Matthew Stone (b .1982) was born in London and graduated from the prestigious Camberwell Art School in 2004. Matthew lives and works in London. His work and performances have been exhibited in some of the top galleries around the world such as Kathy Grayson’s, The Hole in New York City, Union Gallery in London and V1 Gallery in Northern Europe. His exhibitions and performances have been presented at The Baltic, the Royal Academy, the ICA and Tate Britain. He has worked closely with Gareth Pugh and Rick Owens and was named by NME one of the “50 Most Fearless People In Music”. He was a major player in the !WOWOW! Art collective in London in 2008. Furthermore, he was given the honor of performing a hybrid art opera at Art Basel Miami in 2013 at The Shore Club. For that performance he collaborated with Hood By Air, Kelela, Zebra Katz, Andre J and Boychild to name a few. Stone is most well known for his large-scale photographs of youthful bodies and entangled limbs piled into Baroque style forms, which are then imprinted on wooden structures.
Matthew Stone is truly the next big superstar of the contemporary art world. Stone is a tall dark individual that exudes a strong and mysterious confidence reminiscent of Lou Reed in his Transformer days. Stone himself gives off the type of young British vibe that would influence the collections of Hedi Slimane and Riccardo Tisci. Matthew Stone’s work mirrors his own image, classically romantic in appearance but contemporary in presence. Stone’s work has the ability to seamlessly intertwine performance, music, photography, sculpture and painting while harmoniously bringing them together to create a spiritually driven body of work. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Matthew to discuss his current work, his processes, his love of collaboration and what he believes the future may hold. His work provokes thought and develops the concept of love, optimism and the beauty of collaboration.
JESSICA STELLER: When did you first become interested in the arts? Can you name a specific time or period that influenced you?
MATTHEW STONE: My dad studied art at St. Martins in the 70’s and my mother’s father was a police officer, but always wanted to work as an artist. He did a lot of artwork in his own time when he retired. I come from a family in which being an artist was acceptable, which I see as a privilege. I definitely grew up knowing that the arts were always an option. When I was a kid I enjoyed art, sometimes my dad would do art workshops on the weekends with my sisters and I. We would go into the woods and make hazel wands and carve candlesticks, so for me it’s always been a part of my life. That level of support is going to give you confidence to really peruse things. I had a really strong idea as a child of how I wanted to build my life. When I was young I was obsessed with the idea of squatting and taking over buildings. I remember being worried when I was a child that it would become illegal before I was able to do it.
When I graduated from Camberwell, myself and another artist James Balmforth decided that we didn’t want to pay rent anymore and we couldn’t afford studio space, so there was just no way to be a full time artist. So this idea of squatting was a way out of that problem. At that point we started opening big buildings in south London and turning them into artist run communal spaces. Some people lived there, some people had studios there, and some people would come in and work on a project; while others would film something or rehearse something. The idea I had as a child really came to life. When I was a little bit older I read about The Factory and more in Warhol’s diaries and I had this idea of being part of a generation, but also being about communal living and trying to invent new ways of living. Everything that I imaged happened and more. We had this one building, which was an old department store in Peckham, South London. This was at the time perceived to be a very rough area and at the time the majority of creditable youth culture was happening in East London.
So it was really our own zone, without an audience in a sense. In this huge building we put on a series of group exhibitions. It was 1500 person capacity. So while we were doing exhibitions, it became obvious that we should do a party. So having never really done that before we would put on exhibitions with after parties, and quite a lot of people would come to the exhibitions. At the first party there were six to seven hundred people and it peaked at 2000. So there was this strange moment in which we were orchestrating small festivals completely outside of the law. The last party we did we had 13 bands playing and 2000 people in this enormous warehouse. The run up to that party had a week of events from morning salons, 24 hour music jams and even getting local students involved to organize their own exhibitions. So it was a really active period outside a gallery structure. It was completely artist-led, but what was also very interesting about it was it wasn’t just artists it was fashion designers, actors, filmmakers and musicians.
While there is a lot of that cross over now, at that time it felt like a lot of the older artists weren’t really crossing over; almost like fashion should be very separate. My friend and the designer Gareth Pugh had his first studio at the warehouse. So we had this massive art deco department store and he would entertain clients there who were coming to look at his clothes and who were actually from real department stores. It was quite a fun time, but for me it was a period of thinking about organizing communities.
We referred to ourselves as an art collective, but the idea was that we never defined who was involved, so it was sort of inclusive. I would also get cast as the leader. People would say “Matthew is the leader of !WOWOW!” and I would always say “I’m not, its non-hierarchical, this is headless and I’m just trying to let everyone get their vote in.” That was a period in which I was reading a lot of Joseph Beuys and thinking of his ideas of social sculpture. His idea that art works can actually be practices that stretch out into the communities of those who experience them and are actually collectively defined. In a way the art collective and squat scene felt like it was artwork; it reached back to this idea that I had when I was a child and it felt like I was consciously realizing something.
I felt as everyone could see that this was giant artwork and that’s how it would be considered. I believe that is what allowed it to flourish. We never tried to force it into the gallery system, or try to put it in a gallery space to show that it was art. I feel like that period of creativity of community and messing around for fun has influenced my ideas within my more recent collaborative work. It has all those experiences hardwired into it.
JESSICA STELLER: How would you like viewers to perceive your work? What would you like them to take away from it after experiencing it?
MATTHEW STONE: I fluctuate from wanting to have really clear ideas of what I want people to think about when they look at my work and what I want to create. I don’t just want to make explicit illustrations for my ideas. So I struggle matching up what I talk about, write about and think about. People have said before, “How do I see that in your work?” I want my thinking to seep into my work, instead of saying I have this concept that I want to communicate to people. I don’t want to design artwork for people to look at so that they will understand this philosophical idea that I’ve been thinking about. I don’t know if I am ever consciously trying to illustrate these ideas.
I do feel like it is impossible for these ideas not to effect the creative decisions I’m making in my work. In that sense I feel like there is a lot of it in the work and sometimes people come back to me and say “I thought about all these components after I saw your performance” and it kind of mirrors the concepts that I’m thinking about. I want my work to make people feel. I want people to feel things and then think about their feelings. In that sense I do feel that I want the work to be emotionally manipulative, but I’m not sure if that’s the right word or not.
Because I don’t feel like I have a desire or necessarily have a complete control over exactly what people feel. Manipulation somehow implies that you’re tricking somebody. But then when I think about when Picasso said, “art is the lie that reveals the truth”, I kind of think well then maybe tricking people is kind of okay. But I don’t know, something that is a strong current that runs through my work is that art is a spiritual practice and that’s something that I believe. I don’t think that’s an old thing or a new thing, I don’t think that it’s something that’s returning. I honestly think that all art is processing things that are beyond the mundane, even if it presents the mundane it’s still there to remind us that the mundane is not even mundane at all. Essentially I feel like it’s my responsibility to try and find a language, and to be open about the fact that I believe that art is a spiritual practice. The type of spirituality that lives inside, that needs to distance itself from religion because the types of freedom that emerge from creativity are not determined by dogma. Humans like to make rules, and thank god they like destroying them as well.
I think of spirituality as the places and times and the processes that allow us to transcend the everyday. The things we do almost without thinking or feeling and to find the place where we connect with what is most important. I don’t know what those important things are, nor do I necessarily have those answers, but I do know that there is a type of transgression that can be found in exploring those ideas.
JESSICA STELLER: Is that how you relate to the idea of the “art shaman”?
MATTHEW STONE: I used to do performances at nightclubs. I would borrow bands and dress in rags and sing in tones and emit these intuitive noises and grunts over a musical score of “Painted Black” by The Rolling Stones. I would enter an altered state and end up on the floor collapsing, and I believe it was around then when the word shaman came from. It was sort of tongue and cheek. I believe humor is an important vehicle to allow you to get to a place in which you would usually be hesitant to go towards. If you admit something is ridiculous it gives you the freedom to be ridiculous, where as if you are trying to argue the whole time that this is really serious it can be boring and can alienate people. I realized by using it in a tongue and cheek way it created a lot of friction. People thought it was very funny but others said how could you call yourself a shaman.
That is a title that is bestowed on you, not self-claimed. I feel like I’m trapped between completely agreeing with that and feeling that creative people have a spiritual role that is akin to the role of the shaman in shamanic society. Even the term Shaman is a Western term used to describe types of activities that are found on every continent on earth. So it doesn’t really mean anything as a term. It’s not a specific term. Shamanism and the practices of shamanism are similar processes that happen, like altered trance states, gaining subjective knowledge which they share with their community for the purposes of healing including physiological healing. So it’s almost like how praying isn’t a religion, it’s an activity that happens in a spiritual frame work.
It happens in lots of religions and I have the same idea about shamanism. I look at those ideas of shamanism and specifically the type of core shamanism, which was an attempted in the 1960’s by Michael Harner. He aimed to develop a world shamanism that took aspects of different shamanism and tried to make something that was a strict form of local cultural tendencies. He was very much into music and drumming within his practice. I look to that and Claude Levi-Strauss and the role of the shaman, and Joseph Beuys and Patti Smith.
Overall we’re talking about the type of people who enter extreme physiological states to gain a type of knowledge that is subjective in nature. They aren’t scientists; they’re approaching the way they gain knowledge in a very different way. With that knowledge they’re coming out of those states and translating them through their actions into something which other people in their community can encounter and gain a type of physical and physiological healing. And I thought about the idea of an artist who dedicates their life to art and explores strange ideas and visual phenomena. I think genius is being able to bridge the gap in what they dream of making and what they actually end up creating.
JESSICA STELLER: Is your process of creating fluid or more choreographed especially when it comes to your performances. Can you discuss how the idea of the art shaman allows for spiritual expression?
MATTHEW STONE: With my performances I tend to choreograph it to a certain extent, but always leave space for it to unfold. A large portion of that is because I’m interested in collaborations but also exposing the processes of collaboration. The process of collaboration has implications for how we interact with other people in all areas of our lives. But I would say once the performances actually starts happening, its not like the element of choreography completely disappears but it always takes on parts of itself, I find it very hard to control. There’s a part of me that always wants more time to rehearse, but in reality I’m not sure that would be a good thing.
The performance I did in Miami (Love Focused Like a Laser at The Shore Club Miami 2013 Art Basel) I had written down this text that describes the over all theme, and I had written how I had imaged Andre J speaking. As I re-read it I turned to him and said that this wasn’t of set in stone. I was just giving him an idea of how he might say something. He took that text and integrated some of it into what he thought needed to be said. Andre J speaks in very universal spiritual terms. He speaks predominately in aphorisms. I said to him “maybe people will connect to you more if you tell a personal story”. We didn’t discuss what he was going to talk about and his performance was huge and incredibly positive and extremely inspiring.
I didn’t realize that the audience would react they way they did. He had the audience chanting back at him. Different minds with different background and stories will speak to different people in different ways; so for me that performance was a lot about letting go of control.
MATTHEW STONE: You can’t finish something; look at it; see it as everybody else will see it and walk away. It happens and once you’ve done it, you almost can’t delete it from people’s minds. If I make a photograph or a painting I can just put it in the basement. With performance you can’t do that. Andre J really discussed this idea of triumph over suffering and it ended up being extremely powerful. He said “but you know that love changes everything”. I don’t know what it would have been like if I would have given him a script. There was that openess and fluidity to it.
JESSICA STELLER: Can you discuss the importance of collaboration in your work? In your recent performance, Muse Control, you worked with the performer Andre J. How much control and influence on their reaction and their fluidity in a performance do you control or do you allow them to have complete self expression and response?
MATTHEW STONE: To describe the performance process, I invite some dancers to perform improvised pieces to music that I’ve previously made. A steady cam operator filmed it. I had the dancers dress in black in a black room. The camera operator was in electric blue, so she really stood out. This allowed for the audience to see the movements of the image-maker rather than the objectified or the captured individual, so it was about the relationship between the artist and model and the artists and muse. In a way it was aimed to highlight how much the creative invention of the model, muse or actor or whomever being documented actually controls the movement of the artist or image-maker.
I was interested in inverting that. Normally I see a project documented and people then congratulate the image-maker over the performance. In a way I wanted to destabilize that. In a rational way you would try to highlight the performer, but I found that hiding the performance, you stop making images of the performer. There is this emphasis on the camera operator and her movements which became a dance of her own. So in a way this thing, which is never thought of as dance, became a call and return like an echo of the movements made by the performer.
I was interested in the idea of this unconscious dance that occurred and by in large was controlled by the person begin captured by the camera. I feel like for me that was a way to be transparent about the way I make images. So when I photograph other people’s bodies, I feel uncomfortable that those artworks are seen as just mine. That goes back to the idea of working with people and being seen as the leader. I often feel that it is the unsung collaborators who are leading. Furthermore, it is collaboration and the way that collaborators are credited has not been balanced.
So in the sense of “Muse Control” all of the dance pieces were improvised and there was very little direction that was given other than “don’t look directly into the camera”. I wanted the dancers to perform for themselves in their own world rather then performing to the camera. So in that way if the camerawoman wanted to capture their faces, she would have to move to follow them but beyond that it was somebody else making the images and myself and other dancers defining the dance. I also found it important that I perform within it because I felt more able to ask other people to occupy that role if I would expose myself to the same situation.
JESSICA STELLER: In your latest show “Unconditional Love” at The Hole, you used paint and brushstroke within your work, while the majority of your previous work does not. Can you elaborate on the process of using that medium? What were the challenges and how did you overcome them?
MATTHEW STONE: The process was quite unique. I painted myself on glass and took super high-resolution photographs of those painted pieces and digitally retouched the images manipulating both color and texture. I then worked with digital printing to print these images and scaled them massively, sometimes even combining two of them in Photoshop and layers. At times I was adding shadow as well as an almost unnatural sense of depth. They are all unique works so they are forced to live like paintings.They are not editions. For me it was a really exciting way to explore color and gesture.
When I was composing them, both the actual painting as well as the photographing, felt very similar to the process of creating the images I had done with bodies. I was trying to make abstract works from figures. I was taking this figurative approach trying to achieve abstraction but then I wanted to take the kind of cliché of abstraction and start to think about how to find a similar place that is occupied by the photographs of bodies. It definitely felt like a very new body of work but I think there was a lot connection. It was exiting to do a body of work that was in such direct dialog with painting. People often refer to my photographic work as a paintings, I often think that’s very interesting to think about “can you print a painting?”.
Warhol did it with screen-printing and there are obviously other artists who use inkjets who are printing paintings, but I find this series a digital equivalent to Lichtenstein’s “Brushstrokes” series. They sort of spoof the macho mid-century abstract painters. Lichtenstein was creating his pop version of it. I’m not trying to undermine abstract painting but there is a feeling of questioning myself, “how do we do abstract painting now without it having this revivalist aspect?” There is this constant game of kick-up, where you are constantly questioning how do you make paintings that speak to your time. So in a way this series was trying to achieve that. And in a way I felt very comfortable trying to achieve that where as if I just made 16 hand-painted abstract paintings it wouldn’t feel like the same gesture to me. For me it was a way to deal with painting in relation to digital manipulation and photography. But they still operate as paintings and they are not just an ironic gesture. They also reveal the way I think about color and the way I explore my relation to composition. It gave me a lot of freedom to make something that was aesthetically driven and for people to be able to approach it.
JESSICA STELLER: How does music play a role within your performances, sculptures and photographs?
MATTHEW STONE: I used to make DJ mixes of other peoples tracks and then at a certain point I decided to make remixes. I removed all the samples and realized this was still a score of music and from then on for all of Gareth Pugh’s shows, unless there was a specific track that was relevant to the collection, I started producing music from scratch for his shows and for his fashion films. At that point I realized I could make music. I always felt like it was something that was trapped inside me. I tried to make music for a while and just never finished it; but when I had a deadline I pulled all these ideas out of my head.
JESSICA STELLER: How would you say fashion influence you?
MATTHEW STONE: With photography if you are an artist and take photographs the transition from your own art photography to commercial photography is quite quick. I was asked a lot to shoot fashion and I really didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do advertising for objects. I didn’t want to make objects that made people think that their creativity is something they have to buy. I always thought the levels of compromise would be too great creatively. I wanted to maintain my creative control. So there was this point at which I decided to do Vogue Japan and was given six pages and the criteria of “do what you want” …and as soon as I did it and was making the images, the creative ideas came out and it allowed me to do anything that I wanted. I then realized during this process that I could do what I wanted all the time even within my own artwork. So by stepping out of my own self-defined chosen creative field, it had given me an entirely new perspective on what I was doing on my own work. So rather than fear being this thing that was limiting me I realized that it was really energizing.
JESSICA STELLER: Who would be your dream collaboration?
MATTHEW STONE: Michael Jackson and Rhianna. I think Rhianna is really in charge of sexuality. I think she is very in control and very much enjoying that aspect of her career. I also really enjoy how she creates this idea of body positivity. Michael Jackson inspires me as well. He talks almost biblically about creativity. He once said, “The meaning of life is contained in every single expression of life. It is present in the infinity of forms and phenomena that exist in all of creation.” I believe he never lost his faith in humanity or his faith in the potential to create positive changes in the world.