We interview Matthew Cusick in the latest installment of our continuing collaboration with 5 Pieces Gallery. Matthew is an artist working primarily with maps, creating stunning collages of beautiful women, weaving highways, Americana iconography, and oceans.
Tell us about yourself, who you are, where you are from, if you like sports.
I was born in 1970 in New York City in Greenwich Village. When I was still a toddler, my family moved to South Beach in Staten Island. When I was in 6th grade, I started making poster size drawings of superheroes. In 7th painting album covers on the backs of leather and denim jackets for my friends– mostly Heavy Metal bands. By the time I was in high school I was living back in Manhattan and spending a lot of time at museums and the Art Students League. I got accepted to The Cooper Union, graduated in 1993 and just hit the ground running. I was lucky enough to have some early success as a painter, but in 2001 I gave up the paint and started experimenting with maps. It took some time before anyone showed any interest in what I was doing, but in 2004 I had my first solo exhibition of the map collages at Kent Fine Art.
I’ve been working with collage—using maps, text, and other ephemera—for nearly 14 years now. And I do like sports, especially listening to baseball games while I work.
The ocean, whether fierce and powerful in the form of crashing waves, or serene and quiet in Leviathan, is a frequent subject for you, can you talk about what the ocean means to you personally? How would you describe the ocean to someone who had never seen or heard of it? What adjectives and emotions come to mind and what do you think they say both about you and your relationship with the ocean?
I have always been transfixed by the ocean. You will always find me in the water, never on the beach. Yet how I began making collages of the ocean happened completely randomly—on dry land—in my Brooklyn studio, while I was working on a map collage of a TransAm. Since I was only using land maps to make the car, I had cut all the ocean areas out of the maps and discarded them in a pile on the floor. As the pile of unwanted ocean maps grew, I noticed that all these random shapes of different shades of blue spread across my studio floor kind of resembled the ocean. But this visual similarity to an ocean was only the spark. Just as the TransAm symbolized for me an icon of American transgressions, expropriation, and the eradication of the Frontier, I needed an icon that would capture the powerful and turbulent nature of the ocean but would also allow me to embed into it the historical narratives of navigation and the oceanic passages that have shaped the world we live in.
After the series of deadly Tsunami’s in Indonesia in 2004, the wave collages became much more complex and threatening, but even in the face of impending disaster, an enormous ocean wave remains incredibly seductive, like wanting to look directly at the sun or reach out and pet a tiger.
Every wave has a personal meaning for me but they are composed of fragments of all the earth’s oceans, so there is also something very universal and timeless about them. Most of the waves are named after woman. In the Latin languages the sea is a female word. Sailors will always refer to the sea using female pronouns. There is a huge tradition of giving ships female names. I have always associated the ocean with a woman, and in Greek Mythology, Poseidon created the horse to look like a cresting wave, which explains why I chose the title Three Horses for an enormous collage of three crashing waves. And then there is the prose poem by Octavio Paz titled My Life With the Wave. Along with Moby Dick, these two great works of literature have captured the essence of the ocean—as an indiscriminate and deadly force of nature that captivates our souls and empowers our most self-destructive obsessions.
Where do you go for source material? How does the material you use in your work influence it?
Over the years I have spent a great deal of time searching for source material and at this point I have assembled a very organized archive of thousands of maps, charts, textbooks, and engravings that I can work from. Most of this archive is comprised of maps that have been given to me by universities, libraries, and cargo ship fleets who have digitized their collections or rely on GPS and no longer have the resources or need for the original maps. Sometimes I just get huge boxes delivered to me full of old maps from people who are fans of my work. Used bookstores and thrift shops are a great place to find old encyclopedias, bibles and textbooks that have maps buried in their pages. I also make use of the Internet quite a bit, ordering maps and charts from the United States Geographic Survey and NASA, and I also use EBay. I usually bid on large lots of maps and books and other times will search for one map in particular that I need.
The material I use in my work is always significant to the subject I am depicting. Each new Map Work begins with extensive research into the subject matter and the maps I ultimately choose for each work will relate to the subject matter’s timeline and history. I’ll use the maps as a surrogate for paint but also as a way to expand the limits of representational painting. Each map fragment is employed as a brush stroke and as an indexed unit of information that is an artifact from a specific place and time in the past.
In Constellation you have used the engravings done by G Dore for the bible, did the stories, ideas and meanings of the bible influence your depiction of the sky? Was it influential to be using the bible as your source material for depicting the heavens?
Using bibles and biblical material in my work is something that often goes unnoticed. When I discovered an old bible that had been illustrated with the engravings of Gustave Doré I saw an opportunity to literally dramatize the biblical material in my work. This discovery opened up a completely new channel of expression for me and enabled me to use my work to reflect on a very personal narrative that harked back to the years I spent in Catholic School and my obsession with comics yet like the waves was also powerful enough to connect with the universal enigmas of life, death, religion and science. I took Doré’s engravings and placed them in a sumi ink bath just long enough for them to almost turn completely black. Then I cut them up and burned holes in them and spliced them together into new narratives that formed completely new constellations. I was challenging my own beliefs in God and trying to negotiate the relationship between polytheism, and the pagan mythology of the ancient civilizations with the Judeo-Christian chronicles of the bible.
Do you ever lament that the source material is largely lost on your audience?
I feel that art is often admired but not really understood, like a book people keep on their bookshelf but have never actually read. Having the book on your bookshelf doesn’t serve any purpose other than filling up space with a beautifully made object that has a certain amount of intellectual weight to it. To truly appreciate a book, or work of art, you need to open the cover and start taking it all in. If my art, or the source material I use, is largely lost on my audience, it may be because it is only being seen at face value and its façade may be generating certain assumptions that inhibit the viewer from looking deeper. But this elusiveness, or impenetrable façade, also draws people in. Just like the books I have on my bookshelf I have yet to read, the book itself is a constant reminder of the desire to lose oneself in the density of its pages. There is something very accessible about my work, and rather than lament, I hope that overtime the more complex layers of meaning will become apparent.
Do maps mean anything to you or are they simply a good source of raw material?
Maps are the raw material with which I make art from. I’ve read dozens of books about cartography and I am very familiar with the philosophical and artistic implications and historical consequences the map has generated. But in order to make my work I must cut them up into pieces, essentially destroying them in order to make something new. So I try not to get to attached or fetishize them.
Do you ever look at the maps, the places on them, and think about those places, about the people who live there? Has anyone ever said “Hey you used my town for the nipple in Oceania!”
Probably one of the reasons I do not produce more work is because I spend so much time looking and thinking about the maps I am cutting up. And every time the work is exhibited I really enjoy watching as people trace the lines of the maps with their eyes looking for the places they have lived or travelled to. I’ve yet to hear from someone who discovered a map of his or her hometown in the nipple of Oceania, but I’m sure someday I will.
The complexity of your work has increased vastly from Colony and Empire Revisited in 2009 to present. How would you describe the differences artistically, substantially and emotionally? How do you feel you have changed as a person in the last 5 years? What challenges have you overcome in that time that helped your work and you personally evolve?
All I can say is that a lot has happened in the last five years. Most of it is too personal to get into, but because I spend so much time in the studio, anything that has a strong impact on my life is bound to influence my work. I do feel as if in the last five years I reached a point where I no longer felt that the material and technical innovation behind my work was defining it. The materials I use and my process have become just the way I have chosen to work. I still have to forge these things into art, and this will always be a challenging and exhilarating endeavor.
The fact that I have always been grouped together with “map artists” is frustrating but it has also given me a lot of opportunities and exposure. So I have learned to except this and to just continue making art and refining my technique and pushing the complexity of the work. I also have spent a lot of time in the past five years developing other bodies of work, using different materials and working in other medias, such as digital video. This has helped me refine my interests and intentions as an artist and has strengthened my resolve to return to the map work with even more enthusiasm.
Have you traveled much? What is a particularly inspiring place you have been recently?
Last summer I went to Hawaii for two weeks. That was an incredibly inspiring place if you happen to be an artist obsessed with the ocean. I travelled much more when I was younger—Europe, South America, Africa. These days I will travel for exhibitions and residencies, but most of the time I am in Dallas, either spending time with my daughter or working in my studio.
What is your current addiction? What can you not get out of your head, whether a food, song, book, show or otherwise?
Coffee, chocolate, Area 51, Dawes, Motorhead, Henry Purcell, dark clouds, starry nights.
Do you prefer pen or pencil, and what pen/pencil/ink/lead size/hardness do you favor?
I’ll draw with just about anything. I’ll use illustrator and a Wacom tablet to turn my drawings into stencils.
What’s next for you? What are you working on at the moment, artistically or personally?
I’ve been expanding on the idea behind the title of my last show at Pavel Zoubok Gallery, which was called The Mind Is Its Own Place. The phrase comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost and is spoken by Lucifer to his defeated legions. During the last couple of years this phrase has become increasingly significant for me and has evolved into the cornerstone of a new body of work that employs maps and text with a very different objective in mind.