Artist Interview: Matthew Monahan

Matthew Monahan’s work will be shown in upcoming exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery and the Rubell Collection


The Los Angeles-based artist Matthew Monahan is, like many of his compatriots, enjoying a surge of popularity in both Europe and the US. In the last year, his constructivist-style sculptures of human figures and his figurative, almost shamanistic, charcoal drawings have been included in the Whitney and Berlin biennials. Monahan’s work will shortly be seen on both sides of the Atlantic in Charles Saatchi’s “USA Today” at the Royal Academy in London (7 October-4 November) and the “Red Eye” exhibition at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami this December. The Tate in London has also shown interest in his work with its acquisition of a set of his small pieces made of glass, floral foam, wax, pigment, and pins, purchased at the Frieze art fair last year. Stuart Shave Modern Art gallery in London is hosting a Monahan show this October and next year the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is scheduled to mount a solo exhibition of the artist’s works.

The Art Newspaper: What kind of works will you be showing in “USA Today” and “Red Eye”?

Matthew Monahan: Charles Saatchi bought a lot of works from my last two solo shows at both Anton Kern Gallery in New York and Galerie Fons Welters in Amsterdam. He has also purchased large charcoal landscapes that were shown several years ago. I have never seen the more recent and earlier works shown together which will be interesting. I think my dealers have always encouraged him to buy a variety of pieces. The Rubells told me they want “me to go wild”! After they saw some of my works at the Berlin Biennale, they invited me to create my own room for their forthcoming show. This individual space will be like having a group show and a solo show in one. I’m not sure of the themes of either exhibition.

TAN: Do you see yourself as part of a resurgence of US art, especially in Europe?

MM: In light of this so-called US Renaissance, it’s interesting how things get packaged. In London, I’m an American. In Miami, I’m a Californian and in Los Angeles, I’m just myself.

I guess bringing along my US passport is enough. I am intrigued by the name “USA Today”. It’s the same as the American newspaper which is mainstream and very colourful. It follows that the exhibition title makes me think about the war in Iraq.

TAN: London dealer Maureen Paley said that “the generation of artists who figured in the last two Whitney biennials are darker—more melancholic and contemplative”.

Do you agree?

MM: The Whitney Biennial this year had a nightmarish feeling but it also had a pop/punk sensibility typical of US art. It was like a chaotic war protest, everyone had their own signs and their own issues. But the Berlin Biennial was truly melancholic and had given up all hope of making a protest. So the Whitney was manic and the Berlin was depressive—both combined to be the manic depressive of biennials. And both aspects are prevalent in my work—I have a manic desire to create and there is a sadness also in the aftermath of the artistic process.

TAN: So why do you think that your own work is suddenly sought after?

MM: Being in the studio requires so much concentration, I hardly think about my public profile. I’m worried that I would jinx everything if I really thought about why my work has been successful recently. It’s like walking on a tightrope. It’s ironic because I’ve been working professionally as an artist for ten years but it felt like it wasn’t adding up to anything. The edges get worn down. About two years ago, I decided to shut the door on the art world, ignore everything and start again. So my new work came from fighting my way out of a corner. I was at point zero and just went into the studio and really used everything at my disposal with complete abandon...[with] only a kind of primitive will to make these figures live which is probably why there are so many voodoo references but this wasn’t intentional.

TAN: So was that your first artistic breakthrough?

MM: No, my first breakthrough happened in Amsterdam in the mid-90s when I was part of a graduate training programme. I think this was a reaction to my education as an undergraduate in New York which had turned a bunch of aspiring artists into cynical “gender-bending cultural producers”. That was the post-marxist feminist party line.

TAN: And does the market help or hinder artists like yourself, especially when you’re in demand?

MM: Well, to begin with, the problem with fairs is that you have one piece usually on show up against lots of other works. So you do wonder if you are going to have to go into battle visually and think: “What kind of troops am I sending in?” My big break came two years ago at the Armory in New York where I assembled my own small collection of works. But fairs are a brutal environment, you do not have the protection of a curator or a theme. You ask yourself: “How can I make works strong enough to survive these fairs?”

TAN: How tough is the artistic process and to what extent is it wilful or accidental?

MM: There is a real craftsmanship to my work but then there is always a breaking point. I nurture something to a certain degree and may even develop an icon of some sort but the real energy comes from my iconoclasm, my anti-craftsmanship. Sometimes the piece doesn’t survive this process.  

TAN: It was once said that you had found your “inner German” through your work—what does that mean?

MM: Perhaps it means that the sensibility of my work reminds some people of Beuys and even Polke. It’s ponderous and dingy. A lot of Northern Renaissance stuff appeals to me, especially Dürer, because of its Gothic spikiness. I sometimes aspire to the Italian touch but my palette is much more Black Forest than Mediterranean.

TAN: What would be the best possible reaction to your works from a viewer?

MM: I don’t think you need to know much about art to have a reaction to my work but the best thing somebody could say is that my art is “gorgeous and gnarly”—that combination of the beautiful and the ugly.

TAN: What can we expect to see in the LA MoCA show next year?

MM: There’ll be a retrospective aspect to the show with works dating from the early 90s to now. The best thing will be seeing some of my all-time favourite pieces next to each other. The challenge for me is displaying my works in such a vast space as my pieces are quite intimate.