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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

An interview with American artist Matthew Rose

Making sense of the non-sense

Written by Kat Phan


My situation (image courtesy of Matthew Rose)

Matthew Rose is an American artist living in Paris known for his 1,000 piece wall-to-wall collages. On viewing his work, you can’t help but feel as if you are peering into the wrong end of a telescope; the objects look familiar yet distorted, eerie yet beautiful.

His abstract, artistic style presents a surreal and parallel world infused with vibrant colours where he often plays with an unusual fusion of subjects (and by this I mean a man with carrots for his head or a woman who is part-human, part-camera – pretty crazy stuff but in the most fantastic sense!).

For almost three decades, Matthew has been producing installations, which reinforce the connection between imagery and literature in art. His works – many of which are a composite of beautiful colours, visuals and text melting into one another – evoke the genres of 20th century surrealist artists, and several critics have cited his work as demonstrating a ‘dadaist exploration of sense and non-sense’.

Matthew’s installations have featured in galleries and museums across Europe, Asia and the United States, and his work has appeared in numerous books and magazines, including MASTERS: COLLAGE (Sterling Publishing/Lark Books, 2010) published recently.

His most notable art project to date, A Book About Death, showcased in New York’s Emily Harvey Foundation Gallery in September 2009. The show was a logistical feat involving thousands of artists from across the globe sending 500 artworks in the form of postcards to construct the exhibition. The beauty of the exhibition was that the end result was offered to one lucky visitor in the form of a book… for free. More than 18 exhibitions of A Book About Death have been staged worldwide, including The Queens Museum in New York, MuBE in São Paulo and MoMA Wales.


Private view invite (image courtesy of Matthew Rose and Orange Dot Gallery)

Matthew’s most recent project, Scared But Fresh, is a dislocated love story exploring the sense and non-sense, which I was lucky enough to catch at Orange Dot Gallery, a lovely new exhibition space in the heart of Bloomsbury. By his own admission, Matthew is interested in ‘creating works to see them for himself’ but as a by-product of his imagination, his mesmerising creations prompt the viewer to garner thoughts of their own.

After gate-crashing a Brown University reunion held at the gallery, where Matthew studied Semiotics in 1981, I managed to grab a quiet moment with the calm and composed artist before his alumni chums arrived, gaining a glimpse into the annals of the mind of a truly fascinating individual…

How old were you when you realised you wanted to be an artist?
I couldn’t have been more than six years old when my mother and aunt dragged me to The Brooklyn Museum to see Van Gogh. The lines went around the block and I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about; I was hungry, my feet hurt and being small, I was suffocating in this cloud of wool coats. Once inside the galleries, however, I caught my first glimpse of what has proven to be a very nourishing world… I stayed close to my mother and aunt for about 10 minutes but soon enough got lost (purposely) and quietly pushed my way through the crowds to get up close to Van Gogh’s brilliant colors, these vibrating landscapes – in particular, the painting he produced in the Arlesian sun, Almond Branches in Bloom (1890). It turned out to be one of the pieces he produced the year he died of a self-inflicted gun shot wound. I never forgot the color and intelligence behind this painting, and I slowly began to look for this “art experience” in my own.


Anglais (image courtesy of Matthew Rose)

What artists did you look up to when you were developing your artistic style?
Most artists I know were influenced by the early 20th century modernists – Picasso, Matisse, Malevich…then Duchamp and the Dadaists, the Surrealists, Pollock, de Kooning and then those who flavored the world we arrived in: Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg. For me, probably folks like Hopper for his era and compositions and silence; and Cornell for his expansive internal universe, and mostly Ray Johnson, because he was a friend and teacher (as he was to thousands) and the way he worked. Since I mostly work in collage, I’m more prone to think in disparate images and texts, an old-fashioned multi-media stream of consciousness. I don’t have problems with dislocated images and lexical puzzles. Of course I don’t pretend that these artists are producing works of philosophy, but rather reflecting the cataclysm that stems from consciousness.

Your work often involves the use of collage – what led to this fascination and why do you like working in this particular abstract context?
Collage is just one of several mediums I work in. Over the years I’ve produced works/object in wax or wood, painting and drawing, and text pieces either as rubber stamp works (printing) or drawing the words. One of my interests is word as image, and collage permits me to combine words and images in a fairly rapid fashion. I tend to work super fast and produce series in a matter of days or weeks. I’m pretty obsessed once I get going and very little interferes with my process. I did a show some years ago called ‘Spelling With Scissors’, and this is my approach – combining literature (texts) with images. I have always discussed my aesthetic view as a form of reading.

What does working in collage allow you to express in ways that other forms of artistic expression cannot?
Speed. Strangeness. The wide array of material allows me to cover many ideas and compositional concepts in a short period of time. Painting plays a part in what I do, as does drawing and often these mediums come into play in a work. But collage is an approach to consciousness, and that, I think is the flux endpoint in my work. Most of the elements I use are found, and that, too, is an important part of my process. Seeing what the world washes up at my feet, the skidmarks of my time and place.


Scared But Fresh at Orange Dot Gallery (photography courtesy of Orange Dot Gallery)

What was the inspiration behind Scared But Fresh?
Scared But Fresh
is a love story. The works in the exhibition come together (in my mind, at least) to lay out a dislocated love story, a song about love with its insistent cacophony. I think if you look at the pieces in this exhibition, including the 12-piece collage on paper series, America, you’ll see sex, love and death (the staples of art making), you’ll discover heartache, lust, dread and all those angst-laden things that produce so much of the content of our lives. Or at least that’s the way I see it. Again, I produce these works to see them myself, to see what these odd elements produce in combination, and to perhaps understand what sort of stuff is moving around inside of me; that said, it’s not therapy, but rather an inquiry.

Why is the exhibition called Scared But Fresh?
Scared But Fresh was a phrase sent to me in 2002 by a friend; she signed an e mail that way. I immediately seized upon it, made a tonne of text works with it, cutting stencils and painting them, or adding it to other works, but also meditating upon its possible meanings. The “but” is critical. My thinking in using it for the title of this exhibition at Orange Dot Gallery in London was that it was so aggressive, sure but still loaded with innocence and dread. Like love.

Critics have previously cited your work as a dadaist exploration of sense and non-sense. What would your response be to this?
I would agree with them. Dada is many things, and has been the point of departure for nearly 100 years of art production. The combination of sense and non-sense, broken grammar, chopped up meaning, and the flux of everyday life is, in my view, what my consciousness is like. What is the sense of finding a dollar bill stuck in a pile of dog shit? Or posters torn and weathered revealing a history of pasting and perhaps, a history of beauty (the models featured in years of posters, bits of their faces and clothing revealed)? I grab onto these things and consider them. Other people think about interest rates and widget production, and so do I, but I do something quite different with the information, the images and the meaning of these things. A large piece I produced, Les Affaires (prints are on Keep Calm Gallery’s site), surveys all sorts of exchanges; it is about commerce in many ways. Another work, Immaculate Perception (also available as a print on Keep Calm Gallery), is a very simple surreal piece showing a girl blossoming from a lemon tree. It’s not very interesting to be logical all day long, plus logic is overrated.


Cornell Bottle (photography courtesy of Orange Dot Gallery)

How would you describe your own style of work?
I’m a cut and paste artist. But I try to be clear in my chaos. The style can be dada, neo-pop, surreal, but I think after all these years, it’s simply mine.

When you create art, do you do it in the frame of mind that it will be viewed by others or it is created as a visual form of a personal diary?
I create these things to see them for myself, to discover what this 1/2 face would look like with this 1/2 refrigerator. Or what would happen if this nice girl in her party dress would be like if she were wearing a steak for a head, or a pair of mechanical gears for breasts? I produce these works the way I play chess, carefully, but totally willing to take risks, totally willing to exchange queens, sacrifice pawns…not afraid to lose. As for a diary, I’m not sure about that, but I do work in books very often. Some of my series come in the form of 110-page visual novels like A Perfect Friend and Days Like These, People (drawings), Machines (drawings) and a dozen others. I feel not so much as if I’m making things for other people – again – but more for myself, and not to cure myself of anything other than the nightmare that is our world.

You are now based in France. Do you find that where you live has any influence on the themes that run through your work?
Living in France probably hasn’t altered in any significant way the themes that run through my work. Love, sex, death, anxiety, money will find you out no matter where you live. The material though is different. As I’m extremely interested in language, the plethora of printed materials in French, German, Spanish, Italian, English and other languages abounds here. I often find old beat up books tossed out on the street, or objects on the sidewalk. I can also play with a tonne of languages and I very much enjoy that. It’s the world. My studio is small and quiet and as I also live in the space I’m always up at 3 am working. Or I sleep then wake and work… something is always going on here, and should I need to go out, a walk proves a real fascination for me after a period of intense activity. “Holy smokes,” I’ll say to myself. “I live in France.” I sometimes forget that I actually live in this country.

What thoughts/feelings would you like viewers to go away with after they have been to your exhibition?
Well they tell me that they enjoy the work, they like that craziness of the work, but that it all makes sense. During the exhibition the head of a large international advertising company spent quite a while looking at my work. His focus is message communication, and in particularly creating iPhone apps, so he’s very attuned to visuals and text, and he said to me: “This is brilliant.” At the moment he was looking at a work from the America series of a girl on a swing with the word “HOME” pasted on top of her. She was pasted, in turn, on top of a photograph of a ship in a raging storm. That to me was very rewarding. Because something that was interesting to me was interesting to someone else, it was strong enough to click somewhere else.

How would you best like to be remembered?
You mean when I die? I launched an enormous project about this (in a way), A Book About Death. So I’ve thought long and hard about what its like to not have consciousness, to be left alone, to struggle with the impermanence of life, and the often sad and painful lives we lead when the folks we love are no longer with us. I’ve tried not to turn away from death and acknowledge it. Maybe as someone who wasn’t afraid to confront his demons, loved his friends and collaborated with the world in a way that made a little bit more sense out of the nonsense.

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4 Responses to “An interview with American artist Matthew Rose”

  1. james meyer says:

    what a great tribute to a most interesting artist, the interview kept trying to pin matthew down but the great thing about his work is that he is different from those movements. Also he does great work involving other artists through the web.
    Thank you
    james Meyer

  2. Amelia says:

    Hi James, thanks for your comment. I hope you don’t mind that I made a few typo corrections before taking it live x

  3. MATTHEW ROSE says:

    Hello Kat, many thanks for seeing the show and reviewing it here. Some other links to my work and people showing it:

    KEEP CALM GALLERY (PRINTS) LONDON:
    http://www.keepcalmgallery.com/artists/matthew_rose/_all

    MY BLOG:
    http://matthewrosestudio.blogspot.com/

    ART SALES
    http://matthewroseartworks.blogspot.com/

    Many thanks…

    Matthew

  4. Kat Phan says:

    Hi Matthew, it was an absolute pleasure. Looking forward to seeing you and more of your work exhibiting in London again soon! Best, Kat x

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