I feel like recreating the relationship between Nicholas Poussin and le Chevalier de Chantelou to be honest but we are not friends, in that Aristotelian sense, yet. I admire his practice and this artist truly knows what he does. Every and each one of his lines and brushstrokes are informed by a profound study and knowledge of not only technique but also the purpose of art as a vehicle of love and human connection. Ladies and gents, my no strings attached interview with American artist based in Florence, Matthew James Colllins
Rodrigo Cañete: My first impression when I saw your portraits was that you are undoubtedly a gifted draught man and a wonderful painter. Having said this, that, by itself, does not make an artist. Immediately though, I saw that there is a ‘concept’ in your images that draws from, mainly, XVII century art history and the way art was constructed then as opposed to craftsmanship. Can you talk more about your identity as an artist?
Matthew James Collins: I couldn’t agree with you more about the distinction between technical capability and being a quality artist. A mastery in the former is a prerequisite for the latter as they are so closely intertwined. However technique is merely the vocabulary that expresses the voice.
My artistic self identity is in constant evolution but it has a revolved around a couple of core ideas. The creation of significant objects is essentially what art is. That concept is logically tied to meaningful experience and ultimately our collective existence. My interest in the ‘other’ as a via of self discovery drives my artistic production. A curiosity about another’s experience to help us come to grips with our own is pretty universal. Understanding the ‘other’ and more specifically, our relationship with the ‘other’ helps us overcome Ego and challenge the limitations set by our inevitably limited(personal) experience and context.
Ultimately I feel art should address the question ‘Why?’ The underlying force is Love that is the gravity of this mechanism compels us to connect to another to complete ourselves.
RC: You live between Florence and the US which are two extremes of the ‘cultured’ world, if you know what I mean. What is your artistic project and how do you end up transforming yourself into a sort of ‘painter philosophe’ (a la Nicholas Poussin) using Renaissance techniques such as sfumato, chiaroscuro in a self conscious and almost as the way to define your artistic identity?
MJC: My experience in Italy has definitely been an interesting foil to my Anglo-Saxon formation in the US. More specifically, it has been the last 6 years that I have spent in Southern Italy that has been a ‘total’ immersion into ‘latin’ culture. These two models are not in total conflict but their philosophies to living are completely different. An oversimplified metaphor would be to describe the Anglo-Saxon as Masculine and the Latin as Feminine. However it implies a that they are complementary and experiencing both has helped me understand what motivates us as human beings and the universality of certain aspects of our life journey, both positive and negative.
How that relates to my development as an artist? It has definitely pushed me to search for the essential in the symbols and imagery that I use so they address our ‘universal experience’ without losing the specific or particular quality that makes them even more relevant to the individual. My specific approach to making art is related to observation and that is tied to the mechanics of natural vision(not photographic seeing). The techniques that I use reflect that interest. Using a visual language similar to that of the 16th and 17th centuries is not retrograde per se. Especially if it has the richest variety to express my vision. But my direct observation is always tempered by an accumulated culture that shapes the eventual work.
RC: What is your view on the relationship between style and artistic identity when I could say that yours are a sort of blend or ‘pastiche’ like those produced by the Bamboccianti four centuries ago in Rome where they used to paint a la Roman for a very specific Grand Tour Anglo Saxon crowd. Aren’t you losing yourself in your taste for that kind of art?
MJC: Without a doubt, I truly admire the European art of the 18th, 17th and 16th centuries. But I wouldn’t stop there. Giotto, antique Rome, and the Greeks inspire me as well. My curiosity and my pleasure in studying art is insatiable. They speak to me. That is important point. Great works of art have qualities that exist beyond their context. Those qualities, Beauty being one of them, render them valid even today.
Your question is interesting because my motivations for creating the work that I do are more related to the Anglo saxon gentleman on the Grand Tour than the Bamboccianti painting for a specific market. I am on a sort of Grand Tour but instead of acquiring cultural and aesthetic symbols that reaffirm a social order, I am researching the symbols themselves.
RC: In terms of style, there is a very thin line between homage, allusion and plagiarism. How do you navigate that blurry field (unless you are just comfortable with the wondrous of your skill which is there for anyone to be seen but not enough to make artists)?
MJC: Art naturally comes from art. Art History and it’s differing models have (in my opinion) had a negative impact on contemporary art production. In cataloguing and explaining the past, it has compartmentalized style. Meaning that contemporary art should in some way conform to an accepted certain style deemed appropriate for today. That is too modish for me. On the other hand copying a style of the past for its own sake doesn’t add to the artistic quality of a work of art.
It is the inherent quality of the work that should be important. Hopefully my work shows this. Originality and ‘branding’ myself are not relevant ideas in what I am trying to do. It is more a psychological reality and search for meaning that I would like express.
My artistic journey is exactly that: a work in progress.
RC: Your portraits have a lot of introspection that is mainly achieved through light and blueish and brownish palette. You aim at psychologically setting the tone through very specific pictorial means. Is that deliberate or is it the way you visually work?
MJC: It is definitely deliberate as I try to explore psychological states in all of my portraits. It addition to composition, pose and color, light is very important allegorical element.
RC: Let’s talk about Bacchus. A drawing by you caught my attention and I immediately contacted to purchase it for my collection. I am very pleased about which means that I am a fan and already a convert. There are two things that I found, particularly, interesting about your work: firstly, the fact that you tend to include your self portrait in your mythological (or not) characters which is never self monumentalizing but melancholic as if you were trying to convey some kind of idea about yourself. Secondly, the fact that the rock where Bacchus is leaning has the face of an old (bearded) man that might be linked to those Kings that died when confronting him (such as Midas, Pentheus, etc). Bacchus is an agent of creation and destruction and you seem to identify with him is a very passive way. What can you say about this?
MJC: Dionysus/Bacchus is a catalyst for change. Moreover he transforms nature into something magical with positive and negative repercussions. Just as civilization does. So justifiably he is associated with the arts and theater, in particular. As a creative male his feminine aspect is developed. The pine cone staff and the amphora are more than just attributes of Dionysus/Bacchus, they represent the masculine and feminine. The fallen, broken statue of Venus behind him is just that, failed love. While feminine figure behind is memories of that very love lost.
He is isolated from all this in his own self contained psychological state. Melancholy is a self imposed emotion that acknowledges the past, present and future. Dionysus/Bacchus leans on a representation of a future self symbolized by the male figures that he has already encountered. Also one cans sense a real empathy in Dionysus that is evident in his acceptance of the abandoned Ariadne.
Empathy is one of the most important emotive mechanisms that we have and It is fundamental in art. Dionysus/Bacchus, in addition to being at least half human, truly wants to help the human race and his gift is a great equalizer among men/women. It is not surprising therefore to find many Dionysian aspects incorporated into Christianity.
RC: My references to Poussin in a previous question are mainly linked to his ‘Eleazer and Rebecca’ (1648) where he places vases and urns that repeat the shape of the body … of the women. This was also something that was done in Spain, for example, by Matias de Arteaga in Seville. Having said this, this urns were never applied as allegorical proxies for men. You seem to go against that tradition in ‘my’ Bacchus. What is the link between self portraiture, Bacchus and your feminine side?
MJC: The amphora carries the wine that is the gift from Dionysus/Bacchus. But is also a vessel, a strong female symbol to balance the pine cone staff of the male. In addition to the form of the amphora, the musculature of Dionysus/Bacchus was purposely softened to add to his feminine aspect.
All of our psyches are composed of male and female aspects. This duality is at its core. The act of creation is associated with the female and in that respect my feminine, intuitive side is always present in my work.
Including myself in my work is a result of a subconscious process. I guess it reflects my personal involvement with the subjects that I create.
RC: Why depicting Bacchus as an (shall we say) middle-aged man instead of as a beautiful ephebe as in Titian, Velazquez or Rubens or as a chubby boy as in Vernieres before Titian? In other words, you seem to condition or control Bacchus. Is there a moral message? Why pinning him down instead of freeing him since he is just that… an agent of freedom?
MJC: Early greek images of Dionysus are of a bearded man. For me it makes sense because it is the experience that one attains by middle-age that gives us a proper perspective and therefore freedom to choose a particular action. Middle-age is a potent time for a male. Youth is still a fresh memory but accumulated experience helps understand the passage of time.
I truly feel that the Classical roots of Humanism are not simply something to be studied, assimilated and eventually overcome. They have yet to be understood properly.
But they offer something interesting, ever relevant and unique. They go beyond a belief system of other religions(with origin myths, explanations of natural phenomena, social customs, etc). In their totality they represent the psychological reality that we all experience in our life journey, especially for contemporary man. No other, religion, belief system or mythological series does that.
RC: Back to your career, isn’t the whole Florence-USA axis a difficult path for an artist these days. What is your relationship with the contemporary art market. Are you running away from it or self fashioning as to redefine the failure of your style until better times for learned painters like you to become mainstream. Do you care about those things? You seem to know how to negotiate though….
MJC: Well, it is definitely not the fast track to success. But I guess that was never my intention either. My work is not easily categorized and therefore very often misunderstood. Most galleries recognize the quality don’t know what to do with it. I am seen as being not ‘commercial’ enough or simply reactionary. So to answer your question, I am doing both. Coming to Italy was necessary for my growth as an artist, but then it led my work into uncharted territory, so to speak. That is fantastic. However, the price is quite high and I am working hard to get my work seen, understood and appreciated.