Matthew Monahan

Published: August, 2010, ZOO MAGAZINE #28
The Witness, 2011
The Witness, 2011

The universe of the American artist Matthew Monahan is full of powerful and bizarre human-like objects that have an enormous presence in the space. He creates a world humming with its own mythology and language, one that plays with our collective and individual unconsciousness while searching for his own, breathtaking, artistic solutions.

Marta Gnyp: The first image that appears on your website is a photo of you standing behind one of your big charcoal drawings of a face. The drawing is almost like a huge mask. Is art a kind of a mask for you?

Matthew Monahan: The website and the image you refer to was a surprise birthday present from an old friend—the photo was taken on his phone. That is the only image on the site and I have never since added to it. I am not one who likes to be portrayed, let alone webcast, but how could I refuse a gift? There are more than enough Matthew Monahans populating the web to keep the curious busy. I have given up on trying to ‘authorize’ any one version in particular. (Most I cannot look at). My own image is minor next to the self-implosions and face mongers that dramatize my work. Of course, art is a mask. But there may be no true face or head to strap it to.

MG: In one of your interviews, you said that there was a time that you felt embarrassed to exclaim that you are an artist. Why did you feel embarrassed?

MM: A lot of stupid things get done in the name of art.

MG: So why did you allow yourself to be an artist now?

MM: I call myself an artist now because if you can look far and wide, not just at the ‘art world,’ but also at the ‘world of art’ and the ‘world as art,’ being an artist puts you in the ring with the most powerful and beautiful things in all creation. You may get your ass kicked, but the wounds are priceless.

MG: Your objects look like figures coming from an elusive and beautiful but raw fantasy world: fragmented bodies, figures made up of exciting combinations of forms, materials and formats; charcoal drawings of classical faces put on white pedestals. In one of your interviews, you said that you don’t consider yourself as a sculptor, but that your sculptures are actually like drawings, focusing on the image and not at a space. It is a very interesting statement for someone creating huge space objects and installations. Could you explain it to us?

MM: I finally agree to be an artist and now you wonder why I don’t call myself a sculptor! For me, drawing is kind of digging—a line is an incision, a shadow makes a cavern. Where the cavern leads to is not clear to me. If I dig far enough, I will wrap around the image and then we can call it a sculpture. I am mostly concerned with the face, the faヘade that most ‘modern’ sculptors would object to. (Relief has its own great history but got lost in our race to the expanded field). Space is too much for me! I have to work my way from the tip of the nose, and bring the ghost to the surface. You can’t rush something like that just to fill the dance floor. Think how long it took to get the Kouros boy to loosen his hips.

MG: You create imaginary figures. I read that you never use a model, or a photo, or a cast, so that all your creations are coming from your sheer imagination. Where is this imagination coming from?

MM: My imagination is much too old to be sheer; it’s a cluttered scrap heap of souvenirs, relics, and sex drive. Imagination is not just a flicker on the eyelids; it is a hard won process of bringing images into reality, an encyclopedia of methods that has a life of its own. Most of my bright ideas are not images. The ones that keep me awake all night are technical: new formulas for rejuvenating old souls!

MG: How did you find your own way of making art?

MM: First, I stopped trying to make ‘art,’ especially ‘contemporary art,’ which had come to seem like a bunch of grandiose shortcuts to big ideas. I took up the modest task of learning to draw, and through extreme pressure and concentration, I found the diamonds in a lump of charcoal.

MG: Your objects are always related to the human figure. Is the human body from the formal point of view and the human being as the philosophical idea the basis concept of your work?

MM: The human body is the formal frame into which I throw all my magic. I subject it to all kinds of formal shocks: ornamentation, fracture, excavation, erosion, dissection. But whatever I do, the gamut of testing they may have run is only to bring out the character, the face of survival, the whole surface of a landscape, and ultimately, a feeling of love and empathy.

MG: You seem to create your personal mythology based on non-concrete historical references, relics, totems and a kind of archaic spirituality. Where does this fascination for myths and archetypes come from?

MM: Smoking hash at the Louvre.

MG: You collect excerpts and quotations of thinkers whom you consider important to you. For one publication, you selected the quote by Wittgenstein: “The modern system makes it appear to be as though everything were explained,” and by Barthes: “Always the notion: supposed the Modern were wrong? What if they had no talent?” Do you share this opinion on modernity?

MM: Nice to hear that you had a read-through of that material. That collection of quotes is called ‘dog ears,’ after the fold the reader makes to mark his territory. Both of these writer/thinkers took their rationality to a certain limit, especially the rationality of language and sign systems, and when they hit the wall they began to outline a kind of mystical space, outside of language. Barthes was a constant defender of the difficult ‘writerly’ experiments in the French avant-garde but at night he tucked himself in reading Pascal or a moral, classical master of the aphorism, and was always able find radical dimensions in the most traditional authors. In art, it is the same. If you are able to see the angular masochism in the hand of Grünewald, or the loving curvature of Giotto’s rainbow, can you really care about modernism’s endless funeral for the ‘art object?’ Certain strains of modernism went too far, especially when academicized. Too many heads rolled and the plot got lost in all the bloodshed of the new. Newness is not enough to sustain art; Picasso knew this when he took a holiday from cubism and went back to Spain to draw his friends. The ‘idea’ is nothing without its special incarnation—the relation of one sensitive living body seeing and trying to save another.

MG: Your art addresses very often the universal issues. Could you mention some personal aspects of your objects?

MM: I can see a stranger and run to the studio hoping to catch his face on the paper. Everyday friends and memories appear in the work. Without them, the ‘universal’ degenerates into a logo.

MG: In most reviews of your art shows, the words ‘curiosity’ or ‘cabinet of curiosities’ appear. Would you agree with this description for your artworks?

MM: What I like about the cabinet is that things—all the things I make—can co-exist historically without having to declare a victor. It is even more anarchic than the dreary highlow debate. But I hope we can start asking what makes these things so curious. And the cabinet form itself has become more vertical and theatrical: these curiosities know each other; they may even be the same guy and they are fighting it out!

MG: The material and material oppositions play an important role in the effect that your artworks generate. You use plenty of different materials such as drywall, glass, wood, wax, paper, plaster and many others. Are your formal choices very spontaneous?

MM: I have a clear set of materials that I limit myself to, each one ‘opposing’ but also complementing each other. Charcoal is dust on paper. Drywall is also dust and paper. Wax is translucent and glass is transparent. I am interested in the transformation—all the phases between materials and also images; the degree of physicality a soul needs to be to stand out in the world.

MG: How long does it take to make an object? Do you have a daily routine of working?

MM: One object can happen in a day, like an experiment or a 24 hour fever. But to make a place for that thing, to mediate and camouflage and cultivate it, can take years!

MG: How important is the history of art for you? Who are your big influences?

MM: As for the day to day example of the life of an artist, a concentration and playfulness, no one is more important to me than my father.

MG: What is so contemporary about your art?

MM: I try not to look at the clock.

Images courtesy of Galerie Fons Welters

Sleeping Giant, 2005, charcoal on paper, 210 x 370 cm
Sleeping Giant, 2005, charcoal on paper, 210 x 370 cm