Interviews

A Photographer Who Turns Viewers into Voyeurs

Installation view of Matthew Morrocco's "Self Portrait with David" (all images courtesy the artist)
Installation view of Matthew Morrocco’s “Self Portrait with David” (all images courtesy the artist)

Matthew Morrocco arrived at the café fashionably late, wearing an army jacket and floral print flats. Before sitting down he ordered his coffee. “I read somewhere that only sociopaths drink their coffee black,” he explained, “so now I only drink mine black.”

We first met last year at Columbia University, from which he recently graduated with an MFA in photography. As a recent graduate, you could call him “new” to the art world, but he has lived in New York City for seven years, with occasional sojourns in Berlin. That Berlin connection is how Morrocco was invited to Elise Gardella’s artists’ salon, Presenting at 17 (P@17). According to Gardella, the idea for P@17 came about in Berlin during the summer of 2012.

Matthew Morrocco, "Threesome in the Window"
Matthew Morrocco, “Threesome in the Window” (2015) (click to enlarge)

“While there [artist April Gertler and I] talked and worked together,” Gardella said. “Several of our conversations had to do with the professionalization of artist practices, the forces of the art market, and the crunch of high rents — all of which seemed to make it more difficult for people to have the time to come together and express their interests with a kind of freedom. So we each began to carve that space in the fall of 2012 … I started P@17, to invite people into a domestic setting to share, collaborate, and be together.”

Last spring La MaMa La Galleria contacted Gardella with an invitation to propose a show. Noticing that their calendar coincided with the three-year anniversary of P@17, she proposed to celebrate the work of artists she had met through the salon. The resulting group exhibition, 39×17, shows the work of a tenacious set of artists exploring a diverse set of modes and media. In the show, Morrocco is exhibiting one of his recent works, “Threesome in the Window.”

I sat down with Morrocco to ask what led him to P@17 and how his work has developed since.

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Zachary Small: How did you first get involved with P@17?

Matthew Morrocco: It started in Berlin where I did a residency in 2011 called Picture Berlin, created by April Gertler. She is an amazing artist who is very involved in the Berlin art scene and community. I participated in a show that April did; it was a festival of past residents in Berlin. When I got back to the States, she had referred me to Elise Gardella.

ZS: And who comes to P@17? What is that scene like?

MM: I think a lot of people involved are performance-based artists, people who live in New York and make art here. P@17 functions like a small artists’ salon, so interaction with the audience is really unavoidable.

ZS: Has the work you’ve seen at P@17 affected your own practice?

MM: Unlike a typical art criticism group, P@17 is not just for talking about each other’s work. It helped me think more seriously about presentation. There’s a funny distance that occurs in art making between artist and viewer and P@17 makes that gap smaller. It’s so intimate that the dialogue is intense and really fruitful.

Through P@17, I started to think more critically about modes of presentation and how aesthetics evolve from technologies. When photography first began in the 1820s it was more alchemy or science so my feeling is that, ontologically, photography has very little to do with aesthetics.

ZS: I get a sense that your photographs are meticulously composed. At the same time, you are not photographing in a studio, you are going to a stranger’s apartment or they are coming to yours. What goes through your mind when setting up these photo shoots?

MM: When I started to lay groundwork for who I wanted to be as an artist, I was looking a lot at Deana Lawson, Jeff Wall, and Rineke Dijkstra in big ways. They are photographers I would describe as meticulous and often using art historical lexicons in important ways.

I’ve always felt like photography is its own thing, but of course there has been a constant fight for photography to be legitimized in the art world since even before the advent of modernism. And modernism in photography isn’t really about abstraction and pure forms like painting is. There is some purity, but it’s not the main goal.

ZS: What I gather, then, is that you see photography in conversation and friction with modernism.

MM: I would say I’m more curious about the trajectory of modernism and how it evolved from photography. I wanted to think of photography in a different modernist aesthetic, like in the vein of street photographers of the 1960s and ‘70s — Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand. I wanted to take what they did, the spontaneity and beauty of it, and put it in conversation with contemporary photographers like Dijkstra, Lawson, and Wall. But I was considering those two lineages [of modernism] together in terms of history and aesthetics.

ZS: If someone took a quick, superficial look at your photographs, they might mistake them for pure voyeurism, but it’s much more complicated than that. How do you see something like voyeurism related to your work?

MM: To answer your question, we need to talk about Rineke Dijkstra. She photographs adolescent children, but you can’t really talk about her work in terms of voyeurism because of how specific she and the rest of the Dusseldorf School are in their work. I use similar tropes in my work to help negate the problems of voyeurism that pepper art historical contexts, the way she did.

In my photography, I negate my own voyeurism as a photographer by appearing in my photographs, to an extent. There is no game. I’m not like the painter behind the canvas, or puppet master pulling the strings. My job is to step in front of the camera and make sure somebody is looking directly into the lens, looking at the viewers and putting the onus of voyeurism on them.

Matthew Morrocco, "The Village People" (2012)
Matthew Morrocco, “The Village People” (2012) (click to enlarge)

ZS: You level the playing field.

MM: I want to complicate the subject-viewer-photographer relationship. That’s very important to me. In my opinion, what helps to upset the hegemony of the gaze is to appear in front of the viewer. I explore dynamics of who is looking, who has “agency,” and where power and responsibility lie. But I don’t think contemporary viewers really think about who is behind the camera.

ZS: When the contemporary layman sees the artist in front of the camera, they think the artist is taking a “selfie.”

MM: Right.

ZS: But if we think about it historically, the manner in which we take “selfies” (looking at our own reflection on the phone screen) functions just like a mirror.

MM: I think it functions like a mirror today the way mirrors functioned in the 19th century. I’ve been fascinated with the power they held, and mirrors have recently entered my work in a big way. Silver nitrate mirrors, the same ones we use today, were invented around 1835, about eight or nine years after the first photograph was made. Knowing this, the 19th century seems like a time when people needed to see themselves. Why did they need this? It is the necessity of narcissism, and I consider narcissism one of the currencies of sexuality. I keep returning to the aesthetics of art, mostly painting. What artists like David, Gericault, Ingres, and later Manet were doing — it was all very sexual.

Mirrors also represent an important technology that evolved the aesthetics of art. When the Venetians created mercury mirrors in the 16th century, Britain and France sent secret agents to Venice to steal the mirrors and figure out the new technology. That’s how important it was. They don’t just reflect an image or open up space; they function as a philosophical or metaphorical space, similarly to how a computer has changed those modalities today. A mirror, in a way, is the primitive technology of a camera or computer. They are tools for humans to exercise their narcissism, or rather, exercise their need to be seen, to appear, and to relate to others.

Matthew Morrocco, "Self Portrait with David"
Matthew Morrocco, “Self Portrait with David” (click to enlarge)

ZS: Mirrors were a luxury item.

MM: It wasn’t just about luxury; it was the beginning of a primitive technology. Like opening up a second world in the same way that computers, or televisions, have opened up new worlds. In bringing mirrors into the context of the modern “selfie,” I hope to deconstruct and understand the use value of new technologies in the contemporary world compared to the old.

ZS: Before Photoshop, the mirror was a tool for the photographer to mechanically modify an image. Even in painting, mirrors open up spaces and play with the formal qualities of what the flat picture-plane can be.

MM: In terms of opening up spaces, I always think of Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” which opens more philosophical and metaphysical spaces than it does a physical, visual, or aesthetic space.

ZS: Mirrors and “selfies” played an important part in your recent work, “Self Portrait with David.” Can you speak about that work and its application of those technologies?

MM: The piece was a 10-by-10 foot “self-portrait” of myself taking a photograph of a man named David. In front of the photograph, there is a concrete block that houses a mirror reflecting the viewers, placing them within the image, like a primitive green screen. The mirror is actually a two-way mirror, though. There is a camera connected to the internet that sends a live video feed of the image to a nearby screen. It shows the viewers looking at themselves immersed in the scene.

Installation view of Matthew Morrocco's "Self Portrait with David" (all images courtesy the artist)
Installation view of Matthew Morrocco’s “Self Portrait with David” (click to enlarge)

The idea was born out of a method of display for “Intervention of the Sabine Women” by Jacques-Louis David. The artist showed the painting in his studio, where he placed a large mirror on the wall opposite the painting. Since the painting is life-size, viewers had the experience of being immersed in the painting as if they were really there. It is an early version of virtual realityMy “Self-Portrait with David” adds another dimension to this with the video camera. I wanted to draw a connection between versions of virtual space — photographs, video, mirrors, the internet — and the expression of dimensionality for the contemporary image. The piece is really an invitation for self-portraiture and, in some sense, I wanted to create a space where “selfies” were not only permitted but encouraged.

ZS: For your exhibition at Temp Art Space, you wrote about your work: “When the Supreme Court Justices [compare] the institution of gay marriage to cellphones in terms of its historical relevancy, it is not surprising that homosexuality seems like a 20th century imposition.” So it does seem to me that your work confronts what homosexuality is under the veil of technology.

MM: Yes, I was paraphrasing Justice Scalia — who probably only drinks black coffee. In my opinion, technology doesn’t have the ability to change people fundamentally; it’s actually about how we adapt technology to suit our own needs. What interests me is how images will be viewed now that there are so many platforms to view them.

ZS: How did your subject matter evolve with that in mind?

MM: In the beginning I was looking at the work of gay male photographers … most of whom only photographed attractive young men. I understand it as the history of gay male photography, especially in New York, but I found it so boring. I started looking at it because, that is my lineage, but I was really more curious about photographers like Richard Billingham, Leigh Ledare, and Renee Cox who deal with lineage very differently. Still, the lineage of gay male photographers in New York is very important to me. People who just arrive here, maybe thrown out of their families, are required to formulate new “familial” bonds, and I think these photographers have facilitated that. I thought that I could understand those bonds if I could understand the work of Duane Michals, Peter Hujar, and Robert Mapplethorpe, for example. I wanted to talk about that lineage and bring up the old anxieties about AIDS in the ‘80s with a historical reverence for those artists and people. That’s why I chose older gay men for my subjects. I wanted to understand how to make images with and of people who grew up way before this current technological revolution.

And my subjects are all very different in their own ways. I’ve photographed in New York, Berlin, and more recently in New Orleans. I stay in contact with these men. I’ve even become close friends with some of them. I never looked out for a specific type of man physically, but I connect with them online, so they understand technology pretty well. The work evolved out of a need to connect emotionally and historically, which I think was something I felt I lacked in today’s glut of circulating imagery.

39X17 continues at La MaMa’s La Galleria (47 Great Jones Street, East Village, Manhattan) through October 25.

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