By Leah Gallant
Matthew in his installation at the Commerce Center, ‘Trapping the In Between.’
The natural world is central to your work as both subject and medium. Can you tell me about your larger philosophies on the environment and its relationships to humans?
I’m interested in investigating a nostalgic idea of nature through my work. We’ve become so detached from nature, but we glamorize it as this thing we need to get back to—things like hunting are romanticized in TV shows. I’m not trying to paint pictures of hunting as totally negative, because I don’t think it is—hunting is the sole reason that society even started, it was the need to hunt bigger and larger things that brought people to work together. The role of hunting has changed, so I’m interested in questioning the role of hunting now. I’m also interested in the idea that we need to repair nature. Nature will repair itself, we just need to get out of its way.
Matthew Batty, Fruit of the Hunt
What does it mean for you to drawing on these issues now, where there’s a lot of dialogue about environmental destruction? And making art about those subjects?
For me, it’s one of the ways that I can do my part as an activist. I sign petitions daily and try to live my life by the same philosophies that I’m making art from. Environmental concerns are what my work is about but they aren’t the only issue. Gender equity issues, for example, as well as other social issues, are just as important to me as the environment, but as a male I can only be an ally. I don’t have the voice to make work about those issues, so I make work about the things I feel like I can speak to.
Matthew Batty, Fresh Catch
Your work spans a lot of mediums, including sculpture and installation, but you often incorporate printmaking into those other mediums.
Printmaking is tied into the tradition of the dissemination of information, and I’m interested in that. It also speaks to mass production, which is tied into environmental problems, like materialism. Printmaking is the beginning of a process for me to get from idea to flat surface and then to move forward with three dimensional objects. Recently I’ve been gravitating towards any photo process with printmaking.
You were born in New Orleans and raised in Florida. Do you think that your Southern upbringing shaped your work? Are there particular aesthetics or artistic mediums connected to the South that influenced you?
What gets called a southern aesthetic is really more of a rural aesthetic. When I lived in new Orleans when I was a child there were a lot of folk artists and musicians from there who all influenced me, although I didn’t realize it until I started coming to terms with who I was as an artist and what I really enjoyed. I’m interested in the idea of the outsider present in folk art and even jazz, and outsider art as this uneducated brilliance. There are occasions where it’s celebrated, like folk art museums. Folk originally meant people, it didn’t mean country or hokey, just everyday people, and I think that’s the idea that I really like is the inclusion of everybody, not just the elite, but also normal people who are introduced to art. I’m also influenced a lot by the punk community that I came out of in Florida, which has an outsider element to it as well.
Matthew Batty, Tupelo
Are there particular folk artists that have influenced you?
The first would be the artists I interned with at Yee Haw industries, in Knoxville, Tennessee, Kevin Bradley and Julie Belcher, they introduced me to letterpress. That’s what influenced me to get out of graphic design and following more of a passion than money. I’m also looking at Radcliffe Bailey, Rimer Cardillo, Margaret Kilgallen, Jules Buck Jones, and Kiki Smith. I’ve been really into Mark Dion lately, because his work deals with the natural world. He goes about it in a different way than I do –he uses the museum and the vocabulary the museum has created. It’s also the natural history of the museum I’m interested in, like how he traverses hierarchies of lesser things like rocks to invertebrates to invertebrates to humans. That hierarchy is interesting for me because I think that to get to a sustainable society we have to analyze that hierarchy and our place at its center. We come from a very anthropocentric viewpoint, and trying to move away from that is one of the keys to helping nature help itself.
St. Augustine Distillery, St. Augustine, Florida.
You started off as a graphic designer but are now working as an artist. You’re also a musician and curator. What are the relationships between your different modes of making?
A professor I had once told me that design is about finding solutions, and art is about asking questions. And I don’t want to propose that I have any solutions. Doing design was about solving a problem very easily with visuals, but I think I can take what I learned from that and try and create conversations. Curating the St. Augustine Distillery was also a design issue. A lot of my work is about collection in general, and that kind of allowed me in my art to figure out these objects and the beauty behind them, to give them a platform for their voice. A lot of my work has to do with investigation, like before I make work I do a lot of historical investigating, like in the project at the commerce center I started out researching the area, the industry of fur-trapping and how it developed the area, not just South bend but all of lower Michiana because it was very rich in fur-bearing animals. I think it was also coming to be an adult in St. Augustine, Florida, which is the oldest city in the nation, and really influenced how I perceive history. As for music, it’s a very similar thing, I play a banjo, so it’s this common music, it relates back to the idea of folk and people. So I’ve been playing around with ways to incorporate it into my studio practice–I haven’t done it quite yet but I’m working on it.
Matthew in his installation.
Your installation at the Commerce Center, ‘Trapping the In Between,’ ties back to earlier work in terms of the interest in hunting and human relationships to natural resources, but it’s also one of your first site-specific installations. What did you try that was new, and what have you learned from the process?
I did do one site-specific installation, right before I came here, a collaboration with my friend Avery Collins. It was a sound piece, entitled ‘A Hum in g Modal,’ that we built an installation around, so that was the beginning of integrating music into my work. ‘Trapping the In Between’ is an environment centered around a big idea, but every piece is different, they all relate. Also, I’ve never worked with light as much as I have this time around, which is always an interesting thing because it can fill a room with something pretty small, either casting a shadow or projecting. So using light is something that I’m very excited to try and keep working with. I think it was here that I’ve embraced this idea of nostalgia, whereas before when people used that word to talk about my work I was like ‘don’t do that.’ But it actually makes sense in that it’s not that I’m nostalgic, but the culture in general is—and in parts I am too, but I have this very realistic view of hunting as well. I’ve embraced it more here and am using it as a tool to create discomfort but also approachability.
For more of Matthew’s work, go to his website at http://www.marsupialalchemy.com/
Photo credit: Matthew Batty, Leah Gallant
By Leah Gallant
Allison Polgar with a recent self-portrait in her studio space at the Birdsell Mansion.
How have you seen your work change since you started making art?
I started drawing when I was a little kid, and it was this almost obsessive thing. I would fill notebook after notebook with mostly stupid stuff, like horses and mermaids and people. It was something I did constantly— I always had sketchbooks with me. Then I started taking art classes in middle school, mostly life drawing and painting and portraiture, and then went to school for art. In terms of how it’s changed, I now try to fit ideas or concepts into work that is typically just representational. In school, I started taking printmaking classes, so the idea of making duplicates has informed how I approach making work. In painting, you get a very direct result immediately, but in printmaking you have to go through this process, there isn’t as much wiggle room, once you start on a path you have to complete it. You don’t actually see what it looks like until you pull the paper off the press. It’s been interesting going back and forth between those two processes, because one is so process-driven and technical, while the other allows for more gesture and immediate gratification.
Has starting to work in printmaking changed how you paint? Or are they two separate processes?
They are separate, but I do see overlap, because while I really enjoy etching and intaglio processes, I also really like monotype. It’s very painterly but it’s also thinner or shallower –you can’t build up ink on a piece of plastic that you’re going to print—so it’s almost like a faster way to paint. I use cards and razor blades to make marks in the monotype process, and that’s something that I’ve started to carry into painting in the past few years.
Allison Polgar, N.O. (back door)
Is there a particular painting you’ve used printmaking methods on?
My last series, the North Olmsted series, which I showed at the Birdsell’s winter opening, depicted these buildings around my hometown that I would only drive past because it was not a pedestrian-friendly area. They’re very commercial and ugly and I would try to ignore them. Last summer and fall, my environment was really getting me down, and I started looking around and decided I need to confront this and not let it control me. So I started walking around and taking photographs of different buildings and spaces and then painting them, and I applied some of those processes that I’ve used in printmaking to get sharper edges.
The North Olmsted series, as well as current work you’re doing for the Commerce Center, draw on subjects that relate to your own life and experiences. Is that a constant in your work?
I think it is. It took me a while to realize that’s what I was doing, but I definitely do draw from whatever is happening to me or whatever psychological stuff I’m trying to deal with. It does get channeled into what I want to make, which is sometimes not what I don’t want to make but what I don’t really enjoy making. For example, I did a couple of paintings a while ago of rural landscapes, highways, and overpasses. I was in a long distance relationship and I was driving across Ohio all the time, and that’s what I was seeing, so that’s the imagery I started working with— even though I hate landscapes, I don’t like painting them. In a way, at least with the current series, I’m getting more insular. The North Olmsted series depicted the environment that I grew up in, but the self portraits I’m doing for the Commerce Center is much more me. It’s becoming more and more focused on the self.
What are you taking from a long history of portraiture in Western painting and what are you bringing that’s new?
At this point I don’t know how much new I can bring to self portraiture, given the fact that so many artists have done it. The genre seems kind of indicative of just trying to figure yourself out. I feel like when I do a self portrait, especially when it’s from life, it’s this time where everything else goes away and it’s just me looking at myself in a mirror. When I paint then I actually am able to create a lot of distance from myself, which is weird because I’m so focused on my visual image.
Your current body of work for the Commerce Center is about your Catholic upbringing. Can you talk more about your plans for the space?
In my space, ‘the dungeons,’ there are six cylinders along one wall. My plan is to fill each of the cylinders with a bunch of things: paintings, self portraits of me dressed up as different saints, and castings of a garden statue-sized Virgin Mary. I was home schooled and raised Catholic, so what I’m thinking about with those is this very specific childhood memory of celebrating All Saints Day. I would get to choose a saint, dress up as them, and then go and hang out with a bunch of other Catholic home school kids, and we’d all be saints for the day. I don’t really go to church anymore, so I’m trying to deal with how this was such a huge part of my upbringing. I’m interested in the performative ridiculousness of having kids dress up as saints. I remember always having fun at the All Saints Day celebrations, so I’m trying to keep a childlike quality to the installation. As for the castings, I’m also thinking about these icons as commercial objects—even though they represent these divine saints or ideas, you have to cough up money for them, and then put the statues under your front window. I’m also interested in how making multiples of the same thing puts more distance between the original object and the artist.
Ok, I like asking this question: what is the worst art object you’ve ever made?
How to choose? There are a lot! I did this one woodblock print in my first printmaking class—it was a self-portrait, and the theme was dreams and nightmares. I had this really vivid dream that involved a tiger, so half of the print was a generalized version of my face and the other half was a tiger.
Photo credit: Leah Gallant, Allison Polgar
By Leah Gallant
Bryce in ‘the pit,’ his installation space at the Commerce Center.
In your bio statement, you write that your work focuses on “’making things’ and ‘making things happen’ in the studio and in the public domain.” What’s the connection between your more stationary art objects and social practice work?
The thing that unites all my work is an interest in community as both a concept and a medium. Working with actual communities and seeing what sort of impacts can be had through art as intervention is really interesting to me. But I also think about discrete art objects, more studio- or gallery–oriented art, as a place for meditation on community, social structures, and civic structures. So one is a thinking space and one is a doing space, and they feed off of one another.
Some of your work as an art instructor seems to parallel your own practice in terms of community engagement. For example, for the Institute for Progressive Humanities’ summer partnership with Kinloch Learning Center, you had students design and build their own doghouses, which were then auctioned off to raise funding for the Center’s programming. How does your teaching relate to your own process of making?
Teaching keeps me energized about making things. I don’t like to work in a cloistered set-apart space, I like active shared spaces–I never have my own studio. For me, so much of teaching is modeling the behaviors that we’re trying to instill in our students. So if I want my students to be active, hardworking, and investigative, then I need to do those things, and there’s no better way to do that than to invite them to participate in my activities and those of other artists in the area. The doghouse project was at the tail end of a year of community based work in Kinloch, a traditionally all-black city within St. Louis County, which has arisen as the result of racial segregation. As part of the Kinloch project we adopted this friendly stray dog named Fred. When we realized he had heartworm disease and it would take around a thousand dollars to treat him, we saw the opportunity to use Fred as the lynchpin for a fundraising campaign for both the dog and the learning center. So we had students from Washington University come in and design build these doghouses and auction them off. We raised nearly seven thousand dollars for the center and cured Fred. Underneath all of that I’m interested in St. Louis and desegregation, and the history of that is always tied up in bussing—meaning bussing low income students to better schools, which are predominantly white. So I really enjoyed the opportunity to take my white privileged students and bus them to what is believed to be the center of poverty in the city of St. Louis, and have them realize that these people are people, and they’re just like them. So there’s a subversive bent there as well.
You work with a wide range of materials, using really durable materials for outdoor sculptures but also incorporating performance, air, branding, etc. into other pieces. How do you match material to concept?
I’m really interested in materiality—texture, weight, and line, but also the metaphor and baggage that comes with different materials. So the work in the Commerce Center is in many ways very selfish, because for me it’s just a tremendous pleasure to work with this stuff that’s very light and reusable. So sometimes the material has more to do with my pleasure–I really love to weld and I love to do woodworking. Sometimes it’s about making and enjoying that making experience and being rewarded physically and mentally. With the more conceptual, gallery-driven work, that’s rewarding in a different way. It’s more of an intellectual gratification of finding the right element to communicate a very specific sensation or suggest an attitude or a perspective. It’s just different ways of gratifying that need, the need to make something communicate. It’s across the board because it’s both a physical reward and an intellectual reward I’m interested in.
Recently you’ve been making work that relates to your hometown in Ferguson, Missouri. How does your relationship to the community inform this body of work?
All of the recent work that deals with Ferguson is obviously very directly related to my unique perspective as someone from Ferguson, and someone who is still very deeply connected there. I run Jeske Sculpture Park there, my family still lives there, and I go back and forth quite frequently, so it was an interesting experience to be here in South Bend working at Notre Dame watching on CNN live feed what was happening at home. The work about Ferguson was mostly born of frustration with not only what happened but how it happened. It’s very difficult to see the media portray a community you’re very proud of in a way that isn’t accurate. I think it was really important that the conversation about violence against young African-American men and women happened—it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed—but Ferguson is certainly not the center of racial injustice in the United States. So the piece dealing with branding. ‘#Ferguson,’ talks about how my community has been permanently branded by people who are not from the city of Ferguson.
Bryce Robinson, Suburban Laboratory
How does your work on Ferguson relate to your own racial identity?
I grew up and lived in a community that’s predominantly African American. I don’t identify as African American, but I think that a lot of unfair associations that are projected on African American people in North St. Louis County have also been projected onto me and my community at large. People from other parts of the region perpetuate the idea of North St Louis County as a lower-income, poor, disenfranchised place, and regardless of your race, in the city of St. Louis, if you say that you’re from North County, people associate you with being poor, and assume that if you’re not black you certainly must live by black people. So though I’m not black, I think that my perception of my community and where I grew up is inextricably tied to how black people are unfairly perceived, and I see the fate of my community really tied to the fate of the African American community in St. Louis. Through all the research that I did when I was in graduate school and leaving graduate school, I got a greater understanding of how racism has really shaped St. Louis into what it is today. I think because of that history, it’s a weaker community than it could be. It’s certainly not a place of equality, but I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in that, you know, that we can identify those problems and work to right them.
Bryce Robinson, Rising Hive
Your piece in the Commerce Center uses the same materials as ‘Rising Hive,’ and is part of a larger body of work that explores hives and structures and how smaller parts or individuals can form a cohesive group. What do you hope building a structure in the 14-ft pit will bring to the larger project or your interests in community as medium?
I became interested in this thing called emergence theory, which is this idea that a bunch of unthinking components doing their thing can lead to complex, sophisticated higher-level behavior. Cells in your body, for example, or ants in a hive do this–what seem like small or unthinking actions can lead to a more interesting result in a larger organism or system. It’s going to have a different title, but it’s the same sort of material, which is perforated steel shelving, laboratory glass, and some components I fabricated myself. I’m really interested in the restrictions of the material I’m working with—I’ve set a rule that I never cut the glass, although I accidentally break glass from time to time. By using it in these different spaces and conditions, I hope to see what naturally arises out of these little interactions and little individual decisions. I’m really interested in using this material and expanding on it as a building kit, and seeing over the course of the years what sorts of different iterations arise as a result of my work with it. I was really drawn to the space I’m working in in the Commerce Center, which is incredibly inhospitable. The work here in the Commerce Center isn’t really about Ferguson, but I think it certainly relates in dealing with a tremendous set of challenges and seeing if we can get a positive outcome as a result of countless individual actions.
For more of Bryce’s work, go to his website at http://www.bryceolenrobinson.com/
Photo credit: Bryce Robinson, Leah Gallant