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Conversation between Japeth Mennes & Jeffrey Mathews

Japeth: We're talking about science fiction, science as it enters fiction or science as it enters art. I like that idea of fusing, of taking something and filtering it through your own hand, like an already known technology or a pre-existing material that you’re using in your own way. With the work I'm doing it's a photographic process, so I'm examining how photography works, the way you can sort of experiment and create formal qualities, or what it means to make a photograph.

Jeffrey: You're absorbing and filtering through these things that are greater than the self. One's gesture, one's hand creates an object that can also extend back out to the world. So something starts very large and closes down to a personal, intimate gesture and opens back up, sort of like an hourglass. It extends the science and painting and everything, and it's where I see a lot of art-making happen. Bismuth, for example, has obviously existed longer than we have. It’s been used for specific art making practices, which is kind of fascinating to learn about. In the Middle Ages they were using Bismuth instead of lead to create illuminated manuscripts, and I even found a technique or a process where they were using it to inlay the material in wood, or I think these Danish reliquaries or something. It’s just so strange that this material exists out in the world and you can have so many different interpretations.

Japeth: It's just a material? It's not concocted or anything? Not melted down?

Jeffrey: No, it's only mined, sort of refined, and poured into ingots. It's purified maybe a little bit for industrial use as an alloy for other heavier metals like bronze. Talking about material reminds me of my love/hate relationship with minimalism.

Japeth: Yeah, me too. Some of it just bores the shit out of me.

Jeffrey: Well initially the hate was mostly generated by like, wow, that must've been a great movement to be a part of, to just find some really beautiful material and just make a cube out of it and you're done. But then also I think I’m coming at it from the political perspective, thinking about the era their work was made in, during the Vietnam war.

Japeth: I'm definitely interested in the place of a painting in the world today, how it seems out of step or out of place as a form of communication. You have much better ways of going about it that would be much more effective, like music, movies, TV, magazines and the internet, but we're making these paintings that don't do a very good job.

Jeffrey: From a self-critical standpoint you can maybe claim that artistic production is a very self-indulgent exercise at best, but I think it's maybe a little more benevolent to consider that it creates a sort of diversion from the unrest that's going on in the world; that art can be generative.

Japeth: Art will always find a way to be seen, and for the most part it's free. And that's what's really cool. Images and ideas spread themselves throughout the world. Which is why I think it's important to think about the structure and support in the production of art, what your place is, how you fit into that model.

Jeffrey: It's a weird sort of relationship. I feel like in some ways making painting can be somewhat like a political gesture. But then on the other hand you are relying on this other system of people who make money who are able to buy your work. It's a funny paradox. But ultimately it goes back to the idea that it's free for anyone to look at and the ideas are free to use. That's what interests to me, having a dialogue within this community which is small, but that's fine. Everyone doesn't have to be Guns 'N Roses. You can be this little band that people love but not everyone is into, and that's totally fine. You have your audience and that's great and that's really beautiful and in some ways I feel like that's better than Guns 'N Roses. How about this for a science fiction reality: a world that's entirely populated by bands, just bands making music for other bands. I was reading-

Japeth: Bandville

Jeffrey: I think that's come up in conversations around the New York/Brooklyn art community, the prevalence of blogs and the sort of proliferation of certain people within these structures. We have friends that have come up through this system of altruistic endeavors. There are one-night shows put on with no financial backing with people that are making this work in their spare time, after their day job. It opens you up to this idea that there are so many artists in Brooklyn. And then you think exponentially- there are so many artists in New York, so many artists in Philadelphia, Chicago, L.A., Berlin, you know, across the globe. There was a poll recently: 20% of Berlin's population, when asked what they want to do when they get older, the youth in Berlin want to be artists. I mean that's a fifth of the city’s population that want to be artists! I just thought for a second what a crazy universe that would be- everyone's making art for each other. What a strange universe if we were just peacefully formalizing things for each other in perpetuity, just for the sake of our own entertainment, until we die. I suppose to some that would sound like a nightmare but maybe to others not so much.

I mentioned earlier the love/hate relationship with minimalism, but I'm actually starting to remove all the bullshit and let the material speak for itself. For a while I was doing these marker bleed things that was just like pigment that would soak into the canvas or the linen and bleed out by the acrylic polymer that was painted onto the surface, but there was something about that effect that would add this sort of burning that the material does when it attaches itself to the substrate to the linen.

Japeth: It's sort of like a contamination. I like this idea of contaminating minimal art. I feel like I enjoy post-minimal art more. Both of us have these different processes where we're painting but it's not pure painting, it's a contamination of painting or it's a contamination of photography, which can lead to more interesting places within genres. Just like Guns N Roses. Like a contamination of metal, a contamination of hair-metal, but also like Queen.

Jeffrey: I read this book, Steven Parrino’s The No Texts, that was all about contamination and necrophilia in painting. The author said when he came on the scene painting was dead so I just thought how great, I can have a necrophilic relationship with painting, just fuck painting's corpse. The continual cycle of culture dying and needing to be revived, that's how it perpetuates its existence. The great thing about the book is that it formalizes this idea of destruction and mayhem, just basically bad behavior, which is something I'm really interested in because I think I always find it annoying when people are just trying to hold a light up to something.

But also in a literal sense there's that idea of contamination you were referencing - there is something sickly or gangly about the way that paint is applied, or the way that it exists alongside this bismuth stuff so that it creates a sort of binary system. Is bismuth the corrosion or is it augmenting something? I like the idea of taking something really shiny and doing something sort of gnarly to it and then taking something really gnarly and doing something really shiny to it.

Japeth: What I like about painting is that it embraces the obsolete. I was talking to you about that earlier, like the vinyl record, there's a certain obsolete quality that people enjoy about the record. A lot of what our peers are doing right now is a material investigation, a more handmade and personal experience. I think that's the new paradigm going along with the recession and the renewed interest in materials.

Jeffrey: It's like something you can put in your backpack and take home and you pound a nail in the wall and put it up and you have your one-on-one experience.

Japeth: I remember a couple of years ago you were at a store and you bought some guy’s record and you saw something and it was just a tape wrapped in a rag or something like that.

Jeffrey: It was like a guy wiped his ass with a sock and wrapped his tape in that.

Japeth: Yeah and maybe we're fetishizing this but I kind of like that idea that this tape might be the greatest music in the world right now. This one tape might have the most integrity, the most heart, it might be the most interesting, complicated music in the world but it's just this guy wrapping his tape in a rag. I like how a painting can be that way too.

I guess it can be kind of dangerous if you fetishize it too much. There’s a resurgence of nostalgia, our peers are feeling like they're missing out on something or they're feeling like there's something in the past that we lost and we're trying to re-access. Like when painting was a big deal but now it's not.

Jeffrey: Maybe sci-fi is the opposite of nostalgia. The idea of a sci-fi reality brings me to another thing that I'm interested in: I realized that I wanted not to illustrate but actualize. I think it creates this condition where you can see these things existing in the future. I don't want to illustrate what the future is going to look like, I want to bring the future to the present. I was reading that Buckminster Fuller anthology, Critical Path. I saw his dymaxium home at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit. It looked like a trailer home but it's a cylinder with a funnel top. It was so considered it was ridiculous. The funnel top would channel tornados... it was like ergonomic aerodynamic design. He had a dense knowledge of where we come from and where we're going. There's a dangerous potential for one's own work to exist in a vacuum, to cut off from any connection to that which came before and that which can come after.

Japeth: I'm definitely interested in art that can conflate the past, the present and the future. It doesn't simply reflect the present or reminisce about the past, it can also try to envision the future, which is why I feel like objects should be made because they can say more than we intend.

Jeffrey: That’s important, objects speaking for themselves. I'm very much incapable of making interesting gestural marks. My marks have to be in control, and that's why I have to let something else happen. I do something and it gets fucked up on its own and I just go away.

Japeth: We both have these things that we do which are about relinquishing control within the work, setting up a system and placing a lot of control in that system and making decisions that ultimately end up being in a process or situation in which the outcomes are unknown. The fluidity of the bismuth, the way it crystallizes, the way the water reacts to your marker drawings. What will happen after I leave that painting for a year in the sun? I like that idea of control and lack of control. I feel our work has that dialogue and hopefully people will see that in the show.

Edited by Daniel Gerwin

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