I remember the first encounter I had with MATT RUNKLE’s art. It was at a warehouse on Banks Street in New Orleans. I didn’t know Matt very well and he was out of town when some very bizarre and scary things happened at the warehouse where he was living. All the residents had been out of town that summer and some freakers moved themselves into the space. Not cool freaks, scary freaks. I don’t remember all the details here, but one evening I went to the warehouse to retrieve some precious items for another resident. The electricity in the building was out and it was getting dark. Like I said, I didn’t know Matt very well, but I thought “That guy might want some of his shit, too.” So, I went into his room, found a box and started loading it up with mix tapes and zines and random shit, you know the lifestyle, some marbles, a ball of yarn, whatever. I thumbed through some stuff in a box and found Matt’s work, his hand made Art Books. My heart was thumping fast because it was scary to be alone in that warehouse with a bunch of junkie’s on the ground floor selling mattresses (I shit you not. The woman who headed up this ‘company’ was in her fifties and high as a kite 24/7, she wore skin tight leopard print dresses and hissed like a snake. I swear it’s true). The night was falling and I couldn’t believe the beauty of the books I had discovered. The images were sparse and lonely and the lines of the arrangements were intuitive, imaginative and above all, narrative. They told stories that words would only ever fail. I fell completely in love. I stood there turning pages when I should have been running for my life. But that’s what real expression does to us, it stops us in the middle of things and makes us forget to be afraid. I felt like I had discovered diamonds in a cave. I packed up the books and made it back to the street just as the sky went completely black. We lead beautiful lives though our struggles are too many and our recognition too slight. We lead beautiful lives and it matters. I became friends with Matt whilst returning his marbles and his cassettes with titles like “Too Rich To Shit”, and those incredible books. It is my absolute pleasure to share this conversation with all of you . . .
ME: When did you start making art? How old were you?
MATT: Well, I made art as a child. I loved to draw, and there was always a kind of narrative element to it. I would make little books and stuff, and a lot of times the protagonists would be twins. My parents were always good, for the most part about letting me draw what I wanted, although there was always this kind of stigma to drawing “girl stuff”. Later, when my little brothers would draw princesses and stuff, my parents would more actively discourage it.
ME: Any thoughts on why you were into the twins? Dual protagonists?
MATT: Well, they would always be one girl and one boy, so I wonder now if maybe it was a way to get away with having a girl protagonist. Because girls were always the ones I liked drawing the most—the boys were almost an afterthought. I think that remains for me today. It’s hard for me to really engage with a book, movie etc. where there aren’t any feminine characters.
ME: This is common, actually, in children’s lit. Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz and most of the other big ones. I read somewhere, once, that this has to do with girls being braver than boys as children, especially pre-menstral girls. There is something exciting about their curiosity and courage. Did your girl characters have these qualities?
MATT: Definitely. That’s so interesting. I’ve never heard that, but yes, the girls were always badasses.
ME: You felt like you needed to have a boy to please your parents?
MATT: I think so, yes. They were weirdly oblivious to some gender things. For instance, they let me be a witch for halloween one year. But then there was also, of course, this underlying gender enforcement.
ME: Were you raised with religion?
MATT: Yes. Catholicism. Of the right-wing variety.
ME: What is your trajectory with that in terms of story telling? And Images? Catholicism is big with the imagery. Do some of the stories/images stick with you in terms of structure for your work, or in another way?
MATT: Oh man, yes. I mean that stuff never leaves you. I feel like naturally, if I just let things take their course, whatever I write is going to end up being Catholic. In recent years, I’ve tried to deliberately create worlds without Catholicism. For instance, in my novel, TWOS, I made a plan to only stick to American religions. I wanted all the otherworldly imagery to come from Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Fundamentalists (which of course, all overlap with Catholicism). But, once I was three-quarters of the way through writing it, I realized there was one minor character who was Catholic– not practicing, she had actually been traumatized a bit by the religion. But still, it was funny how she kind of insisted on being Catholic.
ME: She snuck in there! It’s funny to me that you tell yourself, “God as my witness there will only be Mormons in this story!”. In your work, your books, collages, the story in DZANC and even your broadsides, mythical elements/qualities populate the landscapes–kings and queens–lost children–an omniscient voice seems to preside over things–is there a world making here that moves out from religion but keeps the magic?
MATT: Yes, I mean, I hope it moves out from religion. It would be funny if one day I woke up and realized I’d been unwittingly creating Catholic propaganda! But yes, I don’t think I can totally get away from the magic. Sometimes I try to keep things strictly realist, but then weird shit ends up happening. I have great respect, though, for work that keeps the level of absurdism really low. I love when I am reading something and I have this idea that I’m in another universe here, but can’t quite prove it; there are no mythical creatures coming around to tell me so. I think that’s my goal really, when I’m writing fiction, at least, to maintain this very slight absurdism, but then that Catholic pomp starts rearing its head and I realize I just need to go with it.
ME: You do that. The absurdism is low. As a reader and viewer of your work, I feel placed within myself, but unsure of exactly where I am in terms of the world around me, though I know I am alone there. There is a kind of challenge to locate oneself with only the heart, to do it on our own. I get so much feeling about ‘the machine’, the isolation of it as an orphan within it. You do this very well, is it something you can touch on as an experience for you personally?
MATT: Well, it’s nice to hear your take on it. Personally, yes. I mean I know it sounds cliche, but doesn’t the modern world feel a bit like a machine? I feel like a perpetual teenager sometimes, just in awe of how immensely dysfunctional and doom-laden everything feels. I know this sounds really melodramatic, but I can’t think of any other way to be when talking about things like this. It’s hard not to feel like an orphan when you’re walking around the city. And I’m one of the lucky ones with some semblance of community. I’m actually very lucky–I have a home and enough to eat, a great boyfriend, and awesome friends. But it all ultimately feels so fragile. It just feels like the whole world could slip into a much worse world at any minute. On the flip side, there’s always the chance it could slip into a much better one as well.
ME: Yes, well said. I feel that too. And sure these things can feel cliched, but that is almost part of the pressure of right now. That talking about ourselves in meaningful ways is a cliche. I witnessed a Max Ernst exhibit at MOMA a few years ago and it just went really deep in this way, this ‘lost in industrial society’ the ‘person in the unblinking machine’, the loss of something essential and I remember, I was very moved, and I wondered if Ernst had the opportunity to understand, to feel, what he had lost to the machines, whereas I can’t really say. I don’t really know. Visual narrative gets at this feeling, I think better than words, maybe this is why because the words sound cliched whereas the images just, well, it’s going to be different for everyone, but for me I got this sense that everything just cleared out of my chest so rain could fall there. Do you have a kind of description for your experience with visual narrative or can you talk about the narrative in the visual and what you get from seeing it or making it?
MATT: Wow. “. . . everything just cleared out of my chest so rain could fall there.” That, in the context of you standing in the MOMA (itself a bit of a machine, no?) is beautiful. That’s how I want to feel when I experience art, although I also want an intellectual experience that I think at times can conflict with/inhibit the catharsis you’re talking about.
I think the most interesting aspect of visual narrative to me right now is that place where text and image meet. I love the idea of there being this potential for new languages, visual languages. Comics and graphic novels are really exploring this potential, and there’s so much unexplored territory. Same goes for the book as object. It’s almost as if the rise of ebooks and the threat of the books extinction has awakened more people to the book’s potential.
ME: The art book does seem to be rising. And the phrase “Book as Object”, I hear that often now and this was not something I ever really heard at all in the past. You may be right about the ‘threatened species’ here. (And MOMA is a pit, just for the record). You have a tremendous sense of rhythm in arrangement and that is something that can not be taught. That is the in born artist. We learn our craft, practice, gain a sense of ourselves and better our contributions but rhythm is the talent and I think, the monster. What happens when you are not creating?
MATT: I guess I’m lucky in that my dry periods aren’t as dry as they could be. At least for right now. There have been times that I spend A LOT of time creating something that ends up being total shit. But in the moment, as I’m working on this “total shit,” I’m pretty happy. It’s only afterwards that I have some sort of creator’s remorse.
There have also been a few times where I’m too depressed/drunk to work, but thankfully this hasn’t happened in awhile. I’m also thankful I was able to ride those periods out. When you are used to art as therapy, it can be hard to adjust, when it’s no longer an adequate coping mechanism.
I think also, as I’ve gotten older, it’s better to be working on a lot of things at once. That way, if I feel uninspired about one project, the chances are pretty good that there’s another one around somewhere that is more my speed at that moment.
ME: YES! That’s my grown-up strategy, too! This is a tough one, but I’m gonna ask anyway. . . what is a word or short phrase that sums up what you would like your audience to receive from your work, what would you like to give us?
MATT: This one is hard! Everything sounds so pompous! How about:
Co-orphans in the machine.
ME: Connection! Fuck yeah. Thank you so much for talking to me, Matt.
MATT: Thank you.
Check out MATT RUNKLE’s work at:
AND NEW WORK PUBLISHED BY DZANC in their online mag: THE COLLAGIST
(To see the whole blog click on the header)