Art City Asks: Tony Matelli
By Jacob Muselmann of the Journal Sentinel
If you look around, there's a sort of quiet, cosmic war going on all around us. You can see it in the cracks of a sidewalk, on attic junk and down the gradual sag of a face. It's our effort against the beat of time. And it seems to be what, at least in part, Tony Matelli is exploring in his sculptural work at the Green Gallery East.
From the outside of the exhibition space, it may seem like you missed the opening night by a few years. Dusty mirrors propped against walls bear the handprints and doodles of bygone humans. Walking up to them for a moment almost channels the quieting, humanistic experience of a cave drawing. And it is then that the liminal space you just trounced in on begins to move into focus.
And somewhere in there, you notice yourself, mediated through innocent scrawl and the layers of time's toll. In a simple, whimsical way, the brilliance of the present peeks through the freshest swipe of the pane.
Similarly belying, the wall rubbings of his New York studio read as a carbon copy of decay and its forbearance on character. These works, resembling digitized scans, take an analogue, almost archaeological route to modern-day capturing. A warning: This may come as an abrupt check on your 21st-century ability to spot new computerized outgrowths.
Born in Chicago and raised in Delavan, Matelli studied sculpture at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. His past works include richly detailed sculptural scenes of pianos falling on people, sleepwalkers and an apparent episode of monkey mutiny. But his current exhibition, which runs through Feb. 17, reflects his recent direction toward something subtler.
“The work has taken on a more philosophical position with a more open presentation,” he says. “I think I have grown to require more room for interpretation in my work.”
Indeed, his works seem to pivot away from a pigeonholed thesis. An inverted vase of lifelike lilies is paused to the moment before calamity. Loops of rope hang from invisible props and bunch up into thin air. The realization that these fragile scenes are bronze seems to press for something serious, or insist on an idea that is as weighty as time is slow.
Matelli recently agreed to participate in a round of questions for this edition of Art City Asks.
Jacob Muselmann: What are you working on in your studio right now?
Tony Matelli: Working on the exhibition plan for my survey show in Bergen Kunst Museum in Norway (which is traveling from ARoS in Denmark). Finishing some editions, building a new website and making a few new works for my show in St. Louis. We are not in very high gear right now. I try to slow the studio down after a show, but last year has been so busy we been making work at the same speed all year. So after my show at Green Gallery it’s good to be a little slow now.
JM: What's your favorite breakfast food?
TM: A Bloody Mary at The Pfister hotel. When I’m in town I try to have one everyday, otherwise its only coffee and seltzer until lunch.
JM: Who's your guilty-pleasure artist — why do you feel you shouldn't like then and why do you anyway?
TM: I don’t really believe in guilty pleasure, only pleasure. But I suppose Renoir would qualify. I don’t really know what’s wrong with the paintings, but everyone I trust tells me they're terrible. I think some of them are as interesting as anything Van Gogh ever painted.
JM: Tell me about a failed piece you once made and what you learned from it.
TM: I am making these new sculptures of rope that appear to be suspended in air, I really like them. The first one I made was four years ago but was in the “shape” of a person. It just didn’t feel right so I put it in storage. I looked at it later and immediately realized it was a mistake to give it an image. I just needed remove the reference, it needed to loose its specificity. Now they are just sort of abstractions in space, they can be many things at once
JM: If you could live with one work of art, what would it be?
TM: It changes all the time but right now I cant think of wanting anything more than a still life by Allison Schulnik, she is a great young artist from LA. I was also struck by the Richter you have in Milwaukee, which is without a doubt one of the best ones ever made.
JM: What is art for?
TM: This is an unanswerable question. Art's openness is its virtue.
JM: What do you wish you knew?
TM: I wish I knew less.
JM: What do you like the look of?
TM: There is a certain 15-20 minutes of perfect light in my apartment. It’s sharp and warm and cuts through the windows and splashes across almost the entire floor. The timing obviously changes throughout the year but my studio is close so I’m able to catch it often.
JM: What was your first real art experience?
TM: Duane Hanson’s Janitor at the Milwaukee Art Museum. I would go there as a child on field trips, and right there, next to this giant and horrible Alex Katz, is the Janitor, leaning against the wall. And it is incredible because it does so many things at once; it takes you totally by surprise. Janitors are supposed to be completely unseen in museums—their labor is supposed to disappear—so it’s sort of surprising on that level, and then you realize it’s a sculpture, and become conscious of how you are looking at the thing. You become aware of that perceptual shift, so what was a seemingly real-life experience becomes a complicated art experience, and that approach to art is really powerful and cool. It made everything else seem like a prop that only pointed to an idea. The precision of praxis had a great impact on me, and some of my work operates in that spirit.
JM: What film has most influenced you?
TM: Painters Painting, I was 18. It’s a documentary about the New York art scene made in the '60s. When I saw Frank Stella in it I wanted to be Frank Stella.
JM: What music are you listening to?
TM: It depends on the time of day and the activity, but today: NPR for the first hour, then a transition into wordless music with Eric Satie, then Miles Davis and Philip Glass. After lunch we needed something a little harder but still wordless so we did Neu! and Grails, then we went harder with the Melvins, Om, and a little Waka Flocka Flame. Finally taking it down a notch with Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack to The
Master and finishing up with NPR’s last hour of All Things Considered. Whatever the music, it is always sandwiched in between NPR.
JM: What should change?
TM: I’m not a huge agent of change, everything changes without me anyway.
JM: What could you imagine doing if you didn't do what you do?
TM: I never really thought about it too much, but I am certain I would be terrible at it.
"Art City Asks" are brief interviews with intriguing people who are part of or connected to Milwaukee's art scene. They are conducted via e-mail, in-person interview, Skype or whatever other format we may dream up. Some of the questions we use are inspired by the Frieze Questionnaire.
Images from slideshow: Green Gallery exhibition view, courtesy the gallery; Hand, by Tony Matelli (2012); Arrangement, by Tony Matelli (2012).