Thursday, February 28, 2008
Art Space Talk: Matthew Mahler
Brian Sherwin: Matt, you have studied at Hofstra University and Queens College. Can you tell us about your educational experiences? Have you had any influential instructors?
Matthew Mahler: I know school is not for everyone, but I have nothing but good things to say about being there. Currently pursuing my MFA at Queens College, I went to Hofstra University as an undergraduate where I studied art education. However I was really lucky and had some great teachers dating back to elementary school that nurtured my curiosity for learning.
I worked with the illustrator, Jeff Fisher, for many years. First I studied with him and then eventually helped him teach a few independent courses. This was between the ages of 17 and 23. Jeff really taught me how to see and draw. I saw that he was able to sustain a living as an artist, and it was something that I aspired to do.
However, it was while I was at Hofstra University that I studied with abstract painter Laurie Fendrich, who sent me in my current direction. Laurie really challenged me and pushed me away from the quasi-figurative works I was making and towards non-objective abstraction. It was at Hofstra that I really started to learn how to paint. Up until then, I had been primarily making "drawings" even if I was using materials traditionally used to make paintings.
In my second semester of graduate study at Queens College, I was lucky enough to take a course with artist Justin Lieberman. Lieberman exposed me to a whole other side of making "things", and exposed me to a number of artists that I had never accepted as making legitimate work. Through a number of intensive lectures I started to find validity in artists like Jack Smith, Paul McCarthy and even Lieberman’s own work.
BS: How is your upbringing reflected in your work? Are there traces of your youth to be found within the context of the work you create at present?
MM: Raised by two teachers, and with my father being a high school art teacher, I was exposed to art at an early age. My dad did a great thing by never forcing it on me, but kind of just offering it to me as an alternative to watching t.v. and playing video games. As I got older, I split my free time between playing sports and making drawings.
By my junior year in high school, I never went anywhere without a sketchbook. Whether out at dinner, or sitting in my dad’s garden in the summer time, I was constantly drawing from observation. I still try to approach my work with the same attitude as I always have. I try to keep it an enjoyable activity even if my approach has gotten more focused.
BS: What other influences do you draw inspiration from? Have you been influenced by any specific artists or art movements?
MM: I would not be making art today if I hadn’t seen a Salvador Dali show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a kid. He was the first artist I though was really "cool". My art influences have varied over the years but I would say are pretty much grounded in a lot of Picasso, early American abstract expressionism, contemporary painters like Eric Sall, Chris Martin and Mark Grotjahn and a wide variety of musicians ranging from John Coltrane to the Mars Volta. I've spent a long time making work that was solely inspired by what I was listening while in my studio.
BS: Tell us more about your paintings and the thoughts behind them...
MM: After spending 23 years in suburban Long Island, I moved to Queens, NY in ‘05 that turned out to be a huge environmental adjustment. No longer was I surrounded by trees and grass, or a 10 minute drive from the beach. From early on, my living environment offered a great deal of inspiration as an artist. I’ve kind of come back around to this idea as my current body of work is inspired by the excess stimuli that I encounter on a daily basis. I guess I was forced to start finding beauty in things other than some flowers growing behind my parent’s house, or the mangled sand fence at the beach. Now I make paintings about the things that catch my eye while I’m out and about in my neighborhood, or riding the subway.
For example "Gene Tree" was inspired by a quick screen shot I saw while watching the eleven o’clock news one night. I combined my memory of the experience with some elements of crappy street art that I couldn’t get out of my head. And bam! Just like that I had the information to make a new painting. I find that working from memories allows a lot of room for "weird" things to happen in my painting. Though my current pieces are highly planned, I make sure to allow enough room for improvisational moves. I hope this is what makes them exciting to look at.
BS: Are you interested in the emotions that you can convey through painting... or are you more concerned with the process of painting itself? Or do you focus on both of these aspects?
MM: Making art is about making some kind of emotional connection for me. It’s just a matter of how the artist wants to address this issue. Much of my earlier works posted on the site are examples of highly emotionally-driven pieces. The work itself was reliant on my being in a particular emotional state at the time of its production. The idea of working almost solely from emotion became problematic for me and forced me to stop focusing on my old ideals. At this point, objects, experiences and other "things" that generate a strong enough emotional response become the subjects of my work.
As a result of making a greater commitment to painting, my process has played a much stronger role in my production. Though my work is not void of serendipitous invention, I’ve become quite aware of it’s presence in relation to my creative process and have had to put a limit on how much I allow into a painting.
BS: Matt, with your Street Scars series you utilized digital photos. Can you tell us about that specific series and the motives behind it?
MM: Living out in Queens, I became extremely aware of the abundant amounts of left over graffiti littering so many public spaces. When I say "left over" I mean the spaces that had once been tagged only to be hastily painted out by the property owner or city, more often than not leaving behind a "scar" in a sense marking where the graffiti once was.
The series works on two levels for me. First I’m interested in how the property owner wants so badly to get rid of the "vandalism" of their space, that they don’t even take the time to cover the markings up with the correct color paint. It’s ironic because by doing this he/she ultimately brings just as much attention to the space that was vandalized. Did they really fix the problem?
On another level, I was very interested in how these "scars" marked the local facade of my neighborhood, often offering some unexpectedly beautiful painting to it’s community. Instead of walking past these spaces, just writing them off as visual litter, I decided to document them with my digital camera, and have them printed at the local drugstore. I did this to connect the accessibility of the subject with the accessibility of the medium by which it could be viewed.
BS: Would you say that one practice feeds off of the other when you are working with different mediums?
MM: Absolutely. I found that I was attracted to the utilitarian aspects of digital photography which is something that I think will definitely be showing up in my future works.
BS: What are you working on at this time? Also, will you be exhibiting any time soon?
MM: I’m primarily in production mode at this time, focusing my energy toward making my work and developing as a thinker rather then selling it. However I will be in a small group show at Four Walls Gallery in Portland, Maine come April.
I’m really focusing on furthering the development of my ideas and making bigger, better paintings. I’m incorporating many new materials into the mix, which I hope will allow for more dynamic work. Keep your eyes peeled.
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?
MM: Thanks for looking at it.
Matt Mahler is a member of the www.myartspace.com community. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page-- www.myartspace.com/interviews
Take care, Stay true,