Matt Calcavecchia

 

An interview by the artist of the artist

As I sat down with myself, Matt Calcavecchia, at our home and studio in Seattle, WA.  I realized that I have known Matt for over 30 years, well into childhood.  Back when we were both boys growing up in the desert in eastern Washington State, we would often sit and draw together.  We both attended the University of Washington, both majoring in drama and then moving to New York City to pursue a career in the theater before rediscovering our love of drawing.  Matt committed himself fully to his art after he met Julie.  They moved back to Seattle in 2003, were married in a courthouse and proceeded to make babies.  Matt has been relatively successful in establishing himself in Seattle as a local emerging artist that is almost known about.
Me: Hello Matt, thank you for inviting me to do the interview.
Calcavecchia:  Of course, you seemed like the natural choice.
Me:  As I look around your studio I see work that represents many different directions and motivations, where would you say you are at in your career?
Calcavecchia: Well, to be honest, I think the concept of a “career” is something that you have wanted to pin me down to for over a decade now.  When I’m actually working and making pictures, I don’t consider my work a career.  The thoughts of career don’t even pop into my head.  I believe this is true for most folks and their work.  If a doctor is in surgery, I doubt he or she is considering their career with a scalpel and somebody's tonsils in their hand. 
I don’t expect I’ll ever be a conventional career artist that finds a style, commits to it, and starts having regular shows in a gallery.  I get bored easily, I do have self-discipline so I am able to take a body of work and push it beyond initial explorations, but if I try to push it beyond my own capacity to do the work, it usually causes me to lose interest and then I stop working because my disciplined mind is trying to boss my inspired mind into doing something it doesn’t want…I lose balance and then spiral into a slightly depressive mood.  Unfortunately, I haven’t learned to work productively when I’m depressed.
Me:  Fair enough, you’re right I have tried to push you into a career, mostly because I believe you are capable of it. 
Calcavecchia:  I believe I’m capable of it too.  But capability is not the same as desire.  As I get older I need public approval less and less.  It’s actually quite refreshing.  Even approval from loved ones is significantly less important.  I believe this trend is a positive thing for me and my art and I am very excited about it.  I am not trying to impress others as much as myself.  I am getting closer and closer to making work that is more honest than ever before. 
The idea of working with galleries and being subtly art-directed by the gallery owner and your collectors is less and less appealing.  We all start our artistic endeavors as an avenue for self-expression and discovery.  At some point, at least for me, a conventional art career becomes about keeping up appearances, keeping collectors interested, etc.  Fortunately, because of my website and other web-based venues, I have the freedom to ignore the art industry and still get my work out there.  My dreams of being Chuck Close were really your dreams.
Me:  You mean rich and internationally recognized because of your art?  Hmmm…I think they were your dreams too.  I think part of what you are saying is you have freedom to not pursue the conventional artist’s career path because you are already established in the world financially.  It is ironic to me that you are indicating that you are choosing a non-conventional art career but here you are working in an office, married to a lovely blonde, two kids, a house, a dog, and a mini-van!
Calcavecchia:  You forgot the white picket fence.
Me: (laughs) also the white picket fence!  Don’t you think your career and family get in the way of producing work?
Calcavecchia: Oh, most definitely!  They absolutely get in the way.  I never intended to end up here, married, kids, job, but I don’t resent them.  In fact, I think I love my life…no, I do love my life.  I am not satisfied with how much time I have to work on my painting, but you know, I don’t really blame those other things for getting in the way, I think I get in the way of myself.
Me:  how do you mean?
Calcavecchia:  Well, I think I am an explorer.  It’s what drives my motivation to paint, but also interrupts my painting process.  I feel compelled to figure things out and try new things.  Right now, for example I am building a cedar strip canoe.  I am very excited about it.  But it takes time away from painting!  I am very much into wood working.  I love the machines and physicality, but I have yet to figure out how to work this into my art…if at all.  I also want to play my ukulele, work on my bonsai, work in my garden, watch Doctor Who…If I dropped a few of those things, I would have more time to work on my painting.
Me:  Do you think all of those things might feed your creative soul?
Calcavecchia:  (laughs) “Creative soul?”  Whatever the hell that is!  No, I get your intent.  I don’t know.  I just enjoy doing them, especially the Doctor Who, but like I was saying earlier, I don’t really understand the career concept.  People relate to a career as though it is all about hard work and the quality of work.  I think the truth is that a career is a political venture.  Getting people to recognize you and like you.  I am not interested in the political nature of the art world, nor of my day job.  I am much more interested in the quality of work I can produce.
Me:  Sitting here in your studio, I see a large painting of an older woman with bears on her lower left and right.  I like the painting.  Her blouse is energized by scribbles and high energy marks and yet her pose is still and solemn.  There is a lot of contrast in your work.
Calcavecchia:  Thank you.  I am drawn to juxtaposition.  I am very aware of complementing and contrasting elements when I work.  I believe each visual element has increased potency when showcased next to its complement.
Me:  Interesting.  Can you explain that more?
Calcavecchia:  Sure.  For example, watercolor is a transparent medium.  I believe it is possible to increase the potency and power of transparency, of the relatively nebulous form of watercolor (at least how I apply it) by complementing it with something opaque and hard lined.  This can be opaque paint, unpainted parts of the paper, magazine clippings in a collage, or even the matting and frame.  But this concept applies to all sorts of elements.  Line work vs. nebulous form, colors, naturalism vs. expressionism, visual noise vs. stillness, etc.
Me:  This idea reminds me of yin and yang.
Calcavecchia:  Yes.  Me too.
Me:  What about Minimalism?  Minimalist work can have potency and be absent of juxtaposition.
Calcavecchia:  Well, first off, I’m not a minimalist (laughs).  Secondly, I think you are wrong.  Often, minimalism has potency because it is in direct contrast to the outside world, nature, society, or, even more often, your own mind.  Because all of these things are so messy, the cleanliness of minimalism is moving.  When I think of a minimalist interior, I imagine walking into the room from outside where the cars, the trees, the people, the motions of life are in direct contrast to the simplicity of the interior.
Me: You never struck me as a minimalist enthusiast, do you like minimalism?
Calcavecchia:  Not really, but I understand it.
Me:  What do you like?  Who are some of the artists you respond to?
Matt:  Ah!  The pedigree question! (Laughs)  Well, I respond to a lot of work.  The older I get the more I like work from all over the place.  I am a big fan of Lee Bontecou, Diebenkorn, William Kentridge, Antonio Lopez Garcia, John Singer Sargent, Chuck Close, Euan Uglow, Jenny Saville, Lari Pittman, Francis Bacon, all the big painting rock stars.  In terms of what you are really asking me, I suppose there are three artists right now who are influencing my work.  Eric Fischl, Paula Rego, and Alex Kanevsky.
Me:  What is it about those three that inspires you?
Matt:  I love Eric Fischl and Paula Rego for the same things.  I love their story telling, their approach to truth, and how they are primarily concerned with the human experience.  It precedes the aesthetic…not to a detriment of course…Aesthetic is too often the end all- be all in art.  I feel pretty strongly that if you aren’t trying to figure out the human element then you are just making a pretty picture. 
Me:  Wow.  Do you really think that is a fair judgment? 
Calcavecchia:  I have two young boys.  Fair doesn’t exist.  I see paintings/painters all the time who are simply trying to make something pretty.  Pretty landscapes, pretty flowers, pretty young girls in delicate poses, or better yet, combine all of them and paint Ophelia.  I’m being quip-ish, but this kind of painting, aesthetically driven painting is rewarding in its own right, but rarely sustains me.
Me:  I rather like pretty paintings.  I have several in my home.  They are soothing and provide me with pleasure.  Like good food. 
Calcavecchia:  Like dessert maybe! (Laughs)  They are not a savory meal, like Alex Kanevsky or Eric Fischl.
Me:  (laughs). I noticed when you were listing your favorite artists, there weren’t any watercolorists.
Calcavecchia:  I suppose that’s because I don’t really like watercolorists (laughs).
Me:  Is that really true?  Most of your work is watercolor?
Calcavecchia:  yes and no.  I like gritty work.  Watercolor is often part of that “nice picture”—
Me: Dessert picture-
Calcavecchia: the dessert picture category.  There is a sophistication and mood to whistler’s watercolors, and Sargents watercolors that move me.  I absolutely love Walton Ford’s work, especially the scale, but his paintings are so controlled that the fact that they are “watercolor” is relatively unimportant…well only important for the link to Audubon, but for the image itself it could be represented in numerous other mediums.
Me:  Can I ask you a loaded question?
Calcavecchia: Uh oh! (laughs)
Me:  What is your beef with the Artist Statement?
Calcavecchia:  Oh good god!  What do you love about the artist statement!
Me:  I didn’t say I love the artist statement, but I understand its place in the art world.
Calcavecchia:  Really?  What’s its place in the art world?
Me:  Well it’s meant to bring the audience closer to the work, explain the work so that the viewer has an opportunity to relate to it. 
Calcavecchia: Bullshit.
Me:  Why do you say that?
Calcavecchia:  Look, the artist statement is how galleries convince collectors to buy work that doesn’t do it for them.  The work only needs an artist statement if it isn’t strong enough to move the collector all by itself!  I do a painting of a chicken; it’s a shitty painting; but gallery owner says, hey look, read this and my Artist statements explains that in order to create this painting I lived in a chicken coop and ate chicken feed and tried to lay chicken eggs, and suddenly the work is “inspired”.  They should just drop 5K on the artist statement and leave the shitty chicken painting in the gallery.  And more often than not, Artist statements are written post creation, they are revisionist in nature, they do not reflect reality!    Start reading artist statements; they are the emperor’s new clothes.
Me:  I do read artist statements. I don't think your opinion is fair. Artist statements help people access the work; start conversations; and understand the artist's intent. 
Calcavecchia:  Bah!  Either the work starts conversations or it doesn’t.  People want to talk about it or they don’t.  The artist statement is a marketing tool.  Look, I write artist statements, I play the game, but I’m not kidding myself about how highfalutin and self-aggrandizing they make me sound and how they spin the work into a new category.  For me, if I can’t enjoy the work without an artist statement the work is not successful visually.
Me:  But I’ve seen work that initially doesn’t move me and then after the work is explained either by discussion, lecture, or artist statement they become some of my most enjoyed pieces.  I can think of several examples, for example Duchamp’s Ready-mades.
Calcavecchia:  Can you email me a copy of Duchamp’s artist statement?
Me: (laughs) Touché’, although I’m still not quite convinced.  Are you concerned that your opinions on artists statements make you look as though you are an artist without discipline, or worse, and artist without purpose? 
Calcavecchia:  Perhaps, but I'm not concerned about it.  I am choosing to define myself as I see fit, when I see fit.  Sometimes I am angry, sometimes I love, sometimes I think.  Work that comes out of this place is honest and true and requires its own space and definition.  Every painting is its own.  I need that freedom to create, otherwise I die inside.  If I can’t explore, I can’t create.  It is my burden and most likely will result in the failure to create anything of significance, but if I don’t give myself freedom to create as I need to, I choose not to create.  I know this from experience.  When I put pressure on myself to stay in a genre, or a body of work, my interest and excitement dries up and Matt the artist dies. 
Look, I recognize that I am being rather flamboyant and flippant about the artist statement, but I do believe there is truth to what I am saying. The artist statement is a tool used by galleries for their emerging artists. I'm also not saying words can go hand and hand with the work. Context is important, but walking into a gallery that is full of work that you have to read about before you get any kind of pleasure from it is a failure! There is good reason that art galleries scare the crap out of most the rest of the human population! Walk through any gallery district. Its gotta be among the least populated district in any city, except on the first of the month nights when all the artists come out. People can't access the work!
Me: And you blame the artist statement?
Calcavecchia: Its part of the problem.
Me: I don't know if I agree...but, let’s get back to your work-
Calcavecchia: Okay.
Me: I have noticed over the years that you have developed two distinct styles and you jump between the two.  The first, that on your website you categorize as work, feels more disciplined and controlled, and as a result, more serious.  The second being the work you call “Play” which is looser and less disciplined and almost moves into a fantasy realm.  Do you agree with this assessment?
Calcavecchia:  Yes.  I think that’s fair.  I think play offers me freedom and I receive great satisfaction from creating the work.  I suspect it is less significant work but I can’t help but have fun creating it, it is a necessary component of my creative self, so even though it feels less serious it is quite important and I am compelled to show it.  I find a lot of pleasure in the visuals, how the medium or mediums work. 
The “Work” tab on my website represents a more cerebral process.  And therefore requires a more disciplined and serious approach.  I don’t think the work is absent of play and at times joy, but it is intended to be more potent.  Spending hours and hours setting up the paintings and working on them is restrictive so at times I need to break out and create something loose and playful.