“It’s poor, it’s misunderstood, it’s drunk, it’s on drugs, and it’s hot as fuck.” This is how Matjames Metson describes New Orleans. He is chewing on licorice root in lieu of cigarettes, and tells me where I can get some and who to ask for. Matjames lived the majority of his adult life in New Orleans, insisting that the nineties art scene there was comparable to anywhere else in the world. He quickly garnered a local reputation for dark, surreal drawings that he reproduced at Kinkos.
Like New Orleans itself, Matjames’s work has an absorptive, haunted quality. Beyond Mardi Gras, drinking, and gift shops, New Orleans is a city filled with civilization’s unresolved demons – and the detritus of the past has become Matjames’s medium.
Matjames came to Los Angeles after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Adjusting to the West Coast has meant adjusting the materials he uses for his work – and his work is his materials. “I’m a survival artist. In New Orleans, it was New Orleans material, 200 year old Cypress that was part of a house. L.A.’s not as old, not as renovated.” It becomes clear that Matjames is invested in the eerie feeling of history – he asks, “If a house can be haunted, why can’t everyday objects?”
The most synonymous name with assemblage is Joseph Cornell, the notoriously reclusive Brooklyn artist. Noting the simplicity of Cornell’s shadow boxes, Matjames comments “In my work, I try to take it a step further, every single time.” His disdain of art for art’s sake is substantial. “Try harder,” he suggests.
His mantra shows. Smack in the center of his Silverlake studio is a towering castle of intrigue with tiny hinged doors from every angle, balsa wood hornets buzzing about the turrets. Sometime around 1994, hes “got angry from drawing,” and developed carpel tunnel, finding his real work in assemblage.
In 2009, Matjames collaborated on a show with the Craft and Folk Art Museum, an institution fervently devoted to the handmade since its founding in 1965. The exhibition Celestial Ash presented the work of four Los Angeles-based assemblage artists. In New Orleans, Matjames was a die-hard fixture in the city’s art and music scene, and it turns out there is something quite punk about assemblage – at Celestial Ash, his work shared space with the art of Exene Cervenka, founding member of the band X.
Matjames was raised in a “pretty nomadic way,” living at various times in SoHo, California, southern France, Minneapolis, and upstate New York. His parents were immersed in the SoHo art scene of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. When the area became too expensive, they moved to the Village. They later ran an art school in La Coste, France, where Matjames lived among the students with free reign over the resources, teaching himself printmaking and intalio etching. His first artwork was a piece of toilet paper with a drawing and the words “Jesus’s bottle,” at approximately 3 years old.
Early on, Matjames decided that he would not take a job unless it would help him foster some sort of trade that could be useful in his work – he has off and on supported himself by restoring antiques, working on houses, and most recently, building bear-proof camping equipment.
While Matjames is an avid Facebook user, the digital world does not penetrate his art work. Like many today, he links the past with a heightened sense of quality, particularly in terms of objects,. He does, however, note that “We’re probably pretty blessed not to live back then.”
“I don’t like the term found objects, because so much of it is sought after. Once I’ve found it, it’s become part of my little language.” Each of his intricate pieces, be it shadowbox, matchbox, chair, jar, altar, or sculpture, has its own fractalling story. Looking at the whole piece tells one story while singling out a single element such as a vintage portrait, needle, or coyote skull, alludes to a different story encompassing multiple histories. Being in the studio is a visual and emotional crash course in how stories are built, one element at a time, with a great reverence for the past and the daily objects that do or do not still thread through past and present. As a person, Matjames embodies the artistic spirit of utmost seriousness and urgency, and sadness too. He says of when he works, “I’m not thinking at all – I don’t want to think…Making objects of beauty is a revenge on depression.”
The work of Matjames will be featured in a special solo show at Coagula Curatorial starting July 24th, with a culminating event with Slake magazine the evening of July 28th. You can see Robert Sobul’s mini doc on Matjames here.
Rachel Elizabeth Jones grew up in rural Vermont. She came to southern California to study anthropology and ended up staying in Los Angeles to work at the Craft and Folk Art Museum. At present, she is enrolled to study visual anthropology at USC, and works on freelance writing projects in her spare time.
From top, photo by Sarah Brown, Alexander S’fonov, Angelina Butera, and Clea Jones.