The Limitations of Total Freedom: A Q&A with Matt Connors

Matt Connors, Primary, 2011 | Oil, acrylic and colored pencil on canvas, 60 x 45 inches. Courtesy of the artist, Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles, and the Dallas Museum of Art. © Matt Connors.

In an industrial corner of Wiliamsburg, right on the East River, is the studio building of New York's Matt Connors, whose unique brand of abstraction is as reductive as it is playful. Featured in our 11 to Watch in 2011: Editor's Picks earlier this year, Connors' work has been steadily pared down in recent years, revealing intimate details about the practice that created it, and informed by everything from poetry to techno music. His practice reveals a great deal about who he is as a contemporary practitioner—and a clever one at that—even taking previous paintings and using them as visual fodder for new works in progress, right down to pressing finished canvases against wet works in progress.

Currently featured in Concentrations 54 at the Dallas Museum of Art, and fresh off the heels of his first artist book, published by Ooga Booga, Connors chatted with me recently in his Brooklyn studio about his work, his practice, and Joe Bradley. —Evan J. Garza, Editor-at-Large

Matt Connors, Small Resist, 2011 | Oil and acrylic on canvas, 30 x 26 inches. Courtesy of the artist, Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles, and the Dallas Museum of Art. © Matt Connors.

EJG: The thing about Joe Bradley’s work that I find really compelling is that he’s never defined by one specific thing.
MC: I’m a fan of that. I think American artists are professionalized at a really young age, to figure out what they want to do and how to do it, and that’s so boring. To walk into a show and to get pissed off because there’s not enough labor involved, and to not have an experience of being a person looking at something and seeing how you feel about it, I think very few people walk into a show without these ideas of labor and how much work went into something.

I first experienced [Joe Bradley's work] through jpegs. And they just looked really striking to me, like primitive versions of Warhol paintings. They were super amazing, and I just like that he cracked open his own practice and made tons of room for himself to continue. I think when people make work like that, there are a lot of naysayers… He got a lot of attention for the Robot paintings in the Whitney Biennial. And I think in many lesser artists’ hands, he could still be making that work. And he hasn’t abandoned [that kind of thinking]. I actually think the show up at CANADA [recently] is very related.

Totally. I totally agree.
I think he’s a really good artist and, in a way, I just think there’s this labor thing; the whole ‘I can do that’ bullshit never goes away. Also, part two of making a painting is putting it out there and standing behind it, and the intellectual labor of espousing it in the world.

Installation view, Matt Connors: You Don't Know, CANADA, New York

Let’s talk about that because I feel like the whole idea of how much physical labor goes into the work, or the lack thereof, totally relates to what you do.
Yeah, I’m actually not a fan of labor (laughing). I personally had to get used to my own practice, because I have Catholic, blue collar bullshit lurking in my brain, where I’m like “I have to be in the studio for eight hours straight.”

My practice—and all artists’ practice—involves a lot of staring and contemplating and doing nothing and picking your butt and walking down the street and going the gym and walking your dog, it’s all part of the piece… My extra-art interests are very important to my art, so I spend a lot of time looking for stuff in my regular life. I’ve come to appreciate, more and more, the ephemeral aspects of my work because what I’m doing is a lot of paring down and figuring out what I can do without. I’ve become kind of allergic to over-determinedness in my own work, and somehow along the way, the expressive has kind of fallen into the category of over-determined, for me personally. I totally appreciate expressive work in other people’s work, but it doesn’t jive with what I deem essential in my work.

I was talking about something similar with Chuck Webster yesterday. We were talking about how sometimes work can just be really bad when it’s over-thought.
Yeah, it goes back to people thinking that something’s not enough. I had this one teacher, who I had in both undergrad and grad school, and I painted a dumb painting in class based on a photograph and I was doing all this peripheral stuff to allow myself to copy a small area of the photograph… and she said, “if you like this area so much, why don’t you cut it out?”

I’ve had studio moments with scissors and knives where I allow myself to literally, physically take out the part of the painting I don’t like, where collage ideas are brought into it. That permission to acknowledge my own tastes, even if it involves crazy amounts of work, or it was arrived at early or by accident, was really a big studio moment for me. I’m really interested in a lot of music, I’ve always been a music person and really fascinated by dance music, techno music, which operates with a very limited palette when you think about it, and is able to reinvent itself. Poetry is the same way.

… I’m really fascinated by stripping stuff away right now, and I think my work has changed pretty rapidly in the last five years. The direction is that it’s been evaporating, I’ve been allowing myself a lot more activity; mental activity and construction activity.

The new works seem very playful.
Playful to me is totally effectual, but that’s more about paying attention to accidents and chance. And trying to recreate stuff knowing that I can’t. Seeing what happens in the distance between what I wanted to do and how things turn out, cultivating that space. I guess that’s playful.

Matt Connors, Foil, 2011 | Oil, acrylic and colored pencil on canvas, 32 x 22 inches. Courtesy of the artist, Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles, and the Dallas Museum of Art. © Matt Connors.

How much freedom do you allow yourself with the intentions behind the compositions themselves? How much is happenstance and how much is really intentional?
I don’t totally have a sense of planning. Everything used to be based on the real world, even the abstract stuff—and it still is a little bit—like this work (pointing to Foil, 2011) is kind of based on a can.

I put all the containers in my studio on top of a wet canvas and made these marks. So, everything might have some sort of lineage. I used to be afraid of completely inventing stuff. I used to think there needed to be some tie to the real world, but I think a lot of the work now has become really reflective and internalized, where the works make the next work. And I’m actually, physically, literalizing that process now, using paintings that I’m making to make another painting, with impressions and frottage and studio dirt... I’m a painter, and I think of myself as a painter, but I have a kind of dyslexic total freedom… I’m kind of obsessed with limitations and a limited palette.

Your work doesn’t seem very limiting at all. In fact, it seems freeing and expansive.
If you look at my art supplies, I have ten tubes of paint and four shitty brushes I depend on. It came from living in New York forever and not actually being able to afford supplies, but I developed a method of finding things in the studio and making stuff out of it, and it’s really tumbled into this idea of making work from other work, and making work about painting in the studio. I’m always thinking in a weird way it’s a performance, and the work is a residue or a performance artifact. Like a documentation. I’m more invested in what I’m going to make, and the practice itself.

Concentrations 54 at the Dallas Museum of Art, featuring Matt Connors, is on view through August 14. His new book, Correspondences, is published by Ooga Booga.

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