24 July 2010

Interview with Matthew Whitney, painter

This is the eighteenth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting. There are also questions for you, the reader, scattered throughout this post. Your answer to at least one of them would be an excellent footprint for you to leave behind you here.

Interview with Matthew Whitney
via email
19 July 2010

IA: Please tell us about yourself. In what media do you create or perform? Do you also teach? Are you also a student?

MW: I’m a studio painter most of the time, but also do some site-specific installation work. I live and work in Seattle and currently am working on an MFA degree through a low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

IA: Would you describe one particular piece of site-specific installation work you have done?

MW: In "Bridge," I collaborated with a group of musicians who call themselves The Opiate Mass (formerly Urban Hymnal). They put on a concert and performed music about the neighborhoods in North Seattle that surround Highway 99, which is a freeway that goes through Seattle and then crosses the Ship Canal via the iconic Aurora Bridge. Along that stretch of freeway there are several low-rent motels that are frequently used for drug dealing, drug use, and prostitution. The city has made a push to close them up, but the problem is that these same motels are one of the only places available to live for a lot of low-income people. For the performance, I created this sculpture, called "Bridge," which was an abstract wooden-framed structure. It was meant to resemble broken pieces of the Aurora Bridge. I projected floor lighting on it, and the shadow cast on the wall connected the bridge, made it whole, in a sense.

photo courtesy of Chris Wartes

IA: What topics tend to recur in your work?

MW: In my work I explore ideas of ethics, spirituality, and truth. In a way the work is my seeking answers to the ancient Socratic question, “How should one live?” The answers given by the institutional groupthink and social definitions of Truth today are not fulfilling to the current generation. Post-structuralism has forced us to reconsider our institutions of Church, Government, and Art. Instead of engaging humanity and creating commonwealth, these institutions have largely retreated into themselves, wrapping themselves in self-serving ideals of their glory days and in the process becoming more and more extremist and protectionist, and thus becoming caricatures of themselves. I recently heard Makoto Fujimura use that word 'commonwealth' in a talk he gave in Seattle, in a way which was profound to me. In my work, I am seeking a way forward, trying to piece together for myself elements of theology, political systems, and culture in building a foundation in which Truth can be recognized.

IA: Can you give us a concrete example of how you do that? Can you describe one painting in which your holistic mental system (your worldview, as it were) of theology, politics, and culture came together for you into a visual expression?

MW: "Sacred Cow" is my latest painting, and is a culmination of a lot of things I've been thinking about in the last few months. The title itself, "Sacred Cow," is a double entendre - being at once literal (cattle are sacred in several religions) and metaphorically ironic (an idea or thing that is supposedly ineffable, usually unreasonably so). And yet the metaphor itself shows a lack of understanding of the depth and meaning of another cultural perspective and an unwillingness to explore other points of view. I wonder if in living out faith and loving others, we might have to explore our own "sacred cows" and test the whole notion of individual worldview. For if one's worldview is found to have flaws, isn't that where faith is found? Perhaps Truth is bigger than can be defined in any one worldview. This is an interesting problem for me. So for this painting, I have attempted to make a sort of "iconoclastic icon" (for though there is this great renewal of visual art happening in the Church, iconoclasm is our heritage).

TO THE READER: Have you observed a renewal of the arts in your church? How?

IA: What specific techniques do you use?

MW: I make oil and acrylic paintings, using thick impasto technique with brush and palette knife to create highly textured, crusty layers of paint. I combine elements of figurative narrative and abstract shape and form, seeking to blur and disorient, but at the same time finding the “grey” area and allowing for mystery to be embraced.

IA: What theories inform your work?

MW: Roland Barthes has been helpful to me in his study of contemporary myth. I’m fascinated by recent scientific study of things like quantum physics, space, and time. We are able to discover that in the vast chaos, there is order (example: Stephen Hawking's new book is called The Grand Design). Yet we as humans are now running into limits to what we can really know about it (known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). What we are learning is that we are small, tiny creatures on a small, tiny planet, and every new discovery about the universe makes us smaller and smaller. Biblical theology helps me to reconcile that reality, which to me reveals that though we are small, humanity is significant, and there is great freedom in this.

IA: Do you think these topics, techniques, and theories are typical of those working in your genre?

MW: I think in terms of being informed by theology or philosophy, art still clings to Modernist ideas largely defined by Nietzche, Marx, and Freud. Even though we've been in a Postmodern period for over 50 years, it is seen (and I say this simplistically) that truth is relative, God is Dead, so let’s elevate a few among us to celebrity status to be our objects of worship, and party hard. That said, there is a lot to find in contemporary art that is meaningful and helpful. As far as painting goes, art critics and thinkers have been declaring the medium dead over and over for the last 150 years, and while they keep proclaiming that the painters keep painting.

IA: Do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?

MW: I like to think of myself as part of a group of artists throughout civilization who, in their time, were seeking to show humanity the truth about the world and themselves, all in a spirit of empathy. I don’t really identify with any particular art movement, or maybe I just haven’t found the right club to throw my hat into. There are particular artists that I see this in their work, such as Mark Rothko, Leon Golub and Anselm Kiefer. I'm not sure an art historian would group artists like these together in any particular movement!

TO THE READER: Who is your favorite contemporary painter?

IA: What do you know about the current state of the arts? Please talk specifically about individual musicians/painters/writers/etc. whom you know (or whose work you know), their topics/techniques/theories, and in general about your sense of American arts right now.

MW: This is far too nebulous a topic for me to adequately address! While artists like Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney get all the art-world attention, what I’ve personally observed in a general sense is a move away from some of the silliness of ego-driven conceptual “idea” artists and insane art market economics towards more earnest artmaking, where quality in the art object matters again. The Slow Art Movement has some resonance with me; it requires the artist to take care in making art while giving the viewer the freedom to approach the art that they are personally drawn to, but that also requires a responsibility of the viewer to be contemplative and to learn to appreciate art. I hope this holds because I hold to the idea that art is for everybody. Not that silliness doesn’t exist in art anymore, but it can at least be entertaining (see MOMA’s recent “acquisition” of the @ sign).

TO THE READER: Do you agree that art is for everybody?

IA: Can you comment on the differences between sacred and secular arts?

MW: As I am learning to bring the concept of Incarnation into my work, which is to believe the immanence of Christ in the material world is where we find transcendence, the line between what is considered sacred and secular becomes blurry to me. The best I can do right now is to say that I think art that is done in a spirit of self-awareness, discovery, and revelation can be sacred. That art can be found both in a church and in a museum. I think when people talk about sacred and secular art they think of art in a gallery or museum (secular) verses art that is shown in a church (sacred). I’ve personally found that to not be a very good distinction. Icon paintings point to the sacred, but to me so do Minimalist sculptures, which sought to strip away the conventional methods of visual communication, which the Minimalists believed had been largely hijacked by corporate mass-media and advertising, in order to get to something pure. Conversely, artists today produce a lot of bad art for the church; simple sign-making and illustration for a particular religion that lacks authenticity, or worse, portrays a religious fantasy disengaged from the world. Likewise I see art in galleries that is just mimicking whatever is considered trendy in the art world. But then again, it is difficult to know where to draw the line. This is also speaking from a Christian perspective, possibly projecting ideas of the sacred onto an object in which the artist had no intention of making anything remotely sacred. What do you do then?

TO THE READER: Is there any difference between sacred and secular art? Where can each be found?

IA: How do you think the arts are responding to present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and the possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and Christianity?

MW: I think that we need to recognize that we can’t just throw in with a particular ideology or worldview to define reality so that we can get on with things like raising a family and making money. Perhaps an “Eastward” orientation of economics and Christianity would be a proper correction to the way previous Christian institutions have done things, trying to simplify how the world was viewed in black and white dogma, and where that’s gotten us. I think in that sense, Postmodernism has been a good thing. We’re required as individuals to really evaluate and discern what it is we know (or don’t know) about the world, and I think that’s really important and ultimately creates a better appreciation of the immanent spirituality of the world.

In terms of a post-human phase, I know a lot of people fear our rapidly growing acceptance of technology in our lives, but I believe humanity draws the line on some things, and will continue to do so. The things I hear now from friends is that they know they spend too much time on Facebook, or are on the computer too much. I agree that people need to moderate their use of computers, smartphones, etc. But I think we’ll draw the line when it’s time to implant the chip in our heads! It’s similar to what I mentioned earlier here about painting. Each time some new technology came along, beginning with the camera, then moving on to the television, painting was declared a “dead” technology. Important art is being made with those technologies, and yet it seems most artists keep going back to the canvas on the easel to work out their feelings about the world.

TO THE READER: What did you enjoy most about this interview? Did you disagree with anything Matt said?


sesoztai said...

Fascinating! There is so much in this that is is rather hard to comment on! I wondered, Matthew Whitney, if your intend art to change those who see it & instigate a larger change around you. Your description of the installation art, Bridges, caught my attention because it seemed like a possible answer to some questions we raised in our conversation we just had, IA, about cities changing. Do any of you see the arts as playing a role in or for the church, to be a means of grace and healing for cities, communities, people groups, etc. though talking about the current issues and presenting them to the larger community

Iambic Admonit said...

Matt: I thought of another question that wasn't in the original interview. Have you ever been commissioned by a church to produce a work of art specifically for use in worship? I'd be interested to know, if so, what the work was and how it was used. Thanks!