Matt, you grew up in the South, mainly Louisiana and Mississippi, but now reside in Brooklyn, and soon you’ll relocate to Stockholm. How has your upbringing shown itself in your body of work?
My parents are art teachers, so I was surrounded by it and grew to appreciate all the levels of sophistication that are possible in visual art. When I delivered the news to them that I was serious about pursuing it as a career, they showered me with support. I think both of those facts are reflected in the work.
Living in so many diverse environments, which do you find the most inspiring to your work? How has each environment shown itself in your body of work?
I have always been intensely receptive to and inspired by all of my surroundings throughout my life, but I think the environments that most often show up in my art are from the southern landscape. more specifically, I draw a great deal of inspiration from the landscapes of Louisiana, Mississippi, and northern Florida. in a beautiful way, one is surrounded by cypress trees, cotton fields, and bayou waters. The region is heavily wooded, and the climate is subtropical, with long hot summers and short mild winters. There is a particularly amazing and unique golden light that can be experienced in Mississippi and Louisiana. Great writers, such as William Faulkner, have captured the essence of this light. When asked about the title of his book Light in August, Faulkner said:
“…in August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambency, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times…the title reminded me of that time, of a luminosity older than our Christian civilization.”
Right now my work portrays light in black and white, but I have plans to introduce more color.
By contrast, the light in Scandinavia has a different quality. Recently, I spent time in Sweden with my wife and her family, and i experienced for the first time the absence of light during the middle of winter. Although the sun is up for only a few hours between 10am-2pm, that light has a beautiful blue and desaturated quality that provides a stark and inspiring contrast to the southern U.S. I have begun to be very interested in the dichotomy between the American south and Scandinavia; this will show itself in my future work.
What role have religion, politics, and culture played in inspiring your work? Do you consider yourself a religious person?
The term religion can be misleading—there is a large range of practices that go by the name of religion, and many of them do not have much in common with each other. For instance, my youth experience was completely different than that of a Jain in India, whose core concerns in life are nonviolence to an extreme where they will wear a tissue over their faces so as to not accidentally inhale and kill an insect. I was raised in a southern Baptist household, and actually attended a Baptist university in Mississippi. Dialogue in the state is dominated by ideas about revelation from the Christian god, sin and repentance, neo-conservative political views, hawkish foreign policy, anxiety about the civil war, and faith. These are all rigid institutions of the mind that I contemplate while making art. My focus is to break these institutions down and rebuild them into a more pluralistic and accurate view of society, history, and the cosmos. Many people are attached to religions not because they are convinced that the metaphysics make sense, but because they see no other alternative means to teach their kids right and wrong. Others choose loyalty to tradition and have less literal interpretations. The problem with these approaches is that they allow for the continued existence of extreme literalists. In my view, faith is belief without evidence. I seek answers that are supported by evidence in science. At some point, I decided finding truth was the most important thing to me, not what made me feel good, such as holding on to outdated traditions. Once we all realize we don’t have to rely on iron age mythologies, then we can value poetry in art, consolation and morality in philosophy, truth in the scientific method, and awe in observing the impersonal universe.
It has been said your more recent work raises questions about how traditional structure holds up when critical reason is introduced into a landscape. Can you speak to a real-life example of this inspiration?
There are plenty of rigid, traditional structures to choose from, and I mentioned a few before. Once you approach one of these deep-rooted beliefs or arguments with honesty and logic, then you can begin to dismantle it. Once broken down, you see all its parts and where each part came from. This can potentially be frightening at first when the truth is revealed. this process can be compared to a mythological or psychedelic journey, because they are stories that are metaphors of human experience and fulfillment. For example, one might find out they have been mislead or imprisoned by an idea or outside force. One might realize that some beliefs they have held dearly are not relevant or are simply illusions. I try to make visual images that are metaphors of decay, annihilation, and implosion followed by a regrowth or rebuilding action. In a transparent landscape, perhaps in the landscape of one’s self, my work depicts uncertainty through images of humans and animals in a state of becoming or becoming undone. They pull, uproot, and hide the fragmented and systemic features to reveal intricate and repetitive systems that surround and penetrate the body.
Your collaborative exhibition “When She Strikes” in Philadelphia referenced the impact of power and drew inspiration from Hurricane Katrina and military destruction. Do you make it home often? Touch on how those experiences showed themselves in your piece titled “Levee,” and what the piece offered to those affected by the calamity.
My family lives in Mississippi, and I do try to travel back there at least once a year. It is a nice respite from New York. It is refreshing to stand in open land and take three deep breaths to clear my lungs. I also try to make it a point to drive down to New Orleans because I love the city. I think about it often, because it is a small city with such rich complexity. I was thinking about New Orleans and the Gulf Coast while working with artist Jeremy Waltman on our collaborative work “When She Strikes”. I was in Mississippi at the time Katrina hit, and I very vividly remember the days without power, as well as all of the images and stories of disaster and destruction coming from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I know people who were directly affected, and I traveled to the coast afterwards. The installation consists of two large-scale 6 x 16-foot drawings, video, and found sound. So far we have not had the chance to show the installation in New Orleans, but I would very much like to. If any Amelie G readers know of any possibility, then we would be eager to do so!
My drawing “Levee” can be seen to reference the initial impact of a storm. The wind blows through the figures in the piece, who might be hovering in the air or being blown backwards or forwards. The thick, violent lines might be pieces of trees or railings, or the bodies of the figures. On one end of the piece, a figure is seen without clothes, and stripped down or revealed to what might be molecular, astronomical, or bio-cellular lines. Water or debris pours over architectural forms like iron railings. The tops of trees or human hair can be seen swirling and blowing beneath. One of our goals with this installation was to reference what happens when we take on damage. I see the storm as our own bodies. What happens to us emotionally at the initial point of loss? Whether it is the loss of a loved one, a personal relationship, or the loss of a deeply held belief, how do we deal with moments of crisis or sudden change? I also see it as a reflection of what’s going on inside our bodies and our brains to create our understanding of self, and what drives our actions. Many neuroscientists—Sam Harris, for example—have written about the question of free will and how our brain is a storm of consciousness. In other words, thoughts simply arise in consciousness and are not drive by our “free will”. We are not controlled by the storm, nor are we caught in it. We are the storm.
You co-built and now co-direct the Pinion Gallery, which hosts shows in different spaces in both Florida and New York. What advice would you give to up-and-coming artists who are interested in building a space of their own?
I will start by saying: be patient and budget your time. All artists know that the biggest struggle is to find the time to produce work. Be careful that your day job does not take up too much time and mental energy. If you also wish to run a gallery, then there is even less time to consider. You should find one or more artists that you know are trustworthy and hardworking to share the responsibilities, because there are many. Find a large, clean space that is easily accessible to the public. Once you make a website and put up some gallery lights, then you have yourself a gallery. Now the hard part starts. Arrange regular meetings and draw up a calendar of events. Advertise and then document each exhibit. It really deserves repetition: document, document, document. If you have great documentation of those exhibitions, then you can use them for many promotional ends.
Your body of work is comprised of large-scale pen-and-ink drawings. Speak to the detail that goes into each piece. Do you have a vision of the finished product before you begin, or is it created along the way? How long do you spend on each piece?
For me, a large part of the pleasure in making art is producing the work and spending a lot of time on the details. Those details allow me to focus my attention in a very uncomplicated way. When building a painting or drawing with small marks, I step into a space that allows for emotional vulnerability and attempt to calm down the chatter that is happening in my brain. This heightens my awareness of the present moment. I then can consider transcendental experiences, such as rebuilding my knowledge. The artist Francis Bacon describes this experience well: “It’s not so much the painting that excites me. the painting unlocks all kinds of valves and sensations inside me which returns me to life more violently.” This is an excellent description of how I feel about and approach my work.
The amount of time I spend on a piece depends on its size and how much time I can spend in the studio. One of the major struggles of an artist is to somehow find the time to spend in the studio around working to pay the bills and student loans, if you have them. With regard to a vision of the finished product, I personally like to work in a series or narrative structure because I like to inject my work with meaning. I think visual storytelling can connect with a viewer in a cognitively meaningful way, making the person feel there is complexity involved and leave them wanting to know more. the story may not be as direct and long as, say, a screenplay for a movie, because I prefer to leave a lot of room for ambiguity and abstraction.
Where can Amelie G readers find your work in person?
I am in the process of communicating with galleries in New York and northern Europe. Things change quickly, so you can read about the latest news on my website or twitter feed @mattamiley. In the meantime, you can find my work highlighted in Studio Visit Magazine’s volume 19, 2013 edition. I also just opened a new online store, where high- quality acrylics and prints of my work can be purchased. My website, www.mattmiley.com, has a link to this store.
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