California-based artist Matthew Monahan makes figurative sculptures that are at once heroic and shapeshifting, futuristic and art-historical. They evoke art of the past and art of other cultures, including Buddhist ones. Here, he talks about his work and his recent exhibition at Anton Kern Gallery in New York.
Your work regularly evokes art of the past and that of other cultures, including Buddhist ones. What attracts you to Buddhist imagery? As an artist, I’m interested in the way the image of the Buddha has transformed across cultures, how it has manifested in different countries, and how it has melded with the imagery of native religions. I’ve never done any formal research, but I’ve seen a lot of Buddhist art, and the images have soaked into me and come out in what I’m making.
I don’t contrive to make Buddhas; I’m not going go into my studio tonight and make a Buddha. But figuration presents certain problems, and these problems led me into all these ancient art forms. The figure itself is a time machine that I enter into.
What encounters have you had with Buddhist philosophy? What aspects, if any, of its worldview enter into your work? I wouldn’t describe myself as a Buddhist, but I’ve been hugely influenced by Buddhist art. I have come to all of my spirituality through art, through the feelings I’ve had in front of the things I’ve seen and in the places I’ve been. I’ve spent a lot of time in Buddhist countries: a year in Japan; visits to China, Thailand, Malaysia, and Tibet.
The closest thing I have to a meditation practice is the bringing forth of images—that loss of time and stability. The making may be active, even frenetic or violent, but mentally I feel as if I’m being led somewhere through the image.
My anti-materialism also comes into play. Sculpture is very materialistic. But even as I have a need for a material vessel, I have a desire to liberate it from its ties to materiality.
And a question for you: What is it about my work that makes you think of Buddhist art?
Besides the sculptures that seem to borrow from Buddhist iconography, there is something about all your figures that makes me think of the shifting nature of appearances. It seems to me that your figures exist in a state of fluidity, or potentiality, where they might appear differently depending on the person or the angle of view. Coming up against the fixity—the boundaries that you need for a recognizable image—creates the urge to have that image disappear into its own back ground, or to somehow explode it. Once an image becomes an icon or begins to solidify, I start to wonder how to free it or break it down.
I’m thinking of a Buddhist sculpture I saw in Thailand that all the visitors stick small pieces of gold-leaf to with their thumbs. The whole image is shimmering with these little flakes of gold. It makes me think of Basho’s statement that the body is a sheet with one hundred bones and nine holes that can be torn away by the least breeze.
I love the baseness of those nine holes. The base materiality of an object that is, at the same time, spiritually useful. I like the way sculpture can be used the way it is used in Tibet. That’s a place where there are extreme demands made on images. Pilgrims travel on their knees for a year to touch a single object for a second or two. That fever is fascinating to me. It’s the same in India, where they pour milk over images of deities, cover them with pigment and flowers. I want people to do that to my sculptures, so I do it myself.
Part of me is a craftsman, but part of me is mad worshipper. Sometimes they are both there in my sculptures at once. It’s the same with drawing. Sometimes I am coolly creating an image. But there is another side of me, to whom the paper is not a picture plane, but a skin to be torn or covered. There is an element of picture making, but also one of ritualism, of shamanism.
That is one of the contradictions inherent to making art. There is the art career, the commercial gallery, the polished exhibition. And then there are the impulses that tear you apart. And I think that tearing shows in my work.
Are any of the Buddhalike figures you showed in your recent exhibition in fact even Buddhas? And have you made any Buddhas that we might not recognize as such? Which of the sculptures in the show did you think might be a Buddha?
The reclining figure, for one . . . The lying-down figure is a body becoming a landscape—a volcanic island or a wasteland of some sort. It was a way to make a figure that wasn’t so monumental. There were all these standing figures, and I needed a figure that was not a figure. “I need a horizon,” I thought. I wanted something big that would also seem shifting and transient.
Drapery is the classical Western method for doing that. I’m interested in folds and gathers and how something can be thick and thin at the same time.
And in the sculpture of the massive head I thought I saw some Buddha-like curls. Oh, like nodules? I like the way that that head is an empty container. You can walk in between its two halves.
Beyond their formal or expressive usefulness, are these forms in any way still functioning as they were originally intended to? What I like about the Buddha’s face in Asian art is that it is not acting out or illustrating anything. Its action is being. With a contemplative figure, of course, it might not be a healthy kind of contemplation. It could be melancholy. Every once in a while, though, I make a piece that has a Buddha feeling, a feeling of inner peace. Sometimes I do see that.
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