On the occasion of New Photography ARTUNER had the pleasure of hosting an intimate evening at the artist’s studio in Hackney, London where the accompanying conversation was recorded between Matthew Stone and curator Norman Rosenthal.
NORMAN ROSENTHAL So Matthew tell us are these paintings, are they photographs? They obviously look like paintings, they are very flat but they look very tactile, what do you mean by making them?
MATTHEW STONE I think that it’s more interesting to think about them as photography. I’ve done a lot of photography in the past and it has always been a tool and a part of a process rather than a means to an end in itself. I don’t feel like I’ve ever really exhibited photographs in a traditional sense. It’s always been a way to generate imagery that I then use and present in some other way. People still understood the previous works as being photographic though. So this either or question was less present. There was a Caravaggesque sense of chiaroscuro and I was also making very clear references to various points in the history of western religious art and its treatment of the body. People would often give me this limp compliment of ‘Your photos really look like paintings.’ I knew that on some level there was something that was driving me to achieve that and I guess I realized looking at these works now, that I have taken that impulse to some sort of conclusion. In that I have made photographs that look so much like paintings that it is now difficult to imagine that they are photographs.
NR And you like that?
MS I do, I prefer that.
NR Do you like that ambiguity in-between? As you say yourself your art and the way that you interact with the world has often been about being social, it’s about bodies, it’s about intertwining. In a way these paintings are also about intertwining bodies, aren’t they? In a very abstracted way?
MS Yes, I used to say to people that when you look at my pictures, and I’m talking about the figurative works here, you should look at them as if they are an abstract painting. Don’t read them as figurative works. In a sense I always had this desire to make religious imagery for a secular age. In the past I wanted to use the most material subject matter to discuss things that are abstract and immaterial. In a material age what do we know most as being real and material? Bodies. Our own bodies and those of others.
NR What does abstraction mean to you, what can abstraction do? The word abstraction is a loaded word in many ways.
MS I do feel like these works are kind of in a sense simultaneously unpicking and perhaps there are even elements of spoofing abstract paintings of the past.
NR Maybe you should even tell people how you make them, because it’s kind of mysterious. Are you interested in explaining how you make them?
MS My method is published and my point in highlighting that it’s put out there is that I am very happy to share how it is that they are painted. I’m not trying to hide it. Encouraging people to wonder how I have made them seems like a waste of time. The process is important, but it’s what the work is about.
NR And they are printed onto the canvas?
MS Eventually they are printed onto the canvas.
NR It could easily be paper?
MS Yes it could be paper but I wanted canvas because I feel like it has a very physical connotation. Canvas is grounded in reality and very obviously linked to the history of painting. So it provides an oppositional counterpart to the digital processing involved.
NR Do you like the confusion?
MS My first thought was that at least some people would object to the fact that they were printed rather than painted by hand.
NR Why should they object?
MS Well, I don’t think that they should, but I anticipated it. Essentially I expected some people to say that they’re not paintings but prints.
NR People said the same thing about Andy Warhol making his screen prints. In a way you’ve tried over the years that I’ve known you to establish yourself as a kind of Beuysian character in London. You used to call yourself the artshaman?
MS And I still do.
NR You still do, that’s what I want to know about. Do you now want to lose that aspect of yourself, your artistic essence? Where do these paintings fit into that as it were, Warholian, Beuysian aspect of yourself?
MS I wrote my dissertation on the spiritual content of Andy Warhol’s work and I really liked the idea that…
NR I want to read it, can I?
MS I will try and find it. I wouldn’t say that it was that well written.
NR It doesn’t matter if it’s not well written because you’ve got good ideas.
MS I argued that Warhol recognized an inherent and sincere religiosity in post-war America.
NR Because he was a Catholic?
MS Ultimately I think it was because he was a human, but I think that you could easily identify a catholic perspective if you look at some of his art within the context of Byzantine art. For example I think he only used gold as a background for Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy, these two, venerated feminine figures that experienced great tragedy.
NR Like Madonna’s?
MS Exactly, that is the art he would have grown up around.
NR Andy’s mum was very important, was your mum important to you, where is your mum?
MS My mum lives near Bath.
NR Does she appreciate who you are and what you do?
MS Yes, we are able to make comparisons between what I do and what she does. She has been a nursery school teacher her whole life and now is a foster parent, and so we talk a lot about human relationships and interactions, about learning through play and the importance of creativity as a source for emotional healing.
NR You have foster brothers and sisters?
MS I have three sisters, two of which are biological, one of whom is a new sister. Earlier you asked me a question that I think you want me to answer. Do I want to leave my non-gallery, socially embedded works behind? And perhaps how do I contextualize what I am doing now with these paintings on the wall instead of some insane bacchanalian network of young creatives?
NR In other words are these paintings OPTIMISTIC?
MS I think they are, when I began to make these paintings I remember thinking that I wanted them to be joyous. Perhaps that’s an unfashionable impulse or it’s an all too simplistic notion to inject into a series of contemporary art works. But at a very basic level I was able to identify joy as a feeling that I wanted to create within my work. I also wanted to work with colour. In the past the addition of colour to my works just came through the colour of people’s skin and they were against deep black backgrounds. I worried that adding colour would be a superfluous gesture. You know… why do I have to use colour? What does it mean to add colour? I was thinking about the magic of people and of people coming together. To clarify what I understand from your statement about me being Warholian or Beuysian in some way, I feel like you were referring to the creative network that I was not only a part of but also relatively instrumental in bringing together and activating around that time.
NR For one generation of people… for one group of people… for your peers in London?
MS I opened a series of squats and there were people living there, some had studios there, people came to do specific projects, we hosted exhibitions and we also had huge after parties that in some ways captured popular imagination more than anything else that we were working to achieve. There was a real crossover of art and fashion. It was a truly interdisciplinary thing, where for example fashion designers were making art installations that were part of a big group show with twenty artists.
NR But are these paintings trying to leave that?
MS No I am not trying to escape it. I feel like I’ve always been unable to separate myself from making formal works. I think that all of the aesthetically conscious work, all of the visual work that I make, all of the work that end’s up in a gallery are inextricably linked to the other things that I do. I don’t understand how it can’t be a product of all of my thinking. My mum saw my degree show and said to me ‘I don’t necessarily understand it, but I see so much of you in it.’ Coming from somebody who knows me so well, that was not just a compliment, but it gave me confidence that all the things I make are tied to my thinking.
NR But these particular paintings, I say that they remind me particularly of de Kooning, they have a touch of Lichtenstein in them, a touch of Koons in them, but particularly de Kooning, who worked between, roughly speaking 1950 until he basically stopped painting. Painting these gestural paintings that reflected his love of the female body, that was what he was, what he was all about. They are a bit more abstract maybe, because he painted his women, which was in the 50s, you know the famous women paintings? But everything that he did was about female bodies. These paintings still seem to have that sense of intertwining.
MS Well I hope so.
NR Do you want that?
MS I definitely want that.
NR You are not about to paint Black Square?
MS No, I don’t think so.
NR Which is another form of abstraction, which also has religious meaning. In other words do you feel in any sort of way a formalist?
MS I mean I would say totally.
NR Yes or No?
NR Because I want you to say no.
MS Why? Do you want them to be purely conceptual works?
NR I want them to have a kind of meaning that you can translate beyond just what you see.
MS Well they do have that. But I believe that the two can go together. In great formalism there is always meaning beyond what you first see.
NR They refer to something, because when one knows an artist, one thinks of the totality of their work, where everything is a souvenir of your totality. It’s a momentary souvenir of your totality and your totality is about intertwining bodies.
MS In my head these new works represent the same thing as the photographs of intertwining bodies. When I am making them, I mean I have said this joke ten times tonight so apologies to the people for whom this is recycled material, but the difference between shooting people and shooting paint is that the paint always turns up on time.
NR It’s not a substitute is it? Is it a substitute for flesh?
MS I think it’s a temporal substitute that allows me to analyse my own previous work, specifically the processes involved.
NR Or is it a souvenir of flesh, a memory of flesh? Art for me is memories, it’s about memory.
MS Well I think that when I was photographing the bodies, and I said this earlier, I wanted people to look at them like abstract paintings. Blur your eyes when you look at them and it’s all fusing energy. One thing that maybe people don’t always understand is that the photographs of the bodies weren’t just formal works that looked like old paintings. They show my subjective documentation of the intricate networks of collaboration I created. Whilst I was behind the camera, whilst I was in a directorial role to some extent, I didn’t walk in with an idea of exactly what I wanted to achieve. The forms followed my explorations of a set of specifically determined social contexts.
NR Did you ever participate?
MS Yes I made self-portraits. But it wasn’t about portraiture at large. I wanted to present the body in an abstract way, to go beyond its physicality and point towards something else. We understand the physicality of our own bodies very deeply. In that sense it is our connection to materiality itself. But the body houses all of our emotions and thinking.
NR When you talk about this phrase of yours which is Cosmic Flesh what do you mean by that?
MS I was referring to paint poetically as being a sort of cosmic flesh of art history and that it has a similar level or kind of magic and sensuality as the body.
NR Who are your favourite artists of the past? Caravaggio is clearly one of them?
MS Caravaggio is in there, and as we have discussed Joseph Beuys is in there, Andy Warhol too.
NR Beuys of course made drawings of the female body, very beautiful drawings and watercolours that were a little bit like Rodin’s, but on the whole one doesn’t think of him as a kind of artist of the flesh.
MS But again he is constantly talking about the body, talking about healing, talking about society, people coming together, and social sculpture. Considering these new apparently more formal works of mine, I think that it is those Beuysian explorations that are clearly present in my older work, you identify as being the missing elephant in the room here. You are looking for a link between the two and I think we started talking earlier about my idea that Warhol was talking about a spirituality that he had found a contemporary language for and that he saw an inherent religiosity occurring within a secular materialist world. Beuys was more explicit in his discussions of ephemeral things, creating abstract material works that referred back to humanity, while I feel Warhol almost did the opposite, mirroring humanity and the world in order to speak covertly about spirituality.
NR I like the ephemeral.
MS Yes let’s talk about Joseph Beuys.
NR The thing about Beuys and Warhol is that they were more… you know there are lots of wonderful artists in the world that we know. But it seems to me that Warhol and Beuys were more than artists, you know what I am saying? They go beyond themselves and become symbolic of an age and of their time.
MS Yes but there are also artists whose works are symbolic of an age. What is important about them is that their creative activities and therefore in a sense their art, if you are open-minded, occurs in a social sphere. With Warhol there was the factory, with Beuys he made these social actions…
NR And also had followers as it were? And also this sort of political following. Do you feel your art is political, that you make a political point? Or do you want to kind of carry people with you. Do you want to be like a pied piper? Which you were for a time.
MS I think that in the past when I was identified as being a leader, back when we were squatting. I was involved in an art collective and the whole idea was that it was really inclusive and that it had a headless power structure. But people would kind of say ‘oh Matthew, you are the leader of !WOWOW!’ and emotionally it would just kill me, it felt gutting to hear that. At the time I felt incredibly self-conscious about this role of being a leader. But at the same time I knew that if I didn’t bring everybody together and kick-start things into motion, it wouldn’t happen with the same intensity than if I didn’t do that. So I was sort of trapped between this self-conscious fear of being some sort of totalitarian leader and then…
NR Something that in their time both Warhol and certainly Beuys were criticised for…
MS Sure, and I think that those criticisms pose important questions. The danger of totalitarian thinking of any kind is very clear.
NR Somebody once said to me, ‘die young, live a long time,’ do you believe that?
MS I’m not sure I understand what you mean. I don’t want to die young.
NR But live forever, or live a long time? Live a long life?
MS Yes I guess so.
NR Do you have any sense of where you might want to be when you are forty? All those YBA’s who are now what I call…
NR Let’s say MABA’s if you can translate that into something? We have new generations coming up behind you.
MS I don’t know, what is the question? Where do I want to be when I am forty?
NR Do you have any sense of where you want to be? Do you think about this at all? Where you want your art to go, where you expect it to be?
MS I think I have always wanted to make art that is relevant in a cultural sense and that is tied to a time. I want my art to live in galleries but if I am completely honest I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play nice and only make things that go in galleries. I enjoy engaging with culture at large, and it’s something that I have done from the get-go and I am at a point in my life where I feel comfortable with that.
NR Do you want to do more performances?
MS Yes, in part because of the conversation we are having, but also some of the conversations leading up to this. I’m realising even speaking to you now that I want to further clarify how the visual works that I make relate to the other things that I do. I am not concerned about getting my philosophies into my artwork via literal illustration. The ideas that are in my head, I feel that I… perhaps not today, but sometimes I’m quite good at talking about them. But I have decided that I have the opportunity to make physical works and that there’s a coexisting opportunity to do other work, that might be talking or performing. It all helps me generate ideas. Ideas come from the making and the doing as much as they do from thinking and talking. I definitely want to keep making dramatic and ridiculous paintings, works or whatever.
NR To be shown in galleries, museums or whatever?
MS Yes gallery works, and I mean what is wrong with showing things in a gallery? It’s a beautiful context. I would also love to create work for an interfaith church or I don’t know, a peace centre or hospitals or something like that. Essentially the way that I am thinking about my work now is that I want increased transparency. I feel like I have nothing to hide. In the past because of the nature of the way that I thought about things, there were a lot of utopian ideals, which have created interesting frictions.
NR The idea that EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE, do you still think that everything is possible in this world?
MS Well someone kind of annoyingly debunked it to me recently and they said, ‘no Matthew it’s not everything is possible. Anything is possible, but not everything is possible’. That doesn’t actually shut down available possibility but it does say that not everything that could happen, will happen. That said I still believe that me saying that ‘Everything is Possible’ or me proposing ‘Optimism as cultural rebellion’ is necessary.