Editor’s note: This is the 14th in a series of interviews with artists that will continue indefinitely, without direction, and outside any one person’s control. The artists are asked seven questions about their art and their ideas about art. The questions are blunt, but open-ended enough to be answered in any way the artist chooses. The final question is a request for the artist to select the next artist to be interviewed — anyone they wish, well-known or unknown, working in any medium, anywhere — any artist whose work they think highly of, an artist deserving the same public interrogation.
Imagery in painting today is regularly sourced from photography, which alters not only the types of things we see painted, but also what we expect paintings to be. Matt Saunders redirects these considerations by creating unique photographs that are fabricated from the marks of his own paintings. Canvas, oil paint, mylar, and related media — what, in other hands, might be framed and put on a wall — become the “negatives” through which light is passed onto photographic paper. The artist is obviating taxonomies, sure. But the motivation and experience are in the materials rather than about them — something sensual rather than cerebral — and the resultant art is more giving for it, ever evolving.
Saunders was chosen to participate in this series by artist Matt Hale, who offered this curious quip as an explanation: “Gifts must effect the recipient to the point of shock.” I wonder who is being gifted and shocked, us or Saunders. One way or the other, his solo exhibition Inondé recently closed at Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris, on the heels of his show Two Worlds at Blum & Poe in Tokyo. Saunders divides his time between Berlin and Cambridge, Mass., where he teaches in Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies.
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Rob Colvin: Why did you become an artist?
Matt Saunders: I’m not sure where the gravity came from — the soft pull that kept me circling around irrational things — but the quick shove probably came from a painting by Jasper Johns in the National Gallery in Washington, “Fool’s House.” It’s by no account his greatest work, but it’s the one I found myself standing in front of as a kid, gawking. The physical body of it … the play between language and objects … the lexical semantics passing between objects (stretcher to towel to canvas) —it pulled away from the closed surfaces of all the other pictures I’d seen and was an object/painting I could imagine both making and mucking around in. So I signed up for art class and from that moment thought of art as the language for thinking about the world. I guess, to some extent, I’m still trying to find ways to operate under that surface.
RC: How would you describe your development and what you’re doing now?
MS: I’m a devotee of painting trying to grapple with a world of moving image and time. I started out making more traditional paintings from film sources — not so often found stills as photos I took off the TV, with layers of temporal and physical remove. I strove to embody the fleeting images — to embed them inseparably in their materials and have them speak of those materials. And that led to stranger paintings. At the moment, my paintings are photographic prints. Made without a camera, I’m making my own negatives with painting materials. The painting becomes a tool for making the work, and there is a passing moment of contact in the dark between the painted canvas and the photo paper in which the work is conceived. (Time comes back into the picture.) My drawings have moved into being rhythmic, animated films.
RC: Have you been influenced by anyone or anything in particular?
MS: Well, I mentioned Johns — his whole milieu, actually — which I imbibed religiously as a teenager, but then I got lost in the movies. Warhol’s droll razor. Fassbinder’s overabundance. Jack Smith was a compass and a revelation, pointing to how any enactment was an event (decoupling the virtues of acting from good or bad craft). His films overact the medium (they’re structural without being parochial): popping, floating soundtracks from records; a loose form, with sections spliced and respliced in different ways; outdated film stock which flares out under the filmmaker’s own feet into pure color. These films are insistently material.
RC: What challenges are unique to your process?
MS: There’s a bit of backwardness to it, which is exactly what keeps it going. I have to paint the opposite of what I want, which is a kind of blindness. With the large silver gelatin prints on which I hand-paint the chemistry, the whole body comes into play. By the time the image appears, it’s too late to change, so I end up exposing many sheets of paper and more or less learning the choreography through trial and error. Tilted forward with your longest reach to brush on developer, you have to find the image too fast for judgment, through muscle memory. In the color darkroom, it’s pitch black, and the picture is largely made through feel. I hadn’t quite expected either. I don’t know if it’s tying one hand behind my back or simply working around the corner, but it feels alive — not unlike the tension between the slowness of drawing and quickness of editing in the animation.
RC: So what is art anyway?
MS: I’d propose Adolph Menzel’s “Fuß des Künstlers (The Artist’s Foot)” (1876). Or else his 1845 drawing of his own unmade bed.
RC: If you could own any work of art, what would it be?
MS: Oh no, that’s impossible. I can’t even answer a favorite color. The work I do own I love down to the piece, always full of the remembrance of however I traded or came to have it. I’m missing Berlin a lot right now, so I’ll name a painting I used to go look at all the time when I first moved there. It’s at the Gemäldegalerie, but not always on display, so I’ll say for sure that this is one work I wouldn’t mind being confronted with every day: Lucas Cranach the Elder’s 1533 “Lucretia.“ Either that or Pierre Huyghe’s work from the last Documenta … I would live inside of it.
RC: Who should be interviewed next?
Kerstin Cmelka. I’m always impressed by how she thinks and where she comes from (so different from myself). Her show last year at the Kunstverein Langenhagen was a whip-smart trio of self-reflexive videos about personal interactions (“Mikrodramas” … and how to do we take any of them, when the plush bench for viewers winding though the gallery is in the form of a snake?), about mimicry and self-possession. They speak with wit and emotional truth. Since then she’s been to LA and back, delved into the physical training done by actors, and is close to finished with a new work. I’m curious!