YS: Hi Matthew! First, please tell me a bit more about yourself. You’re from New York originally and now find yourself in Osaka, Japan. How long have you been there?
MF: I was born and bred in Brooklyn, New York City and moved to Osaka, Japan in 2006 which means I’ve been here for exactly 10 years now. I have several Japanese artist friends back in NYC and I often would hear stories about Japan. At that time I was very interested in Japanese art, especially Ukiyo-e prints and the work of the Gutai group. I never thought about living in Japan before but I was at a time in my life where I needed to make a big change and decided that I should leave New York for a while. It’s quite ironic, however, an artist leaving New York in hopes of becoming more successful, but for me I was trying to achieve the reverse American Dream, so to speak. I knew that New York was (and still is) the art capital of the world and that artists were flocking there in record numbers, but I vehemently believed that in order for me to achieve artistic success that I would have to leave the city and it’s artistic influences and see what, if any, advantages I had as a foreign artist in a foreign country.
When did you first become interested in making art?
My interest in art goes back as far as my earliest memory, however I wouldn’t refer to it as an interest but more as a feeling I had towards things. I was always observing things around me (color, value and tone, line, light and dark, shape and space, texture, proportion, harmony and tension, etc.) and thinking about the way they interacted with and what the relationship was with other things placed next to them. Of course at that time I had no idea that that is composition. Another thing I clearly remember is passing hour after hour nose down in coloring books given to me from my mother. I would carefully choose my colors and with equal care color within the lines, a trait that was very hard to break for a long time.
When I was around the same age as when I was coloring away, my mother went back to school for her master’s degree. She took an elective course in painting and that was the first time I ever saw in front of my eyes a person painting with an easel, palette and brushes. I won’t get into the details of what she painted and whether I thought it was “good” or not, but I will say that it is a memory easily recalled, as if thumbing through arolodex for a card you often used…it certainly opened up a new world for me.
Have you always been interested in collage and assemblage?
Although educated in art history as well as figurative drawing and painting, and spending many years painting abstractly in oil and in encaustic, I haven’t painted in about 7 years or so. I’ve spent that time making my own paper as well as installations, and my paper making in turn lead me starting to make collage as well as assemblage. When I made my first couple of collage artworks I realized that they weren’t collage in the true sense of the word and that I found collage to be too flat and too clean. I don’t use scissors. I rip and tear my materials apart, and was looking for something dirtier and grittier.
You utilize a lot of found materials, particularly Japanese print material. Where do you find most of this?
The majority of my materials are found on the street in Osaka, most notably, cardboard, newspaper and paper. In addition to these, however, recently I’ve been using old Japanese letters written on washi (Japanese paper) and many of these letters are from the late Edo Period in Japan which came to an end with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. I get these at a local flea market where the vendors wrap many of the cups, saucers and rice bowls they sell in these old letters and when they hear my story are kind enough to give them to me. After gathering my new materials, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning and can’t wait to go through all of my new presents.
What is your studio space like and how do you work with the print materials you find?
My studio, in stark contrast to my apartment, is extremely messy and dirty with paper and cardboard from one wall to the next. They overflow in boxes as well and are spread out over 2 floors. My studio is in a kind ofold style Japanese row house, albeit a small one, very old anddeprived of certain necessities but it serves it’s purpose and I’m very fortunate to use it for free.
In one of the rooms I’ve covered the entire floor with wood panels that I’ve painted white and I spread all of my materials on the floor and on my hands and knees start going through everything, usually starting with one piece that I’m interested in and seeing what I can use with it. I constantly add and remove pieces, similar to how I draw with charcoal, until I have the basic layout. After that I have to stand up and step back and start thinking about more fine details before assembling everything. This for me is the make or break stage. If the composition does not work, I will not assemble it. I constantly obsess over the relationship of all of the materials together, especially the speed and strength of line, and will painstakingly, little by little, use a pair of tweezers to remove bits of paper or bend them and then make them dirtier.
Is there a theme to the content of the materials you use in your pieces?
My work can best be described as primitive. These abandoned fragments that I have collected still have life in them and for me are aesthetically pleasing. Simply put, I’ve always been drawn to old, decaying things that exist in nature, whether they may be organic or inorganic. My artworks are comprised of the dichotomy between light and dark, warm and cool, harmony and tension, preservation and destruction and mobility and stability. These contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected and interdependent and these dualities are the main principles of yin yang in Chinese philosophy. For the past 10 years I’ve been exploring these themes and the title of all of my exhibitions, regardless of my medium, has been ‘Excavation.’” The word excavation really serves two purposes. The first is its literal meaning of unearthing something that has been buried, and the surfaces of my artwork physically reflect this. The second meaning is more conceptual and related to “digging deep” inside oneself to find that hidden something and expose it.
There is a term in Japanese called ‘wabisabi’ and wabisabi can be translated to mean an aesthetic sense in art that emphasizes quiet simplicity and subdued refinement. This term accurately describes my art. I combine objects that at times seem like they couldn’t possibly work together, but I create harmony from this dichotomy. There is a certain sense of fragility and naiveté in my archaic and primitive works and the found fragments from the street that I use share a non-hierarchal, symbiotic relationship. One cannot exist without the other. One transforms the other. It is the existence of these two things together and “how” they exist and work together as an artwork that is of importance. That’s composition. The, “what is it?” bears little importance. The dichotomy of my art emphasizes the importance of opposites and, compositionally speaking, forces us to have a better understanding of the nature of relationships.
Do you have any particularly strong influences or mentors/teachers who have impacted what you do?
Like I mentioned, my education is in art history and figurative drawing and painting so my assemblage artworks aren’t anything I was necessarily taught in school. They came about through a natural progression of making artwork. Fortunately, unfortunately, I’m not sure but I haven’t had many classroom teachers that have had a strong impact on me artistically speaking. The most important ones are mentors and fellow artists I shared studio spaces with for a couple of years in Williamsburg, Brooklyn back in 1999. If I had to mention directly certain well known artist’s artwork that I admire, studied and has had a profound influence on my own work, I would say, in no particular order, they have been:
Anselm Kiefer, Antoni Tapies, Eva Hesse, Kiki Smith, Sook Jin Jo, Philip Guston, Pierre Bonnard, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Lee Ufan and the architect, Tadao Ando, to name a few.
There are certainly some other names that I could add to the list and I love learning about artists that I’m discovering for the first time. I don’t do Facebook but Instagram is a wonderful way of connecting with young artists this.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received? Is there some advice you’re glad you ignored?
In regards to receiving good advice, I would say that the best I’ve ever heard was that you are only in competition with yourself. In other words, push yourself everyday to be the best possible artist that YOU can be. Learn from your own mistakes. Don’t repeat them. Never, ever settle for anything less than your best. If you think your artwork looks, “pretty good” “not bad” “close enough” or “it was the best I could do under blah blah circumstances” you should seriously consider spending your time doing something else.
What is the most challenging aspect of pursuing art, professionally or creatively?
I think one of the most challenging aspects of pursuing art, both professionally and creatively is that when you’re an artist, in addition to making your art, most of the time you have to be your own businessman, your own public relations man, marketing exec, photographer, web designer, promoter, framer delivery man and accountant. Let’s not forget the 50% gallery commission either. In addition to this another challenging aspect, especially now, is that we seem to live in an anything goes era, where many artists, regardless of age and education, are hiding beneath a warm blanket that they refer to as abstraction.
By no means am I knocking abstract artists because I too fell into this category for many years. What I am referring to is the mentality of, “I want to be an artist” or “I’ll do anything to be an artist” and “I’ve seen artists before me do something similar, I’ll just do the same thing without much time or effort, it’s easy and trendy, I’ll call myself an artist, make a buck off it and then knock you for not understanding it, it’s art. It’s abstract.” We judge people everyday on music, dance and cooking ability on television shows across the U.S. and U.K. and hold them to a certain level of accountability. We say things like, “That person can sing well, dance well or cook well.” But then there are people like I mentioned above.
I enjoy spending Sundays cooking. I’m no chef however and nor could I go to a restaurant and take over that kitchen and claim otherwise. I also took guitar lessons when I was 16 years old, but I promise you that if I stood on stage at Madison Square Garden in New York City you’d probably boo me off stage in a minute or so. Whether it’s the fault of art gallery owners or not is up for debate but there is a lack of accountability in the visual art world and many people are hiding under that blanket of, “This is abstract art. You don’t understand.” Well you know what? I do, so get out of my kitchen and get off my stage.
What do you do to pull yourself out of a creative rut, and what do you figure is the most rewarding or exciting aspect of doing what you do?
Of course in life, as in any job, there are going to be days when you’re in a rut. As an artist the only thing that you can really do is just continue working. That’s an absolute necessity. Of course you’re not going to make a masterpiece everyday you go to the studio but if you are actively engaged in the process of making art and physically doing it I can only imagine that something positive is going to happen from it. That’s where the reward and enjoyment comes in. Seeing positive results in something that you wanted to give up on but refused to is extremely rewarding. Seeing how one piece lead to another piece which lead to another piece is extremely rewarding, and let’s not beat around the bush, seeing a red circle next to one of your artworks is extremely exciting.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects that you’re currently developing?
There are several projects that I’m working on at the moment which include competitions as well as both group and solo exhibitions, but because nothing is 100% set in stone at the time I’m writing this I can’t mention them as of yet, but any updates I have will certainly be listed on the news page of my website.
+ + +