We had a conversation with Matjames Metson, whose work is currently on exhibition in our back gallery, exploring his artistic origins, creative "vocabulary", and what separates his process from today's trends.
Your parents, both art professors, influenced your early interest in art. Can you elaborate on that?
Both my parents are not just professors, but established painters and artists themselves. So, they tried to influence me in the traditional ways of what books or music or movies I'd get to see, but I was also surrounded by them and their peers. We lived in France for several years and we would do weekly excursions to every art hotspot you can think of in France. And I think what was important for me in a lot of ways, was not just their parenting, but their friends. Marilynn Karp, for instance, Richard Artschwager and Richard Pettibone. Everyone we were around was art. Everything that we did was art. I thought that everyone was an artist and I didn’t know there was anything but that. What I got out of our relationship was not so much what they were putting in front of me but what they were doing when they weren’t parenting, or doing chores. When they were being themselves, any spare moment that they had went straight to the canvas.
Tell me more about your beginnings as an artist in Charlotteville, New York.
I was pretty young in Charlotteville. When we moved there, 50 years ago, it was really a ghost town, very different than it is now. And there were a lot of abandoned buildings, barns and sheds full of little nooks and crannies of unclaimed history that goes back to the founding of the town. I was telling you about the “Anonymous Arts Museum'' [founded by Ivan and Marilynn Karp] - every little detail about the town is there. The things I found in abandoned buildings were my playthings: instead of GI Joes and Star Wars, I was playing with architecture and pieces of broken farm equipment all from the 1850s, so that really cemented my aesthetic of the past.
You also found photographs in the abandoned homes.
Yes, I was really intrigued by the antique photographs that were strewn about here and there. I collected them and I showed them to my parents who thought that I should show them to Ivan and Marilynn Karp because they have an interest in that kind of thing.
The astonishing part is that Ivan and Marilynn knew who these people were in the photographs. And that, to me, was spectacular. These aren't just anonymous goons from the 1800s. Ivan and Marilynn would be like, this is Levi Stephens. These are the people who actually built the town that I live in. I felt encapsulated in the mystique of the town - that I discovered the founders. These photographs hadn’t been seen for who knows how long. And then Ivan and Marilynn put them into their museum.
It made a huge impact on me and I found relevance, in a way that I’m still searching for, with the photographs I use in my artworks, that have since only been of anonymous people. I’m trying to recapture that feeling of discovery. Now that I don't know who the people are, we probably don't have any chance of ever finding out who they are, and I've decided to go with the mystery of it, and that they’re kind of lost souls that are being rescued. Or memorialized.
Where did all the photographs come from that you've used in your sculpture?
Almost all of my artwork has some sort of photography in it and it's all scavenged, found, donated, estate sales. I get random packages in the mail, sometimes from people I don't even know. They’re getting tremendously hard to find, and expensive.
You're not totally keen on being labeled a found object or an assemblage artist - why is that?
What I have assembled is a large skill set of various disciplines and art forms to create these things. So that is the assemblage. I'm not just taking found objects and gluing them to each other. I'm using woodworking, engineering, architecture, painting and drawing.
One of my heroes and good friends, George Herms, is a found object artist but he uses none of those techniques. He joins disparate objects together, and that's what I see as a found object artist, and I fully appreciate and love it.
What I’ve been hearing lately, which is a term that is more troublesome, is a “curated object artist,” which is probably more truthful to me. I’ve come up with my own sort of language and vocabulary of the items that I use. So you'll see pens and paper, and pen knives, which are important to me from childhood, and any sort of personal object that would carry a presence from its previous owner. For example, a pencil can become very interesting if you find it on the ground and think of what was written with this pencil, it could have been a spelling test or the preamble of the Constitution, you know what I mean? But anything that has a resonance like that. It's not a tin can found off the street and glued to a CD and then glued to something else. It's all more loaded objects, emotionally loaded.
It seems like the objects incorporated are kept within your aesthetic or, like you said, your vocabulary. There's nothing that doesn't really fit in the context of what you've put together, everything has a place.
There’s a conversation between the objects. In A Tower, it’s a very big piece, and every object in it has a direct line to the next one. They're all related in a sense. It’s not a sword next to a pistol, a football helmet, and an animal’s jaw. It's all specific.
When people come to the gallery to look at your work, I often hear comparisons to Joseph Cornell.
There's no complaint there for me. I'm not going to say I don't want to be compared to an innovator, a master and an originator. It's terrific. But most of his boxes can contain only four or five objects, and the construction is very simple. So as far as heroes in construction go, I was very influenced by Richard Artswager as a child, being around him and in his studio quite a bit.
And H. C. Westermann is another major influence, right?
Well, I was never on a death ship surrounded by sharks eating people like he was, but he also was a builder of things. And in his work are a lot of found objects, but he attached things in a more traditional sense. He built and used hardware to accentuate the work, and the hardware is also the found object and adds to its practicality.
I just like to build. I'm really fascinated by that aspect of it.
You also have a large portfolio of pen and ink drawings, and you incorporate drawings into A Tower.
I've done three times more illustrations than I have ever done sculptures, twelve full length graphic novels. Drawing is the ultimate skill that you have to have as an artist.
That’s how I learned how to build things, by drawing it. I don't draw my sculptures. People wonder how I built A Tower. I just went ahead and built it. I didn't plan it out. And if I had, then that work would have only ever been an illustration.
These objects that you rescue: 19th century portraits, antique knives, old letters - what motivates your connection to the past? Why is it important to you to reposition these discarded things as art objects?
Well, I am 200 years old. I've been around for a long time.
I think a lot of people are making art about what they experienced as a young person. I don't think that's uncommon. But what I think I see a lot from my peers is a lot of cliché references from childhood. There's nothing wrong with artwork being about video games or TV shows from the 70s.
But that wasn't my experience as a child. I didn't play video games. I played in the creek or romped around an abandoned barn stacking things up. Artists my age that grew up in more urban areas are still experiencing that urban thing in their artwork later. But where I grew up, it was almost timeless.
I feel kind of lost around people my age most of the time. Most people I know didn't grow up in the sticks. Or, you know, I went from living in upstate New York to the south of France. So there's a lot of culture involved, but not the same as what other people seem to have experienced.
That definitely comes through in your artwork. There is a childlike element present with your combining of pencils and dolls, but they're all vintage. I think it reminds the viewer of America’s past.
I think my work really is Americana. But politically, I don't want to get into that conversation. I think one of the most underrated artists ever is Norman Rockwell. He really put something forth that was old-timey and was pure Americana. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It was an idealistic approach to the things that were going on at the time. So I like to remove my Americana from the Americana that’s happened. People say all art is political, but mine definitely is trying not to be.
I think your work is political in that it emphasizes how art has moved away from requiring the level of skill that was once the standard. It highlights craftsmanship and materials, and it’s not trendy.
Right, well trendy is a good word and that's what I avoid completely. It goes back to what I was saying. People make art about video games. I don't know what's going on in New York, but it seems like in LA it's Nickelodeon.
Craftsmanship is important, and I think I sort of urge everyone to pay attention to craftsmanship.
AI is this big threat now, and I don't like thinking about it. It upsets me. But at the same time, there's going to be people who are more interested in the past, the more the future happens. And that's why I'm hoping they'll see my work and say, oh, this guy’s stuff is in the past.
It's a cleaner, more beautiful thing than art generated by computers. What are people even for anymore? Wouldn't everybody be on strike if computers are going to do everything for us?
In your work, there’s so much evidence of your hand and how many hours you've labored. People get excited by the close looking that is required.
I haven't really been around people witnessing my work until the opening at George Adams.
Well, let me ask you a question in reverse, as a person in your position, did it suddenly make you uncomfortable when I allowed people to interact and touch my work? Was that unnerving for you at all?
It’s unnerving because it’s uncommon for people to have that kind of physical access. Your work is fragile, but it’s also durable.
It's pretty sturdy.