Tony Matelli can be considered as a member of the realist school for his hyper-realistic way of presenting what belongs to the sphere of reality. This is undoubtedly a reductive classification, despite his works – albeit loaded with a sense of exception and unusualness compared to what reality allows us to immediately recognize – present themselves as a faithful representation of matter per se, therefore retaining (even in the apparent overturning of reality, in the decontextualization and particularity of their presentation) a high degree of perceptibility and identifiability of something that rightfully lives for us and belongs to the sphere of the possible according to what we can rationally recognize.
In a context of production of reality, hyperrealism, even in a de-context like this case, always finds a logical raison d’être. Since, it’s also true that the physical constitution of the represented subject/object must undoubtedly affect the representative activity of reality – as reality is such, as it is the same for all living and non-living beings – the sphere of opinion in this case would belong to the realm of dreams, for this reason the investigation on the modalities of a realistic representation of reality must strive to include the foundations on which physical reality is based. A human being is a human being, an object is an object, regardless of whether one thinks of it as such or not. We are talking about masses of interconnected matter that behave as a whole and change according to something other than someone’s opinion on the matter, even in cases where somebody one day decides that the meat is composed of metal nails or that a vegetable, while maintaining its form, is composed of flesh and because of this it would begin to live – for example.
The architecture of reality is made up of pre-constituted solids that have a volume that occupies the space and are visually recognizable as they have an identifiable form and specificity, calibrated by the biological processes that start them and by the physical laws that govern them, which go beyond what is one’s ability to name them and understand the process. However, our experience of the world affects, modifies, even alters our personal perception/representation of the external world itself. The sphere of values, feelings, ideas, our habits belongs to the world of the intangible, of the formless, of the invisible and should therefore not be representable in a realistic manner. But the very act of our being in the world as “self” means that not only these entities are strictly interconnected and behave as a whole with solid matter but this is what governs our perception of reality, influencing our way to categorize ourselves realistically in the world.
Tony Matelli is a hyperrealist artist in his own right, in this sense. To the extent that he endures towards a representation of reality which presents reality for what it is but, introducing a margin of “error” in the representation, he wants to provide an even more totalizing vision, putting in communication the tangible and intangible that inevitably make up reality in the totality of what would represent it in a totalizing, final, realistical way. As such for what reality is – and as such for what reality is for us. The whole. The reality in us is therefore not only in the physical elements of which it is composed, it will therefore be possible, in a totally realistic representation of reality, to take into account the various declinations that set in motion the mechanism of the production of reality itself. An idea of the experience that human beings have of the world must therefore also be included in the sphere of the representable, and Tony Matelli does just that.
Is that of Matelli perhaps the only way to arrive at an all-encompassing representation of reality, as it is known and perceived? No, but it certainly tends to shed particular light on some important ways of representation and perception. Our brain is a sort of balancing mechanism with respect to variations in external reality. But to what extent does the stability of the real world depend on the variations of our perceptual apparatuses? What role do our brains and minds play in all of this? Where are things: in the world, or in the sensory organs, therefore in the mind of those who perceive them? Outside of matter, in their function, are things perhaps there unchanged or do we make them what they are? The difference, of course, is between a simply perceived world and a constructed world, where by construction we mean the activity carried out by our brain on the indications provided by the perceptive operations, of our senses and our ability to “Feel”.
Tony Matelli works on the thread that binds perception and representation and follows it through our daily relationship with the world (the perception and representation of the ordinary taking into account of what the object/subject is in itself and the pedagogical, functional and emotional value with which it is overloaded) serving it through the perception of the artistic artifact. Now, the problem, in a context of production of reality is precisely that reality, yes, exists as such and independently of the various range of variables that would make it interpretable; but there are also variables that allow us to experience reality. For this reason, it’s possible to pose this question in the context of a “realistic representation” of reality. If it is certain that the architecture of the real is undoubtedly composed of matter and pre-established solids, it is also true that reality exists in the “self” regulated by the amount of information that the “self” possesses to define it as such and to arrive to a totalizing knowledge of the real this must be taken into account, it is a distinction/cohesion that refers to an important ontological problem. In the end, in essence, it is never just the thing seen, it is never just the thing perceived, it is never just our idea, it is never just the matter per se. What we figure always depends on many factors that are true in us and true for the actual reality of the physical and biological laws that govern the universe but interconnected with the most varied range of conceptual and sensorial factors (we speak of senses, and of sight as the sense responsible for the perception of visual stimuli) there will therefore also be factors such as the distance between the subject and what is seen, lighting, movement and so on. We cannot ignore all this in an attempt to imagine reality. For example, suppose we are looking at the moon. The moon is so loaded with meaning, it’s so easy to get confused. In Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Herod reflects on the “strange aspect” of the moon, comparing it to a madwoman looking for lovers. Herodias replies that “the moon is just like the moon, that’s all”. And it is true, the moon is just the moon, but it is also true that they have indeed turned their attention to the moon… but they still have in mind the princess Salome. The moon became a princess like Salomé and Salomé became the moon herself. But then, which Moon are we talking about when we talk about the Moon? And how much, even if we could see the Moon from the Earth – without conceptual/sentimental implications – what we will see will realistically be the visible moon or something resembling the Moon for what the moon actually would be if viewed closely? And, if we got closer to the Moon, the moon would still remain the moon and that would be it, but the “moon as seen” would change again. And so, finally on the moon, we will probably see something completely different again. The figuration, it goes without saying, has an even greater weight if we take into account the visible Moon and the real Moon and the ideal moon in an attempt to picture it as the Moon.
Matelli tells us about the reality in which we live in its facets taking into account the real, the feeling, the senses. He is aware that reading the perception only as a pure and simple background of the representative activity – therefore, of the subject’s conceptual schemes – is not sustainable, nevertheless one would enter the realm of non-realistic figuration. Matelli’s hyperrealism implements a critical operation on the real, trying not only to figure reality but the experience that the human makes of it. To understand it, therefore, we will not rely here only totally on the concepts of so much empiric philosophy that suggests that the only “thing” we know of “things” are our ideas of that perceived “thing” and therefore reality would exist in us only as an idea, but we will not rely only on a totally rational vision that wants the existing “thing” as a matter that exists in itself even if it’s just for being such, regardless of the ideal relationship that one can have with that “thing” – but – we will take both into account, since understanding this is indispensable to understand the representative reversal of the “real” in Matelli’s work; that yes, it “overturns”, “rotates” meaning and signifier / object and subject, but does so no longer simply to show only the object / subject in its appearance as such but trying to broaden the figurative vision to the possible variables of perceived reality, which is still reality.
I would like to talk about mirrors and the sense of self and the perception of reality. This visual stratification is very interesting, how you use the dust as a filter, and how in the work, the human spectator will end up reflecting in these mirrors. It is as if in the end it was an interesting melange of experiences, words, hand strokes, fingerprints that recall the experience of an ancient human civilization that meets with the contemporary image that presents itself in front of them from time to time, defining it in detail, even in the simulated misleading lack of clarity of the surface that conveys the appearance. This is precisely what happens to us in the very act of looking at ourselves in a mirror, seeing our reflection as individuals, with a story. Mirrors complicate the path of the image in how they give us back our reflected truth, and also overturn it, showing its visible mirrored envelope, which seems so clear, but becomes complicated when the reflection turns into the act of “reflecting”. I see myself in the mirror and in the moment in which I see my image, I cannot refrain from thinking about what being myself implies; the surrounding environment, my fellow human, everything that is other than me and as such defines me as an individual. We recognize ourselves out of habit, thanks to the mirror. But if we lived without one in our home, we would not be able to recognize ourselves: we would need others to do it for us. It would be a mutual recognition, of and by our domestic community: one would recognize the other and each one of us, consequently, would recognize himself. We would recognize our personal identity as belonging to a group. The mirror was therefore an invention of the individualistic culture, of that form of freedom that induces people to recognize themselves for themselves, in their individuality, but which is, in this case, synonymous with loneliness. We delude ourselves that what we experience looking in the mirror gives us security, increases our identity, our awareness of ourselves. In reality, we become aware of the “self” only in our relationship with the surrounding world. The mirror experience is completely useless and, to be honest, it can become misleading. Only by taking into account the fact that I am being placed in a context made of otherness “I” can exist as an individual, without this premise there is no subjectivity or pluralism, overcoming the solipsism of the self. This is what your layering of levels makes me think, they’re made up of gestures, powders and words, signs of lives that are other than “me”, which meet me when I reflect in your mirrors and which define my history as belonging to a group: the human race. The marks that man has left, the achievements, discoveries, experiences, whether they’re social, scientific or not. We are what we are thanks to this.
I talked about the act of “reflecting” before, in light of this consideration regarding the otherness and the mirror, what comes to my mind are the mirror neurons, which constitute the proof of a biological foundation of empathy. These neurons in a person’s brain can reconstruct the movements that same person sees in another individual, sending signals to the sensorimotor structures so that the corresponding movements are “previewed” as in a simulation mode. There is therefore a “physical” empathy, an ability to perceive, imagine and have a direct understanding of the mental states and behaviors of others, which, based on a direct experience of our body, allows us to recognize others as similar to us and to understand their inner states. These works really involve and engage reflections on so many levels. I read somewhere that you wanted them to look like cave paintings, a primary visual tool that has largely contributed to the composition of an evolutionary history of humans and their existence in the world and in society. In the light of my considerations, I find this aim very illuminating.
Would you like to talk more about it with me?
You already have such a rich understanding of these works, I’m not sure what I can add. A good deal of my work is born of the friction between the self and the society. Do we see ourselves the way others do? Is it even possible to really ‘see’ ourselves? With the mirror paintings I wanted to frustrate the idea of a clear subjectivity—to make ones subjectivity contingent upon others. So you seen your reflection most clearly in my mirrors in the areas most touched by others. The areas that are untouched are more obscured by the collection of painted dust; rendered time. In my mirrors you experience your own image made strange and almost dreamlike by the dust accumulations and assorted finger swipes and vulgarities.
I think you really are aware of not being alone in this world and the presence of the “other” is an important, if not fundamental, element of your research and, I also think, of your way of being. I have immersed myself in your work during these days while I have been writing about you and I happened to find your talk at Wellesley College in 2014, you were talking about your first “demanding” work, your self-portrait-box. Basically an empty cardboard box with your name written on it. An empty but also an open box. As if it were a still image in time, of the moment in which it is about to be filled.
What’s inside this box now?
The box has been collapsed for storage which I suppose is an appropriate metaphor in its own way…. I always saw this work as a kind of declaration or manifesto. As a way to live life without too much certainty or dogma. I still like the casual nature of it. That is something I have always tried to accomplish with my work. Making a work be very casual or even art-less yet somehow contain very large philosophical ideas. The Mirror Paintings are a good example of this too. This sculpture is really about the location of “self” and how hard it is to put your finger on it. The title is My Soul Searching Has Finally Paid Off… and the result is of course nothing.
Let’s talk about Total Torpor, Mad Malaise, starting from the premise that you stated that you were interested in visualizing this sort of contrast between stoic position and physical deformation, given by the anxieties of contemporary life, It was impossible for me not fall in love with this work immediately. The first time I saw it I didn’t even know it was a self portrait. It reminded me of Shakespeare’s Richard III. At the beginning we have a false monologue of praise by the Duke of Gloucester, who then becomes Richard III, towards his brother, King Edward IV of England, the eldest of the sons of Richard, the Duke of York. Here this subjective passage is already revealing from the beginning Richard’s envy and ambition, as his brother, Edward, reigns over the country with success. What interests us here, however, is that Richard is a hideous hunchback, symbol of a whole representation of disease that starting from his sick, deformed and monstrous body reshapes the entire stage space as a space of deformity. The stage space is the environment in which the narration develops, that is Richard’s time, in the same manner our space of action will be our contemporary reality. The vision that Richard has of reality is distorted and throughout the course of the story his physical dysmorphism, in the development of the narrative, will come closer and closer in visual parallelism with what will be the deformity of his private madness caused by himself and by the events in which he is involved that he deforms himself and by which he is deformed. Riccardo is both servant and master, tormentor and victim, a mutant who takes all the weight of evil upon himself.
In 1977 an Italian actor who I love very much, Carmelo Bene decided to stage “Richard III” (supported by Gilles Deleuze – who without even seeing the show decided to write an essay about it “Un manifeste de moins”; 2002). The central idea of Bene’s work was to equip Riccardo with huge prosthetic devices that exaggerated his deformity visually and in a grotesque way, gradually redefining his bodily contours. This gesture, that of making and undoing the body, is interpreted by Deleuze as a surgical gesture, which opens the bodies, dissects them, until they are shown as maimed, sick, deformed. Richard is a man of his time, ill and deformed by his time and by himself, whose purpose is no longer to reach the crown, but to dissect his own body and that of the others, embodying a majestic and funereal imagery that focuses on deformity and disease as a necessary end of every body, as the experience of a senseless “evil” that is lived or accomplished.
Please, tell me more about this work.
Well Richard actually was a hunchback so in that instance the metaphor kind works from what is already there in front of you.
With Total Torpor… it was about making the invisible visible . I wanted to give shape to the incongruous mix of emotions I was experiencing at the time. I wanted the viewer to feel a kind of banality and weirdness at the same time. In combining the grotesquely realized body dysmorphia and the somehow comedic stoicism of the pose I wanted there to be a certain dissonance. The tension between those qualities is what the work is really about. I hoped that people would have an almost anxious identification with the subject.
In general my interests lie at the intersection of internal desires and external forces—that intersection is often full of conflict. This piece was trying to touch that.
One thing I like about you is how unpredictable and surprising you can be in visually representing a certain concept or subject and however surrealist a certain composition or combination may appear, the message that is conveyed is always firmly anchored to the sphere of the possible, relevant in some way to a reality that one concretely recognizes. It is true that sometimes the best way to speak to something powerful is to powerfully represent its opposite or the inverse positive/negative connotations of a certain concept, but I still believe that your intent is far from simple sensationalism because as far as you can being figurative here the focus is more abstract than ever, you are dealing – in my opinion – with a sphere that tends more inwards than outwards/outwardness. They put you in that school of realist sculpture, to which you certainly belong but it is also certain that your way of representing reality is far from the mere realistic exercise and that is why in my opinion it finally manages to reach as an even more realistic reality. The reality we perceive is on the other hand an abstract concept for us and there is no really realistic way of representing love or what moves one to believe in something, what makes one feel compassion for someone, we, ourselves, are at the mercy of our daily despair and all the implications that come from belonging to the human race.
Well there is an awful lot here. I like your observation that there is no realistic way of representing love or compassion, that these are abstract concepts, however Hallmark has been trying to do this for decades. An artists job is to reinvent those forms of representation once they’ve become powerless through overuse or over-understanding.
The realism of my work was never the point. My approach to object making has always been about clarity and precision. The depictions are meant to be fairly seamless. I want someone to initially experience the subject rather than ‘reading’ it. I want them absorbed in the work. Therefore I feel the presentation of the idea needs be be fairly neutral or even artless. I always talk about my Weed series in this context. I wanted them to be experienced first, as simple weeds. I dint want them to be experienced as sculptures— I hoped there would be very little art mediation. People who haven’t seen them before initially engage with them as real weeds, which allows them to function in the mind as a real interloper, strange and out of place. Which is the point.
Using realism is just a way for me to get at something else. More and more I want to try to create philosophical problems with the work. Im trying to get at something unstable and ineffable so I find a very legible starting point helpful.
These challenging times have certainly changed our way of perceiving reality and of being in the society with our peers. It seems once again an overturning of reality where the meaning of our gestures is also inverted. To show respect and compassion, now one has to keep distance rather than shorten it, to feel safe one has to isolate rather than fit into a whole. How did you go through this period?
We are living in an inverted world that’s for sure…I think there has been a certain loss of meaning for some of us during this time. The most major moments in our lives are mostly made sense of through community and ritual and we have lost that. I believe we can only fully understand ourselves through others, which requires a level of intimacy and we have lost that too.
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