3.5 / Maybe It Will Fall Apart

Inside the Artist’s Studio, Part 1: Matthew Gordon

By Michele Carlson November 16, 2011

All images: Matthew Gordon's studio. Photo: Adriana Ristau and Mik Gaspay.

Being a creative practitioner is exciting because I live in a constant state of learning. Sometimes this is a formal investigation of material and form, and other times it is a perceptive or conceptual exploration. Nevertheless, having such a practice means that I am always learning something practical about the personal and professional logistics in balancing these creative urges and professional practices with well, everything and everyone else willing to be in my life. How do other artists approach what are frequently complex life and making strategies? Artists have historically grappled with this tension between their professional practice and economic stability in the face of what are often uneasy personal sacrifices. This feature series emerged from my own interest in emerging artists and how they navigate a burgeoning professional practice as it unfolds within their daily life. What can the practice of artists suggest about their work, outside of the exhibition, or final venue and form? San Francisco–based interdisciplinary artist and writer Matthew Gordon was generous enough to allow me to poke around his studio, prod his explanations, and attempt to learn about his work by discovering how he makes it.

I was both intimidated and impressed the first time I peered down into the explosion that is Matt’s studio, which is a repurposed garage below his Bernal Heights home. In true San Francisco fashion, the house leans its weight upright against the severe angle of the hill that rises steeply over the Bayview side of the diverse neighborhood. Matt will not open the garage door, so instead you have to climb down a leaning rickety wooden ladder to get to his studio. On my first visit, Matt sat quietly waiting, in his unassuming way, for me to make my way through the exposed framing of the unfinished wall that separates the two-car garage. I awkwardly climbed down the ladder, while minding a flimsy piece of plywood that acts as a makeshift second-to-the-last-step. After surviving this descent, my feet landed on layers of scraps, shreds, and remnants of papers that lay out a patchwork quilt of sorts on the floor. Every possible surface spilled with art-making detritus. Looking around Matt’s studio is similar to how I feel when I’m people watching at a football game. I can’t take my eyes off of everything. 

During this studio visit, we sat in front of his desktop computer where he does most of his writing. Brushes, pencils, tufts of drying paint, empty beer bottles, and stacks of papers surrounded him. If you spend some time, you can begin to spot things that don’t really fit—a questionable amount of old electronics (I counted three portable CD players) or one too many pieces of exercise equipment, the kind you order off an infomercial late at night. Hazardously piled on the floor and in random nooks are books, materials, and cleaning supplies that I am sure are not actually for cleaning. The shelves that line the back wall barely hold everything that stuffs them. In one corner Christmas decorations butt up against an arch of paper coffee cups attached together by the frozen-in-motion bulges of spray foam. You can pick out the bits and pieces of past sculptures and abandoned experiments that have been broken down for the graveyard of artist’s storage or reuse. San Francisco playwright Kevin Killian, who was one of Matt’s graduate advisors, fondly likened Matt’s studio to a “deleted scene from Animal House.” On seeing the photographs for this article, Matt seemed genuinely surprised about the state of his space, and quietly chuckled, “That’s what my studio looks like.” Matt mostly speaks in quiet, yet assertively thoughtful statements that occasionally pose as questions, depending on who is listening.

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Revealingly, Matt clumsily fastened a tall floor lamp to his studio wall, a good eight feet above the ground. This lamp, used in just a faintly inappropriate way, is a fitting reflection of Matt’s work. When I pointed out the weirdness of it, he responded “I needed more light." With Matt, everything balances between a sardonic humor and sincerity that would make even the most assured person suspicious they are being toyed with. Matt takes these seemingly mundane objects, images, or texts from everyday life and rather awkwardly repositions or alters them. Matt’s studio and practice are full of candid, covert, and facetious misuses.

During this visit, Matt maintained, “My work is generative.” There are stacks of reused typing paper on which he creates collages that mix photographic and found imagery, text, and his own marks. He appropriates images he finds, and sometimes he will borrow images directly from his life, such as photos of friends taken from Facebook. Matt explained that he prints these images from his roommate’s laser printer, because, as he says, “I like the shitty quality,” and because he uses them as material for loose and quick collages. Next, Matt scans them; he might do more digital manipulation, and finally he prints them at his day job, where he manages a digital lab. He then will take those prints home and work back into them by hand. Most likely, Matt will make more drawings from these digitally processed and appropriated images, and the cycle begins again. Drawings, collages, and stand-alone sculptures can emerge. Or sometimes he arranges all of his work into installations that include the sculptures and works on paper. For his 2008 MFA exhibition, Matt assembled an installation made of detailed wallpaper, sculptures, and drawings that recycled and reworked particular everyday objects such as a dustpan, wastebasket, or different types of brooms. After a work is finished, Matt admitted that he sometimes remakes it or uses it for another project. At the very least, he will probably produce several more iterations and abstractions in the form of drawings, collages, and poems.

Matt often writes directly from his own images. He is a poet, although he is hesitant, if not skeptical, of fully owning the title. This sort of quiet nervousness in fact sheaths a latent confidence within his work and manner. He intuitively and quickly absorbed writing into his artistic practice after his first poetry class in graduate school with Killian, where his poems began to emerge from the mishearings he would have in conversations with people. Matt wears hearing aids in both ears and experiments with the visual, oral, and aural effects and perceptions of language by working in phrases of his poetry into his collages. He explains to me he is “interested in how language fails,” and sometimes these words and phrases are the images in his work. He scrawls his own text, or misheard text, in graphite across sheets of Bristol; they engage with coded wordplay that could also be easily misinterpreted, misunderstood, or quite simply missed. Matt is okay with the possibility of this slippage. His work, after all, is rooted in the possibilities that can occur when visual, written, or spoken language fails.

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Toward the back of Matt’s studio, dangling from a clothesline that lazily cuts the room, is a single white cloth laundry bag—a jury-rigged protective casing for a full body panda costume. Matt posed as this panda, which was the mascot for the opening of Unkle Hooper’s Arcade, in an exhibition by FiSHSPACE, a long-term collaborative project between he and artist Mik Gaspay (who was present during one studio visit). FiSHSPACE is an unsanctioned pseudo-gallery, which presented shows that, amongst other themes, outright parodied and reappropriated work from other exhibitions in the San Francisco Bay Area. Collaborations can be opportune spaces for artists to explore ideas and modes of making that would not fit in their individual practices. For Matt, these bold, unexpected, and unselfconscious mini-performances are testament to his tongue-in-cheek gravitas that furtively lurks in his work and more overtly in his person. While Matt posed for the photo shoot of his studio, Mik and I tiptoedand rummaged around. Mik fondly dubbed the space “Hurricane Gordon.” It did feel like an art-making deluge. Matt’s studio is less a repository for stuff he might have wandered home with than a material transfer station between life and what he makes from and of it.

During this photo shoot, Mik mentioned, “I work so differently than Matt.” It was an unintentionally confirming statement, as if Mik had always suspected as much, but finally understood while standing in the midst of Matt’s studio. I

found this striking because Mik offered this distinction despite the fact that he and Matt work closely and collaboratively together. Artists work in many different ways. Some take an idea and try to re-create it in a form. Others, like Matt, take a form and use it in order to re-create and question an idea.

Matt’s work is deeply coded partly because of his cycle of abstracting from his own abstractions. There is a relationship to language and symbolism, but Matt adamantly opposes framing his work within the context of any sort of personal iconography. In fact, when I gently offered this framing, Matt, somewhat agitated, asserted, “I would never frame my work that way.” I was initially skeptical until I realized this was too simplistic of a way to position his work. We are drawn to iconography and symbolism because we recognize it. We can create a narrative with and around it. These are the stories we create to better understand our worlds and the things, people, and experiences within it. Matt’s work reflects the process of seeing and understanding in and of itself, not the actual things or the stories they might suggest.

This became more evident to me when Matt began to show me, one by one, his current works on paper. Several hours later, we had worked our way through a set of flat files that contained countless drawings and collages. His drawings revealed small moments of testimony that he can steadily render, but most of the time he chooses more abstracted and looser methods of representation. He mentions that “people always ask me why I don’t render more,” while flipping through and narrating a stack of mostly abstract and text-based drawings and collages. I liken my lackadaisical urge to read and locate his work within the narratives and histories of iconography akin to rendering the world exactly as one might literally see it—neither is messy enough. How we negotiate the world is not perfectly rendered. The stories we build and the objects we pile around us fail to reflect the complexity of how it feels to move through life. That experience, like Matt’s work, can be a sort of trickster that is indeed generative, transforming, and uncertain.

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Matt makes art. He writes poetry. He will tell you he is deeply committed and invested in creating in and for those worlds. He exhibits and engages actively in what is for him a very broad and diverse creative community. I mention this participation because it falls smack in contradiction to what Matt will admit is his impulse “to hide away in my studio where it’s safe.” He is dubious of getting too near the social politics of the art world, which are often hard to separate from professional politics. Still, he recognizes a need to be active in the arena that currently frames his practice, versus following his hermetic instinct. He is unapologetic about being an academically trained artist; he has undergraduate degrees in painting and art education along with an MFA in painting and drawing. He comes from a family of educators who, for better or for worse, support his creative choices. When I asked him how he started making art, he answered, “My dad always drew and my mom makes quilts.” Matt’s family are makers not in the contemporary art sense, but in the intuitive and rudimentary way that people follow creative urges in everyday life, and Matt’s formal training is supported by this instilled intuitive faith in creative resourcefulness and making. Matt is trying to figure out how to incorporate the professional aspects of the creative world into what has been a lifelong, deeply personal, and investigative practice.

San Francisco–based artist Anthony Discenza, Matt’s graduate advisor and friend, observed, “Matt always seemed to be unfolding all these nested layers of dialogue with his process into everything he did…always doing so in a way that made it funny, that acknowledged a certain absurdity to the whole enterprise of making art.” Matt’s creative process is a part of his life, no matter what that life might logistically or personally look like. In 2005, he followed his then girlfriend to Boston, for what he says was “an important transitional experience for him.” There, Matt lofted his twin bed in the bedroom of a house he shared with a revolving list of roommates so that he would have space to make work between shifts at Starbucks. Matt says, “Working a shitty job at Starbucks was a really important experience for me. I took home all this excess packaging and used it to make all of the work I applied to grad school with.” The work he would make there under that twin bed would be the work that would move him across the country to graduate school in California and the place where he would build his current practice. The relationship Matt has to his list of day jobs (aka crappy post-grad job at Starbucks) is a telling example of how Matt approaches life. Everything, every place, and everyone around him are an opportunity for creative inquiry.

We chatted about this one night after a studio visit, tucked into a dark corner of a local bar in Bernal Heights. Matt sat down at a small wobbly wooden table, beer sloshing onto the already sticky surface, after loading the jukebox full of an eclectic mix of music that ranged from early Jay-Z to Guided by Voices, his favorite band. In the way that his musical tastes span genres and decades, he is a passable encyclopedia about the things he knows. Matt is currently plowing through Raymond Chandler’s entire oeuvre, and he will freely spell out his fascination with the detective fiction writer by reciting passages from the text, line for line. A long enough conversation with him can find you bouncing between a critique of Sigmar Polke to Robert Pollard’s most recent album (yes, the lead singer of Guided by Voices), to perhaps an endless rumination on Beat poet Jack Spicer’s diction, life, or legacy, of which he seems to be always mulling. Matt is an avid and aggressive learner. Killian reflected “that Gordon knew, or wanted to know, more than any other writer I’ve ever worked with at CCA or elsewhere.” Matt is the guy who reads or listens to all the influences of his favorite writers or musicians so that he can really learn why. Most of us are okay with simply loving the things and people we love, but for Matt, even this is an ongoing process. Engrained into the very elliptical nature of his making and writing process is the practice of learning.

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How does one fit a creative practice into the inconsistent spaces between the demands of daily life? Somewhere along the way, Matt figured out that he should instead ask his life to fit into the context of his practice. For many artists, the moments where life fails to articulate is where the creative process begins; we often make and write in order to understand those failings or suggest alternatives. I get the feeling that for Matt, the moments where creative production fails is actually where his life begins. If given the opportunity, he might just cut, paste, and rewrite his life in his studio infinitely. I suspect that he acknowledges you can only move images and words around so much before that practice must feed on life outside of the studio. Yet there is a sense when you are with Matt that he would rather be elsewhere. More so, he is collecting this experience and encounter so that he can go back to his studio where he will decode and recode it on his own terms. Life as a testing ground for creative production explodes from Matt’s studio

On a rainy Friday evening, I met up with Matt as he was returning home from an evening of gallery openings. We settled into his favorite neighborhood bar that was full of regulars—everyone seemed to recognize everyone, including Matt. It was hard to keep his attention away from the 2003 Charlie’s: Angels Full Throttle that exploded off the flat-screen televisions in the bar. He had never seen it screened in that high of definition. You do not have to dig too deep to uncover Matt’s penchant for lowbrow affect, but the rest of him, and his work, are discreetly complicated. Matt, still mulling it over, suggested, “You have to take the time, but I think when you do, people get something from my work.” Matt’s conditions as a maker, and as a person, are weighted by an ongoing tension between what he knows and what he suspects you will not be patient enough to find out. This is an extension of dueling professional expectations and personal investigations in his life and practice. Matt is always grappling. His work is a process of formal abstraction, but perhaps in an attempt for personal clarity. The products of Matt’s work often feel more like the subtitles to his life. So perhaps we have been reading the wrong things. Matt reassured us both, “I’m pretty sure my art reflects my life.” I suspect if you do decide to stick around you might find yourself somehow incorporated into his practice—although you’ll probably never know it. There is no shelter.

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To see more of Matthew Gordon’s work and writing please visit www.nodrogttam.com

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