Matthew Troy Mullins: Loving Archives, Loving Ourselves

Matthew Troy Mullins, Traps, Watercolor and Gouache on Paper, 48 in. x 36 in., 2010.

I was attracted to the touch of Matthew Troy Mullins’ paintings when I saw them in the recent UC Berkeley MFA show at the Berkeley Art Museum but was about to be less interested in them because I was pretty sure artists have already had enough to say about archives and taxonomies. I was wrong! Matt Mullins has a unique way with this subject that comes from his fairly uncomplicated delight in the idea that people are able to make sense of their world by lining things up. He is a recent graduate of the Berkeley MFA program. His large scale watercolor and gouache paintings document cactus collections, bookbinding machines, fishing equipment, stacks of newspapers and other treasures from archives and museum collections in the Bay Area. I sat down to talk with him during his show at Martina }{ Johnston Gallery in Berkeley, Calif. I asked him a lot of questions about watercolor paintings and his feelings about people who build archives.

K: How did you start making watercolor paintings?

M: Whenever I see contemporary watercolor paintings, I feel like it’s used looser, not all the way built up. I went from oil to acrylic, and then to watercolor. I was starting to get this skin allergy on the hand that I was using the painting rag on, also at the same time I was starting to use straighter edges. At the time I was painting images of construction sites, and the plastic feeling of acrylic worked really well for the hard edges in the construction sites. The problem I was having was that I wanted to see the whole painting grow up together – with the masking I was using I couldn’t really see the whole painting all at once. I was like puzzle pieces. If I wanted to peek I could take the whole thing off at once but I never felt like there was any flow. It felt mechanical to make them, and they looked mechanical. With the watercolor each edge shows out from under, the process is visible in the end product.

K: How would you describe your relationship to your photographic reference?

M: I like a photorealism where you still see all the brushstrokes and you think it may fall apart – sort of teetering between a really slick, absolutely finished surface and being able to see all the ingredients. I don’t want it to be an attempt at perfection. I like how imperfection shows humanity. I like limitations. I do like to push the paintings to a point where it is impressive. I like challenging myself to do something that seems difficult at the beginning of the process.

K: Do you think technical feats in watercolor are more surprising to people than in oils?

M: Maybe to people who are familiar with watercolor painting, because they know that you have to leave the whites. Oil is just a whole different set of challenges. These paintings don’t make the normal associations you have with watercolor, you know paler and looser. I think that does come as a surprise.

K: When you switched over were you expecting to surprise people?

M: I had been doing studies in watercolor every few months, never for anybody to see – while I was working in the other materials. The studies I was doing were always monochromatic, so I didn’t know what was going to happen with the color. I didn’t really expect to surprise.

K: What artists were you interested in at that time? Was that guy [Tim Gardener] an influence?

M:I was looking at photographers, especially Andreas Gursky. The level of detail/ amount of information is powerful. I feel like his images in 100 years are really going to capture this moment. They are overwhelming.

K : That’s the point , right?

M: Yeah.

K: I feel like he has this worldview where the person is very small.

M: Almost a cog.

K: Is that how you feel in the world?

M: No, uh-uh, not at all! I feel like people may be treated that way but it’s not the way I feel personally. I think with Gursky’s images may depict people as cogs but in such a way that their humanity is not lost. Like individuals are part of a larger living thing.

K : That’s what my dad thinks, that the ant colony is the animal, not the ant. You don’t find that sad, do you?

M: I think it shows connections to people. That’s fine as long as we don’t lose sight of the work of an individual. But I think it can get in to a dangerous situation if we are only looking at things as a group.

K: Who is on your long list of influences?

M: Rothko, Reinhardt, Cezanne, Stephan Kurten, (at Hosfelt gallery right now) Julie Mehretu, Shahzia Sikander. I also really like Indian miniatures – I love the skewed perspectives & wonky patterns. Early northern renaiassance painters before perspective got really tight. Every little square inch of the painting is like worked over and loved but there’s still this off-ness about it. Before Van Eyck.
With Julie Mehretu – I am interested in her sense of the array – it’s too much to take in – in one look. They have a really long lifespan, where you can see lots of things. If you come back the next day there’s something new because looking at it all at once is just too overwhelming.

Chuck Close is my idol. There was a time when I was at Sonoma State when I felt like I was only emulating him. I wasn’t painting faces or anything but I was using grids. He gave me this idea that you put this system together, it makes something else. I also really appreciate how he elevates individuals by the act of making.

I have been painting portraits whenever I want to sidestep something else I am working on. I have a bunch of portraits at the shadow shop at SFMOMA. The gift shop is part of The More things Change exhibit there – the curator challenged artists to tweak their art to the context of a mom and pop gift shop. I thought it would be a good way of reaffirming the relationships with people. I just started drawing one drawing every week of one of my Facebook friends. Using their FB profile photos. I think I will keep them all b& W with one other color.

K: Facebook blue?

M: Maybe! Probably 6×9 or 8×10. The size of Egyptian funeral masks.

K: Oh! Are you a fan of Egyptian funeral masks?

M: Yeah, definitely. These people died so long ago but there is still that connection there. That’s what I want these portraits to do – if they are still around.

K: So they can’t be on paper?

M:Well I like them on paper so people have to take care of them if they are going to last.

K: what do you think about things lasting in digital archives?

M:I think its an important practice but I see it as really really fragile compared to an object. They need a lot of support, what if there is some disaster that wipes that out. I think it’s more fragile than how most people see it.

K: Basically if you want to work on paper, you want to work on paper, right?

M: For my next project I’m going to be using a lot of those online archives – caliphsphere.org — Land surveys. The Library of Congress and also the Smithsonian have really good photo archives. So I’m taking groups of two – three images – probably most are going to be three and putting them in Photoshop and dropping the opacity and overlaying all of them together. Ray Beldner is also doing something like that: 101 overlaid Andy Warhols.

Matthew Troy Mullins, Stacks, Watercolor and Gouache on Paper, 48 in. x 36 in., 2010.

K: There’s a lot of archive based artwork. How did you get interested in it?

M: Well for this painting, the cactus collection – I had started out looking at architecture as a mirror of social priorities or goals – how what we make reflects who we are and what we want.

K: Or when we put collective resources in to something…

M: Exactly – I was really interested in this (cactus greenhouse) space as a compelling space to paint, it’s an interior place to house nature. Then I started thinking about collections as a place – how each specimen was a small representation of a big effort to go out and collect information about the world. That was the sort of Ah-ha moment – all these basements and archives represent these people’s efforts to understand things. Looking at the archive as a symbol – what does that say about people’s efforts?
Also, I took the Chemistry and other science courses in college, so there was that interest.

K: I don’t get a sense that you are critical of Linnaean taxonomy or anything – some people like Mark Dion seem to have more of a love/hate relationship with taxonomy, or they are trying to scramble rules of classification. You actually like that people organize things in drawers. Like – what would I like to see an entire room of? – Oh, bugs! I can go to the bug archive.

M: Right! I was carrying around a meteorite and then I found a meteorite collection, I was so happy. I think it’s comforting as way of being able to digest so much information.

K: I think it’s important that you are unambigiously pro- archive. I was just looking at the Gerhard Richter’s Atlas. Jasmine Moorhead(of Krowswork Gallery) was saying that it looks like he is playing around with grids of collected photographs more than he plays in paintings.

M: What interests me in the archives is the adventures they represent. I am attracted to adventures and stories of human endeavour and challenge, but I am sort of more of a homebody. I did spend the last week in the Mojave desert – but an archive is where you can see evidence of all that exploration. Feeling the places where it happens without going anywhere.
I’m interested in the early part of Arctic exploration. That was when they thought the Elysian Fields were up there, before the resource grab happened. It was more fun before they started worrying about how to get up there and kill a bunch of whales and get them back .

K: So you aren’t interested in infrastructure or trade– economic systems.

M: Not really. More the pure curiousity of the researchers. There is inherent damage in that curiousity – the bugs in the collection had to die to make the collection. There is this taking that’s happening.

K: As opposed to a painter’s kind of curiousity, which is totally harmless, right? The ultimate leave no trace investigation.

M: Yeah. These people really devoted their lives to doing this. I feel a relationship to them – I feel like it’s a really charming characteristic of people, that they are interested in things and they are willing to shape their lives to accommodate those interests. I am interested in how these collections or these scientists who assembled them wind up as storytellers. Also is my project there is a sense of archaeology – I want to take things that aren’t usually seen and bring them up to the surface. There is a responsibility to bring up those gems before they are hidden again.

K: You have to check out this poem by Jamie Robles, Under the Earth — written about photographs of the Stafforshire Horde. The Staffordshire Horde is recent find of very well preserved Dark Ages metalwork etc. An archaeologist already dug them physically out the ground but the poet felt a further responsibility to interpret what the find means to us.

K: Ok. Painting Materials. What do you use?

M: For brushes, mostly synthetic sable. I have a couple couple real sable brushes – just from Dick Blick. With the watercolor, I do use a little bit of gouache at the very end – like a cherry on the top. I use Old Holland paint.

K: What kind of paper do you use?

M: TH Saunders 300 lb. Cold press.

K: Okay, sorry. Back to this idea of archaeology.

M: More with the paintings I was doing before these, I was thinking of the paintings themselves as artifacts. I was trying to capture things that were right on the verge of being obsolete – like this book stitching machine. It’s for a certain kind of spine that almost nobody uses anymore. There’s this painting “2003- 2007 – Electron Teleportation Machine”. It’s a machine for coding and encrytption – and it works but it will be smaller/obsolete in the future. I want to preserve the moment where this thing exists. I feel like photo documentation would not be enough.

K: So what was your early art education like?

M: I started making art senior year in high school. I had a really awesome art teacher, Andrew Kjera. I made a painting of Mt. Diablo with a swirling vortex in the sky with a hole in the sky where you could see galaxies. So he was supportive but he was critical too, because I what I really wanted was for there to be a ladder up to the vortex and he was like – maybe the ladder is implied. Maybe the first ideas aren’t the best. But I really took to it. I spent lunchtimes in there. He really helped spark my early interest – kind of blew on that spark a little bit. I went to college to study kinesthesiology (to be a Chiropractor) and at that point I thought art was going to be a hobby for the rest of my life. Mark Perlemen (Sonoma state) Joy Broom (DBC) really encouraged me more. I feel like those early years are so fragile – people need the right blend of support and technique. Those people were formative. Of course there have been so many teachers after but those people were the ones who got me started.

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One Comment

  1. Howard Geller
    Posted February 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Awesome Artwork made better by where Matt came from and is going in retrospect to his work and interpretations of others. Truly an Artist worth following and owning. Matt Mullins will make his mark in the Art World and be remembered. Buy now as these pieces will only increase in value and become a vortex in you art collection.

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