Los Angeles isn’t a perfect fit for everyone. Some arrive here out of obligation, with no other desire to be here other than business: it’s a means to an end. Artist Matt Lifson came to Los Angeles last August to attend graduate school at Otis, where he’s been hard at work since arriving, making insane (and big) paintings and sculptures. We met with Matt at his Otis studio, speaking amongst paints, artist’s tools, and pop culture artifacts.
Matt is a very soft spoken guy, very nice and smart, but not really an LA type. Dressed in head to toe blacktones, he resonates an edge and intelligence that is so resolutely New York. This makes sense because, naturally, that’s a place he calls home. “I was born in New York and I grew up in Florida,” he says, “I had been really involved in art since I was younger and I had been going to art school since I was in middle school, from sixth grade to twelfth grade. I didn’t really have much of a choice other than to pursue art. But, I didn’t know where to go from there so I moved to New York to go to the School of Visual Arts.”
After college, he ended up switching coasts, moving to Seattle to spend time with his boyfriend. It was great for him because he had a good job…that he was laid off from. “I was awesome though because I could paint all day,” he said, with a slight giggle.
He knew he wanted to attend graduate school while in Seattle, but he didn’t know where. “I didn’t really want to go back to New York,” he explained. “I thought making my rounds all the way around the United States would be interesting and, when I had a good understanding of Otis and that it was really theory based (which is what I
wanted to explore more, relative to my work), I thought it would be great to come here. I didn’t expect my work to change so drastically, but I have been very affected by the environment.”
This environmental affect on him isn’t out of great revelation in relationship to landscape or nature. It’s quite the contrary, really. “When I’m more frustrated in my environment, that is when my work becomes most interesting,” he said, “It comes with a general awareness with what I find discomforting about a specific environment, which I kind of always find wherever I am.”
“Being in Los Angeles goes a lot back to Florida, with the conditions that I felt very removed from,” he said. “It’s a really good thing that I came here. It’s made me see
a lot more outside of the parameters that I put myself in when I started working with contexts within my work. It’s also put me outside of painting, getting me into sculptural work and not limiting myself to one medium. That’s a really important concept now in art progress.”
“When I was in Seattle and New York, there was a certain amount of cynicism that I was used to and not even aware of,” Matt explains. “My work was very introspective and
dealt a lot with my sexuality, being removed from it, being removed from the culture, and how I could find a position to be critical of it. I realized, though, that I wasn’t being critical: I was actually illustrating something instead of challenging it.”
Matt’s work plays with youth subculture, a point of departure that is familiar for as many people as it is alien to. His work also challenges the notion of what you are
viewing, what is being represented. “In painting, representational work is really just a representation of a representation, a filtration system through which information and images become how we understand and perceive them,” he said, “I realized images now come from all over and they don’t need to stay within the parameter I was setting
“LA makes me think a lot about representation. I think what’s interesting about the city is that these things exist everywhere, but what is really weird about LA is that there is this kind of a spectacularization of the banal, of reality,” he says, “I look at all these things and I think we are conditioned to see the spectacle in the banal. Elsewhere, it’s not as amplified and its almost ignored: it’s very passive. Here, we are put in a tricky position of viewership and participation: we become participants because we accept the spectacle. My work is becoming hyper aware of that. I don’t want my work to be the spectacle: I want it to be the critique of the spectacle.”
“That idea became larger when I came here,” he clarifies. “My awareness of a certain type of problem in culture that I found interesting became fore-fronted here. The work
started fore-fronting it too. A lot of it has to do with having a sense of humor. I call it sincerely taking yourself not-too-seriously.”
He notes, though: there is no agenda in approaching his work in this manner. “I’m not trying to prove a point,” he says, “I think I’d rather show people an option of viewership, the way I do. I don’t want anyone forced into a specific frame of viewership. I want to give people options in how they can perceive it. There’s an immediacy to it and you can chose to see what else exists around the initial image.”
Does he enjoy Los Angeles, though? You’d assume that he wouldn’t. “There are moments that I really enjoy it. I live in Echo Park, which is a far drive everyday. Sometimes I’ll sleep in my studio,” he explains. “I actually never came to Otis before I accepted coming here: the first time I saw my studio was when I first came here to work. I didn’t set up my studio. I brought a bunch of canvas and stretcher bars and I started working. That’s how I jump into any situation: I don’t really give myself time to explore–and I didn’t give myself time to explore LA. I have a general feeling when I get to places and I give myself time to figure it out. But, I did not know that the beach was nearby or that this was a small town.”
He laughs some, adjusting. It’s very apparent that Matt does not in fact hate Los Angeles: he’s just very, very new to it and doesn’t have the time to take it in. Los Angeles does make its way into the studio, though: “I tend to bring a lot of things from outside of the studio into the studio. I think that’s where most work is made, not in here but outside of this space. It’s just fabricated in here.”
Matt never thought he’d be in Los Angeles. He’s an East coaster through and through. He’s happy here and it’s definitely taught him a lot–but it doesn’t sound like it is home: it’s impermanent. “It’s a very nice place,” he explains, “It’s very much outside of any place I’ve ever lived and it’s extremely serrated and spread out, which disrupts its own unity. And, the weather is nice and pleasant…but I think I’m more of a New York kind of person. I’ll probably end up back there but I’m very thankful that I am here. For a lot of reasons! My work is what is really important to me and this city has done amazing things for how I think of my work.”
“It always goes back to New York,” he says, in response to what the future holds. “I’d love to teach and be a professor of painting. I think a lot of undergrad education could use more of a theory base in their painting (but not in an overwhelming way). I’d also still be painting (unless something terrible happens). I have a lot of ideas for sculptural work that I am well out of my means to create now, too.”
As we sit with him, we must ask him about the videotapes and television that have been on the desk behind him the entire time before we go: how do they fit into his work? “I have collected VHS tapes since I was an undergrad,” he says. “It’s what I do when I’m working. I’m usually an obsessive compulsive type, where I have the same film playing over and over again all day because I don’t want to worry about changing it and I’m used to it: it’s a dialogue I don’t have to be involved in but I’m comfortable in.
What is he currently playing on repeat? “The past two weeks I’ve had Female Trouble and Sleepaway Camp 2 playing,” he says with a grin. “I don’t watch them–I just listen to them all the time. Sometimes, I’ll look at the screen and go, ‘Thats what they’re doing?’ and realize what’s happening onscreen. I can see them out the corner of my eyes but I never watch them: I just listen…but, I have to watch Female Trouble when it’s on because it’s amazing.”
For more on Matt, check out his website. He will also be having his thesis show on Otis’ main campus Bolsky Gallery on March 15 from 6PM to 8PM, which you can see three new pieces for that show directly below. He will also be having a solo show at CB1 Gallery Downtown at the end of the year.