Nov. 2008 -- Intrigued by the work recently on display at Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago, IL, ArtSlant Staff Writer Erik Wenzel sat down with Matt Stolle for some dark roast coffee and a discussion of dark roast painting.
Installation view of Matt Stolle at Andrew Rafacz Gallery; Photo by John Opera / Courtesy of Andrew Rafacz Gallery.
Erik Wenzel: I was wondering if you could talk about the work in the show at Andrew Rafacz. Could you go through the process of how they came about?
Matt Stolle: This was a small grouping of pieces that I started working on a few years ago, something I always kind of had in the back of my mind. It goes back to when I really started getting into Ad Reinhardt, and reading his texts, especially all his negative statements that also negate each other. I was also looking at all these period shots of the installations of his work and any sort of bad reproductions. When they have a series of Reinhardt plates in a book or a catalog, it’s just black square after black square after black square. That’s how I originally got interested in it. I had this opportunity to show at Andrew’s back space and it seemed like the right time to make that small body of work. I don’t do that type of work all the time. You mentioned Wade Guyton in [your] review, but that’s not my standard method of working. I just felt an affinity to Reinhardt’s project.
EW: I was looking at the New York City Pilsen space online, which I didn’t make it down to see, and was kicking myself because "Re-Presentation" looked like a really awesome show. You had work in that exhibition that looked like photocopies. I was wondering if you could talk about those pieces. And then how that relates to the other work you do, because you are saying that’s not quite part of your project. So is this a new vein or how do you envision that with the earlier work I’ve seen?
MS: I should say that I was a quote, unquote, “painter” before going into grad school. I got into the printmaking program, so I was introduced to printmaking at The School of the Art Institute. The tendency with printmaking a lot of times is to tighten up and make things as pristine and perfect as you can as part of the process. But as I started nearing the end of that program, I became interested in how I could make these things more one of a kind. Or how I could use the process to intentionally fuck up and make a more unrestrained mark. And so that’s what drew me to the photocopy, because of its natural qualities. No matter how perfect you try to make a photocopy, it’s going do it’s own thing to some degree.
With the majority of the work I do, with paintings and drawings, usually there’s some sort of rudimentary printmaking process. By that I mean specifically stenciling. I use impure materials or purposefully invent ways that I can make marks that are intended to mess up as I make them, when I make them. That relates to the photocopy that way. For one of the pieces in the New York City Pilsen show, I photocopied a painting by Phil Vanderhyden. I took the painting into Kinko’s and put the painting on the photocopier.
Matt Stolle, Untitled (Phil Vanderhyden), 2008, Photocopy, 36" x 45";Courtesy of New York City, Pilsen.
EW: So you just plopped it down on there?
MS: Yeah, and knowing it was a dark monochrome, knowing that basically I was going to get black. The other piece was an actual photocopy of a sculpture by Zach Buchner, it was kind of an accordion shape, and I laid that down on the photocopier too. The way it was positioned on the plate, most of the sculpture was not touching the glass. So again it was going to become like a monochrome.
EW: What size was it, the standard photocopy size, or did you blow it up?
MS: Yeah they started off as the standard 8.5 x 11’s and then I put them in—it’s called an OC printer, or an OSE.
EW: It comes out with 8.5 x 11 proportions but bigger…
MS: Yeah, you blow it up. It’s essentially a laser printer and it uses the same toner. It looks like a photocopy and has the same quality as a photocopy.
EW: So then there’s another level of translation.
The works from Andrew Rafacz and New York City Pilsen are involved less with your hand. Is there an interest in stepping back even further? Because the works from even a year ago, like you were saying, have stencils, and then you draw into them. And then with the Reinhardt-related ones, you’re still involved with them, but you’re not “touching” them in the same way.
MS: I think it relates. With the Reinhardts, it was more about editing out and removing. Those things went through countless revisions to get them to float in space they way they did, in the right way. I didn’t want there to be too much information because I still wanted them to read as photographic space. But I wanted there to be the possibility for them to flatten out as well.
EW: Yeah, when you first encounter them, especially with the black frames, you read them as just stark design elements. And then as you look at them, you start picking up hints of what they used to be. It’s a very interesting operation. You enter their space, your perception changes.
MS: It relates in the manner that I like to make marks with painting. I’m using stencils and spray paint cans. I’m never really touching the surface of these things. I guess the only ones I actually truly touch are the ones that have ruled graphite lines in them.
Installation view of Matt Stolle at Andrew Rafacz Gallery; Photo by John Opera / Courtesy of Andrew Rafacz Gallery.
EW: And even then it’s a structure of parallel lines.
So are you interested in systemic painting? Not just Reinhardt, but Robert Ryman or Agnes Martin. There appears to be an interest in engaging traditional art making [methods]: painting, drawing, even the printmaking. Aside from the photocopies, the processes of screen-printing and stenciling are very hands on, even though it’s removed. I’ve had this interest too, where you want to engage this painting you’re making, but you also don’t want it to just be all about your hand.
MS: The simplest way to reply that is to say I totally agree with what you’ve said. I definitely have an interest in that. In the way you can use units or repetitions of forms to create this serial body of work, but with a seemingly infinite number of minor permutations of that thing. I like that idea. And again I think I like the way it can eliminate the feel of a personal touch. Obviously a person made this thing, but I like them to feel cold in that way.
EW: What draws you to working with reproductions? And even the more painterly paintings, it’s as if you’re working with a reproduction that has no original.
MS: The reproduction that I’m interested is of the sort that empty themselves out. That would be the simplest way of saying it, the way that the working with reproductions affords a sense of emptying out. Much the way working in a monochrome color palette has a similar sensibility of removal. Remove color; remove things that I would typically feel are extraneous to the painting, like warm fuzzy emotion or something like that.
EW: The idea of a sign that won’t signify, is that an interest? Can it go that way?
MS: I like that idea. Not to keep harping on Reinhardt, but the way he structures his arguments. I believe he himself said something to that effect; he wanted to make signs that wouldn’t signify. Knowing full well the paradox that he is setting up for himself. I like that sort of mentality. I think that’s what it’s all about.
EW: Part of the reason I was writing about your work, and why I’m interested in talking today, is it follows a lot of my interests as an artist myself. It’s good to know there are people out there thinking about the monochrome and Reinhardt. In conversations I’ve had about the idea of monochrome and the idea of making monochromes, the concept of painting as stand-in comes up. Or painting as symbol or signifier—maybe not so semiotic—but this idea of an icon. An item that says, “Here is the presence of painting.”
MS: There’s nothing here, but there is.
EW: Yeah, it’s kind of talking about a placeholder. Here exists a painting, or here stood a painting.
MS: I’m definitely into that idea. I’m completely intrigued by it. I think it was brilliant the way Reinhardt was able to articulate it, and then truly embody it. At least his public presence manifested it. Even his writing. That’s how I remember him, obviously without ever having met him. That’s how I know him, through these self-negating, ambiguous statements about exactly what you just said.
EW: You were talking about Reinhardt and Stella, when artists started writing for themselves. At that time the language of Greenberg didn’t fit any more. So artists had to start writing on their own. And there is a lot of rhetoric involved, in making bold statements you know you can’t completely live up to or enact. Stella as well. Are you interested in that paradox? Are you attracted to that sort of rhetoric even if it doesn’t work?
MS: Yes I am. In a weird way, you know the way I would think about it? You know the movie Fletch? Everyone that [Chevy Chase] interacts with in that movie, his responses are always purposely misinformation. But in a way that is self-acknowledged. I don’t know if that is a good analogy, but that’s kind of the way I think about it. Which isn’t to say I don’t take these things seriously.
I completely believe in the notion of ambiguity especially when it relates to art-making.
EW: I know Reinhardt definitely had a sense of humor. His self-chronology, for example, has all sorts of dry witty moments. I think that is important, especially when you are making “the last paintings” or “black but not black.”
Is there a Dada interest, or an interest in the Readymade? At this point in time, it seems impossible to make a Dada gesture, with all the Conceptualism that has come since. But it seems very important to know about the gesture of you taking the painting and dropping it on the photocopier. This act.
MS: I think it goes back to what we said about taking yourself seriously, but not so seriously at the same time. I think those gestures are there in some of the paintings I make too. I don’t use traditional supports anymore. A lot of them are pieces of plywood that have existing cuts in them or shitty throw away cardboard. I’m definitely into that gesture as a well considered, well meaning, “Fuck you, but fuck me.”
EW: Oh, that’s good.
Could you talk about working on traditional material and then what led to that choice to switch?
MS: I think that stems from what I was talking about before when I was more into printmaking. It comes from wanting to find a way to sabotage the process so that it would create a unique mark. But a unique mark that comes from a matrix. So ultimately it’s a unique mark that loses the sense of the author.
The approach with using these found materials is much the same way that some of Stella’s shaped paintings almost pre-determined or internalized the gesture or content. The same thing happens if I’m not using standard canvas stretched over standard stretcher bars. I use a piece of plywood that’s kind of wonky or warped. I don’t want to say it predetermines, but it gives me a foil to work off of. There’s a distancing of the touch of the author. Making this unique mark, but the unique mark sort of happens on it’s own.
EW: You want to be present but you don’t want to be too close. I’m sure there’s a great analogy, “I will walk with you to school but I won’t hold your hand,” something like that.
MS: And again going back to taking it seriously, but not too seriously. Morris Louis wasn’t making stained paintings on pieces of trash. There was still a commitment to traditional materials. Which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a way for me to undermine the seriousness that is productive.
EW: It seems like using found materials is becoming much more of a standardized method so it stops being about the light bulb moment in the artist’s head, “oh, I can show found wood as art.” It starts being just a given tool to work with.
EW: And it also seems the artists we’ve been talking about are having a resurgence, or have a new currency with younger artists.
MS: I think that just speaks to the legitimacy of their ideas. That, that project, or whatever you want to call it, still is not done. Not that I think it ever would be, or would have been. For whatever reason, we’re in a moment when that way of questioning and that way of making things becomes appealing again. I don’t know exactly why, but it just seems so completely relevant to now.
EW: How would you navigate this in the broader or wider scheme of art? Not that anyone would have a concrete answer, more like your thoughts at this moment. Especially since there are people working with similar ideas and coming back to similar interests without knowing each other.
MS: I typically hate—and I’m being a little tongue in cheek here—but I hate the idea that art and life go hand in hand. There’s the text Art Since 1900 by Rosalind Krauss and the whole October magazine crew (Hal Foster, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh.), I like the way they talk about abstraction, and specifically the monochrome. There’s a paradox involved, it’s supposed to be this thing that is emptied of all, of everything that came before it. But then they talk about monochromes in specifically their temporal nature, their relation to history and a specific period in time. Ever since the first monochrome was made, people have been making monochromes and it’s supposed to be that each one is a wiping away of what has come before, an origin in itself, each time. I like the way they talk about it. I mean we must feel there is a reason to make those sorts of things now.
EW: Yeah, or that there is a different way to look at it. Because the traditional way to look at it is every time you make one, you’re making the only one. Or you’re making “the last painting.” It seems like people now are saying, “no, I’m just making a monochrome. I’m interested in this action, and as it comes out in different ways.” It’s not some sort of mysterious ritual where you say, “alright today I am making The Last Painting. And then I have to re-make the last painting.”
MS: Yeah, totally.
ArtSlant would like to thank Matt Stolle for his assistance in making this interview possible.