simple image of personified ambivalence. Arrangement is also pretty simple, an image of beauty upended— a beautiful thing made strange, but still beautiful.

The mirrors are similar in that they take a known thing and complicate it. I wanted to undermine the idea of a mirror’s clarity. A mirror is all about the objective projection of subjectivity— the truth of one’s own image. I wanted to complicate it by adding traces of other people through the dust of time, interwoven with one’s own image. Instead of seeing yourself clearly, you see yourself through multiple layers of dust and finger traces of other people. Names and words written and crossed out, vulgarities and shout-outs, and in the background your own image. Ultimately, I wanted them to feel like cave paintings or palimpsests.

R.J. Preece: Who is Josh?

Tony Matelli: Josh is a close friend of mine. It’s the first time that I made a proper portrait of someone other than myself. He inspired the work and, in a strange way, embodies what I was trying to get at abstractly.

R.J. Preece: Are there materials that you really like or don’t like at all?

Tony Matelli: I like bronze because it stays put. It’s easy to paint and easy to fix. It does what you say. Sadly it’s not appropriate for everything. I hate silicone as a finished sculpture material. It’s very hard to work with in almost every way, but I cannot avoid it. Figures almost always need to be made of it.

R.J. Preece: What were some of your key breaks or opportunities?

Tony Matelli: In graduate school, I met the person who would become my first dealer. That was a very key break. And there have been others. I made F***ed (Couple) for a group show at ARoS, and based on that work [and some other ones], they invited me to do a large survey exhibition. It goes to show that you need to be trying all the time, 100 percent. You never know where a future opportunity will come from.

R.J. Preece: Who are your artistic influences?

Tony Matelli: I don’t love talking about this stuff, but for the sake of conversation, I would say Jeff Koons and Ivan Albright. Koons because of his determination to imbue conceptual ideas with seductive power. This is really the lesson of religious art, but I wouldn’t know it if not for Koons. And Albright was one of my first art experiences. There is a great collection of his paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I remember being struck by their anxious energy and detail. They seemed to vibrate with nervous tension. Later in life that spoke very clearly to me.

R.J. Preece: Are there other, perhaps stronger influences on your work?

Tony Matelli: I spoke earlier about toy model-making, which is still really strong in me. My first experience with what I would call narrative sculpture was playing Dungeons and Dragons. The game takes place mostly in the mind, but it is often accompanied by miniature pewter figures that represent imagined characters. This was when I started to invest in narrative figure sculpture, and I see a very clear lineage from that to what I was doing a few years ago.

R.J. Preece: Was there anything that you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?

Tony Matelli: Tons of things. I went to a somewhat provincial undergraduate art school, and this was before the Internet, so there was almost no access to contemporary art. The school made little or no effort to bring it in, and I was left on my own. I guess this is good and bad, but it was a very rude awakening when I met students from better schools. I felt as though my school was actively withholding information from me. In many ways, it was a reactionary art environment.

When I visit schools now for lectures, the main thing that seems to be missing from the students’ education is a knowledge of how the art world works. This is primarily because the teachers have no idea. Art school should be a little like a vocational school, like welding school or cooking school. It should not be a traditional liberal arts education, it should be a hybrid education. For some reason, art schools completely ignore the professional aspect, as though art is a privileged part of culture above commerce, professional status, and rules. I think this idea is harmful to artists— and to art. The more that schools ignore how students can and will function in the world, the more baristas we will have.