Artist Portraits: Matt Reiner and Harrison Smith

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

This week, Fuzz editors Matt Reiner, JE ’20, and Harrison Smith, ES ’20, discuss how myth, place, and identity have informed their current work.

Matt Reiner
Harrison Smith

Matt Reiner: Maybe we could start by talking about the Matthew Barney show at the Yale University Art Gallery. At the opening you were telling me about a quote in the catalog that you’d thought was pretty close to your thesis topic. The quote was something along the lines of: “the way the landscape holds mythology is more useful than a story.” In what sense does landscape hold myth? What kind of a story is a myth?

Harrison Smith: I’m interested in myth because there is this implicit relationship between myth and place. The environment of a place, abiotic or biotic, always seems really important to myth. It’s probably because the landscape was particularly relevant to the cultures that created them. But I also think myths are really interesting because they’re so defining of culture, which is now very distinct from place. So today myth becomes the link between place and culture.

MR: There’s something interesting about the need for the myth. It’s always filling in some gap in the culture that needs to be expressed in a metaphorical address. It seems like it has to contradict itself too. I’m thinking specifically about human origin myths. Obviously we know that humans come from humans, so the idea of a myth that solves the problem of humans coming into being without another human is always a contradiction, some kind of an unresolvable paradox. And I think there is always some kind of an attempt at resolving an irresolvable contradiction in myth making. That’s maybe where some of the contradictions in the acquiring of knowledge come into play too — know-how versus knowing. Somehow myths fill in this gap between using things in the material world and knowing, solving through arbitration. That’s very abstract. Or maybe it only doesn’t make much sense because it does not pertain to where we are right now, it’s nostalgic.

HS: Maybe romantic at this point.

MR: But the search for one’s own origin story is indicative of this need — since there’s no way to ‘know’ it, there’s the need for the myth. Implicit for this kind of telling is a contradiction, something irresolvable.

HS: Yeah, it’s like the truth doesn’t apply because it doesn’t have much bearing on the conversation at hand.

MR: Myths are trying to fill in ways of understanding, which are arbitrary necessarily. Trying to bridge the gap between ‘that out there’ or the material world and how that appears to me as a mountain, as a world, something which I can return to in abstract form. It has some constitutive function for making-sense of things. But it’s a contingent way to make sense of things, and one which could always have been different.

HS: They seem to explain a thing, but in a more abstract sense, they explain something about the relation between a human and a thing.

I’m interested in exploring analogies as a way to understand the actual conceptual subject of the work. But I think I’m interested in the idea rather than the actual knowledge that someone can gain from myth, from that approach. I don’t expect to learn anything that informative about myself. I kind of dislike the idea of my practice being explicitly about me.

MR: It’s funny, and maybe this is why myth is so applicable, there’s this simultaneous view of yourself as another. The means by which your body and genetic pool was constituted by these crazy complex geological, historical processes; it’s an origin for you, but it’s also displacing ‘you’ in any experiential or figurative sense.

HS: Even separate from all of that, it’s more interesting to me if I’m thinking that I use my experience and history as a case-study of sorts. I feel the need to consciously think about that distinction, between the ‘me’ as experience and the ‘me’ as an index of process.

Do you think this is something that you’ve thought about in your work at all? When I was talking to Sadie [Cook, SM ’20], this idea arose that non-white and non-male people are always making this type of work at some point in their young artistic career. You seem to have been addressing social contexts, but in a more abstract way.

MR: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that this semester a bit as I’ve been taking a bit of a hiatus from painting and reflecting on the methods or ways I’ve been going about it. The way that I approach painting, and how that is directly involved with my ‘identity,’ basically. But my identity simultaneously is a non-identity, because of the many privileges involved in being white and male. It’s like the ways in which one is supposed to grapple with identity is already solved ahead of time by the culture at large — it’s a hard thing to grapple with. It’s problematic to make any self-reference or self-representation because whiteness’s representation is just the hegemony and so its representation is normative culture.

It’s interesting because the way the socio-historical has appeared to me as a subject or content is through specific instances of leftist thinking, through ways of approaching and understanding history, since the amount of privilege I have doesn’t put me in a position that I need to deal with the everyday, since there’s no immediate oppression. Those paintings I was making last semester were maybe about how a kind of ideological flattening can participate in structures of oppression through un-reflexiveness. But also most of my work is about painting in some kind of way, an excavation of painting in some sense. Maybe that’s why the reflexive is important. Part of the culture’s ability to reproduce itself in oppressive regimes is the inability to reflect. And painting’s history is all about taking itself apart.

HS: How important to you is it that this ‘gets across’?

MR: I think art-making for me at this point in my life is maybe just about thinking and doing-something.

HS: But who are you making art for?

MR: A part of abstraction is a kind of self-obscuring and a willful illegibility, which is a part of my personality for sure, my own self opacity. On the other hand, I think there’s something nice about being able to give people work, being able to in a direct way share something small with people. In certain critiques, I’ve felt that there was something I wasn’t aware that people would pick up on, or would be affected by. I often get so caught up in ways of thinking about my own structures of meaning-making that whatever somebody else might say has no bearing on me — but there are substantial moments when that breaks down.

HS: So what does your practice actually look like? A while ago you said your paintings are to some degree iterative or you were working through ‘moves’?

MR: Painters talk about ‘tricks’ or ‘gestures’. I think what that means to me is a kind of visual technique that needs to be worked out in a series of iterations in order to figure out what it’s doing — which is something that gets really dry really quick for me, something I have been trying to work on. To a certain extent you’re doing the same thing every time in the studio, this rectangle or that rectangle; there is a certain sense in which every time you make another painting it’s an iteration of the last painting you made, the moves are kind of what you carry with you. I think the things that often take me the furthest are specific material processes, specific tools, rather than the sorts of meanings I can attach to those things. I’m looking back at one painting that I made a year ago, and I’m thinking that’s the only good painting I’ve made this year, but it has nothing to do with what my intentions with it were.

HS: Do you think that’s the draw of abstraction? It’s so abstracted from the material itself?

MR: I have so many different avenues of approaching abstraction at this point. Abstraction historically was construed as a kind of pulling away from the world into oneself, into the spirit or into the mind. But I think that’s total bullshit, and it’s more about a reformulation of the world in different terms, and those terms are often trying to undermine the terms of the world in which I always-already find myself.

HS: It does seem ironic, that the privileges that allow for the kind of interest you’re talking about in abstraction are implicitly about, to you at least, taking apart the structures that have put you in that position in the first place.

MR: (laughs) Maybe that’s the reflexiveness I am trying to get to.


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