5 Questions: Matthew Shelley

BL: Who are some artists that you count as influences?

MS: I think my influences are pretty diverse.  Each of the artists that I look at bring unique interests to the table.  I’d like to think that aesthetics doesn’t enter the equation, but that’s probably not totally true.  I’m very interested in processed oriented artists.  I appreciate work when the appearance of the piece is the result of a process that leads the work in a direction that is dictated by content rather than aesthetics.  Vija Celmins, Gerhard Richter, Mark Rothko, Dario Robleto’s early work, but not so much his later stuff, Linn Meyers, and Kristin Holder…  those are all artists I think about quite regularly.  Also, my peers and other artists I get face to face dialog with.  That’s massively important and probably has the greatest impact.  I try and pay attention to blogs and do a little writing on my own, so that keeps me connected to the contemporary art world. Staying up on current exhibitions and allowing new work to influence you is really important, but to tell the truth I’m not as diligent as I should be.

BL: You work primarily in graphite but I know you have other art making skills. How do you think your understanding of digital making, photography, painting, impacts your understanding of drawing and vice versa?

MS: Yeah, at the moment I am working primarily in graphite drawing, but I try not to build heavy alliances with any single practice or method. I admire a lot of painters and people who work with traditional media, but I’m sort of suspicious of artists who define themselves based on a medium, such as a painting, or sculpting, or something.

Earlier on I completely defined myself as a painter.  My entire creative life was subservient to this one tradition.  I only went to exhibits that involved painting and I resented anything that challenged the status of painting.  Ultimately, I had to challenge that idea and redefine how I understood the art world, which is good because that opinion was really immature and uninformed.  In some ways it’s good that I had to deconstruct that kind of viewpoint because it’s built a healthy distrust of one’s relationship to artistic medium.  I do my best to keep that in mind when making and when viewing.  I love the process of drawing and painting, but hopefully, because of past experiences I can avoid becoming seduced by a particular practice and keep the work about the concept rather than the pleasure of craft.  I try to keep my practice as open as possible. At this point in my development, drawing perfectly matches my aims, but when it’s no longer the most effective method I’ll switch to something else, at least that’s what I’d like to believe.

I’ve experimented with digital media and I think there’s some really exciting possibilities there.  I think that method has a nice way of keeping things fresh.  It seems to present challenging situations and the medium generally resists stylization.  Most artists that I know who are working with new media are forced to reinvent their practice with each new project and I really respect that.  As the medium becomes more established it’s very possible that it could become alexandrian and repetitive, but I guess that’s the artist’s responsibility to avoid that and really has little to do with the materials and technology.

Earlier this year I made a series of short films that were developed through digitizing damaged medium format film negatives.  I took the still images and collaged them together to create a landscape.  It ended up as a three channel projection in which the weather and lighting shown in the landscapes changed continuously, altering and redeveloping the landscape.  That was a fun project and I plan on making a second, more refined version of that later this year.  When that’s done I’ll post it on my website for viewing.

BL: Can you talk a little bit about what it means to you to make a mark?

MS: The action of making a mark is extremely important to me and is heavily connected to the content my work explores.  Lately I’ve made efforts to remove any sense of expression from my mark making and reduce it to a state where it’s simply evidence of an event, but documented in a neutral way with no poetics or romance attached to it. I get pretty worried when I see expressive mark making show up in my work because my images already have a tendency to become overly sentimental.  I try to strip my imagery of it’s drama through repetitive mark making.  In the most recent landscapes equal precedence is given to each mark and values build up on their own as portions of the drawing are worked and reworked. The neutral approach of repetitive mark making prompts me to treat each part of the drawing the same and protects the work from my tendency to romanticize the imagery I use.  The process of this action allows the drawing to develop according to it’s own terms and removes my aesthetics and desires for how the piece should look.  In this way the drawings retain their integrity and the end result is more honest than when I manipulate the drawings into having the appearance I want them to. These ideas are a kind of set of rules that I try to adhere to, but I’m not always successful.  When I get negligent and wrapped up with appearances, that seems to be when the drawings fail.  It’s funny when you have an inherent appetite for things that damage your work.  I have an attraction for nostalgic images, so I have to set up a drawing practice that allows me to explore those images, but remains inexpressive through repetitive mark making.  Otherwise the romance gets turned up to level 11 and the drawings get really gross.

I don’t like the idea of an expressive mark.  I think that’s actually kind of arrogant.  To assume that the artist is so remarkable that he or she can make a mark that communicates an expression, and that we should then celebrate that expression, and discuss that expression, I think that’s a pretty funny idea.  It seems kind of wrapped up with stereotypes that elevate the artist to a mythical state, which is obviously not a reality.

BL: I’ve heard the expression, everything happens for a reason, can you talk a little bit about what kind of implications concept has for form?

MS: I’m not sure how I feel about that.  I know that when evaluating my own art practice that’s a standard I try to live up to, but I’m sure there are exceptions.  I’m most impressed by artwork that is made in a way that reflects the content that prompted it’s creation, but that’s all good art, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about.  I can’t think of any good artwork where form is divorced from the content. Artwork should have a visual appearance that reflects the ideas that were the catalyst for it’s creation.  It’s a visual manifestation of ideas, and if the appearance of the object isn’t connected to those ideas then the work needs to be re-evaluated and probably remade in a way that’s closer to the original intention.  If the form the work takes isn’t in direct dialog with the ideas that it originated from, then the work becomes materialistic and basically irrelevant.  I feel that the success or failure of a piece should hinge upon how close it
can get to it’s subject matter.  That’s why a Minimalist piece can be equally as compelling and beautiful as a painting from the Renaissance, because both artworks managed to eloquently express the ideas that led to their creation.  Those works are not important because the painting involved is impressive, or because the making of the object was difficult, they’re important because the way they were made, and the ideas behind why they were made are absolutely seamless. The form these things take can’t be separated from the content.  But that’s not to say that there is a formula for successful artwork.

It’s complicated because sometimes the direction of a piece is unclear and it can lead you into unfamiliar territory that may be quite far from your initial intention.  At that moment you have to regroup and reassess the situation.  In many ways, the most exciting elements of my favorite artworks are the passages that continue to remain a mystery to me.  The aspects of a piece that defy explanation are in many cases the most beautiful moments in work.  At that point it becomes impossible for me to say how well the connection between form and content is functioning.  I guess that it boils down to intention. I think that making decisions in art should be a deliberate process, but I also don’t think that people should hesitate to explore something that isn’t totally understood either.  It’s important to allow the work to develop freely and in many cases what is confusing in the moment will become clear later as the work is revisited and re-examined.  This is really not a very good answer, but I think that as long as one maintains a critical attitude, and challenges the work, it’s alright to allow it to move in directions that are not totally understood.  It’s tricky because sometimes when reflecting on a piece directly after it’s made it can be very difficult to connect it’s form to it’s content and it can seem as though your decisions were not deliberate.  I think that’s an alright place to be.  It takes time to evaluate new work and if it was successful the bond between form and content will present itself.  It probably sounds like I’m saying that artwork needs to be executed in accordance with a direct idea or it’s a failure.  That’s not the case.  I think new content can enter the work in unexpected ways, and that’s good.  If we always knew the exact direction work was moving in then art would be a very boring activity.

BL: Can you list the five most important non-art related things in your life?

MS: Yes.  No problem.  The five most important non-art related things in my life are probably cycling, music, LU BOT!, my day job and spending time as much time as possible with my friends and loved ones.

Special Thanks to Matthew for his time and images. You can see more of his work at matthewgshelley.com.

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