Matt Held: Discovery Series Interview
Rhoni Blankenhorn for Welcome to COMPANY
(February 1, 2012) We are fascinated by the intersection between social media and art, so when we discovered Matt Held's portraits of Facebook profiles, we were absolutely intrigued. Since his Facebook series, Matt has continued to develop projects that are culturally relevant, and connected to a tangible reality. He created and implemented a Hobo Code for artists to communicate tips on how to navigate the art world to each other, and is currently working towards a pop-up exhibition of jetpack inspired art this coming February 17th, at Cyber-NY Interactive, 34 East 23rd St, 4th floor, 6 - 9pm.
COMPANY: What’s your history? How did you decide to be an artist?
Matt: I grew up in Denver, Colorado in the mountains outside of the city. Art was a big part of home life. My dad enjoyed wood sculpting and my mother played around with stained glass. I started copying Iron Maiden record covers when I was a kid. My parents were supportive of me exploring art to an extent, except my dad worked as a carpenter and my mom a nurse. To them art should be a hobby, something you labor on in your spare time—both wanted me to get a trade under my belt and paint on the side. My mom thought it would be good if I went into graphic design, anything but being a painter. I ended up going to a private art school—Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. I lied to them for the first 2 years of school, telling them that I was a graphic design major, when in fact I was a painting major. They started to question it when they saw that I was taking mostly painting classes and not design classes.
COMPANY: What are your latest inspirations?
Matt: I read every art periodical I can get my hands on every month. I also love to read artist biographies and theoretical texts. I love going out to Chelsea or Williamsburg or Bushwick for openings, but since I have two kids at home I don’t go as often as I’d like.
COMPANY: You gained a lot of attention from your Facebook portraits; can you talk a little about that project?
Matt: The Facebook portraits were really fun to do and experience. People were really excited about them, which was great. That’s all any artist wants is for people to like their work. I was able to establish a name for myself because of it but it was also really weird. So much attention so fast…then crickets.
COMPANY: What do you think about social media and art?
Matt: To be honest, I am sort of on the fence about the combination of social media and art. Without social media, I would probably still be toiling away as a full time art handler, griping about not being able to get anyone to look at my work. The amazing thing about Facebook and Twitter is how easy it is to get your work out there for a larger audience to see. I find it amazing that social media is this gigantic entity that grows and grows so long as you know how to use it. Therein lies the problem for most artists, how to use social media to its full potential. You can’t just post a picture of one of your paintings and hope that one of your 200 or so friends comments on it. What engages people is the process of cultivating a persona, networking and using social media to its full potential. It’s a lot of hard work and I try to maintain a balance, but sometimes work on the computer takes over and I neglect the studio.
My main gripe about social media is how quick things go in and out of fashion. When I came to the tail end of the Facebook project, I had had enough of painting portraits. I wanted to start something different, but was concerned about how to carry the fan base I had built to a series that was not based social media. It has been difficult, but I am pleased so far.
COMPANY: We are huge fans of your Hobo Code! How did that idea come about? Can you talk about the project?
Matt: I came across a website one day as I was searching for Delta Blues music. It was all about hobo culture, fascinating read. Hobos used their own language to communicate with each other. They developed a series of codes, kind of like hieroglyphics, that were scratched onto fence posts, on door jambs you name it - it was an early form of tagging. The symbols indicated things like which households would feed you and so on. It is so impressive that the symbols spread to so many people off the grid. A Facebook friend I have pointed me to a German website that had almost identical codes that dated all the way back to the 18th century, called ‘gaunerzinken’ or crook codes.
COMPANY: So a hobo code is a set of symbols homeless people use to help each other navigate cities. As an artist, what is navigating the New York art scene like?
Matt: I decided that I would attempt to come up with my own series of “Artist Hobo Codes” dealing with concepts that I believe are synonymous to all artists. I made symbols for things like Must See Show, or Sending Slides Okay, or You Will Get Ignored Here.
The New York art world, hell, the art world in general is such a complicated world to travel in. There is no guide book for artists on how to ‘make it’. No one comes straight out and says things like, “If you are not from money, have to work a day job, and don’t know anyone associated with this gallery, don’t even bother trying to get a show here.”
Most people I have met are so secretive with their knowledge that it is like slamming your head against a wall trying to get information. I do go out and place my Artist Hobo Codes for people to see, you kind of have to know where to look. Maybe someday this will catch on and we will see a network of artists using a specific code, not necessarily mine, to let others know experiences had with different galleries.
COMPANY: How do you start a new work?
Matt: I normally bug my wife about an idea I have, then she negates it and challenges me to think more about it. I rework the idea until she is excited about it, she’s pretty awesome in that respect. I trust her 100%
COMPANY: What is your relationship like with collectors?
Matt: First of all, anyone who wants to collect my work is awesome. I appreciate everything my collectors have done for me and their support helps keep me in the studio. Many of these people are my friends, some I get Christmas cards from, others I wish I could be in contact with a bit more. I think my wife keeps a spreadsheet of everyone we know of who has bought my work.
COMPANY: First thing you do when you get to the studio? Three essential objects?
Matt: I am in the studio by 4:30 every morning. I normally just start painting unless I am between paintings, then I am researching or sketching new idea. Sometimes I get sucked into Facebook, but that early in the morning is never a good time to comment on things. I just haven’t had enough coffee yet.
I have a mahl stick (a long, thin, circular rod to steady your hand while painting) that has become somewhat of a crutch to me. It is in my hand more often than not. I have had it since I was in art school, something like 14 years. It was just a dowel that I bought at Home Depot, but I love that stick.
I used to have a pair of overalls that I painted in and never really washed. They could almost stand up by themselves. I finally had to throw them away because the oil paint destroyed the fabric and they fell apart. It made me really sad.
COMPANY: What are you working on now?
Matt: I am kind of working simultaneously on two projects—the Hobo Code paintings and a series dealing with jetpacks. The jetpack series is a reflection on how, as a child of the 70’s, I was promised by the year 2000 we would be traveling around in jetpacks and flying cars. Well, it is 2012 and I still am putzing along in my VW, or riding in a super crowded subway. A couple friends and I are having a show opening February 17th at a pop up gallery in the Flatiron district focused on Jetpack art, so I am mostly concentrating on that right now.