Interview Series: Matthew Cusick

Have you ever had a random shopping day like this? You stumble into a vintage bookstore or flea market and find piles of old maps? I have, and when this spontaneous moment occurs, I unfailingly deliberate in my crafty little head some fabulous art project that could be made out of the maps, but never actually follow through with my intentions. Well, Dallas-based artist Matthew Cusick has made his life’s work out of this exact concept, and we are in love with his intricate map collages. He has taken the everyday map and crafted brilliant portraits, with unflinching attention to detail in all of the highlight and shadow areas, by pasting together maps of different color and texture. We had a moment to chat with the established artist about all of his various collage series, and this is what he had to say:

LF: What does repurposing something that is old – i.e. maps and books – do for you as an artist?
MC: I have a natural inclination to collect stuff. My grandmother was a compulsive hoarder. After she died, as I was cleaning out her house, I realized holding on to things can be dangerous. Repurposing is an alternative to hoarding. It is also an alternative to consuming and creating waste. It takes patience and a willingness to tinker. The French call it bricolage—a process that enriches many aspects of our culture, especially the creation of art. But it is also a form of appropriation, of taking from what surrounds you and making it your own. This process of transferring ownership can be the best way to preserve something that might otherwise disappear.

LF: How did you get into collaging? At what age?

MC: When I was a little kid I would take an empty shoe or cigar box and fill it with a selection of odds and ends and stash it away somewhere. Nowadays, when I’m in my studio, I find myself doing the same thing, only with an assortment of things I plan on using for a collage. I had to learn how to draw and paint. Collage is how I intuitively work. It is a form of archiving. There is also something magical about collage. Max Ernst compares it to alchemy. It is a process that transforms the ordinary into something extraordinary.

LF: How do words/text play into your collages? Do you choose pages specifically for their content?
MC: I began using words or text in a meaningful way soon after I began using maps. Maps and text go hand in hand. When people encounter my work they often don’t even realize the pictures are made of maps. Once the maps become apparent the picture becomes a text that can be read. There is an advantage to having the viewer discover the text this way. When we are handed something to read we feel pressure to articulate a response. That is why most people chuckle or sigh when confronted with art that uses text as propaganda, or like a billboard. These are devices to grab your attention and communicate something abruptly as you are passing by. I prefer to use text as a device for drawing people closer and holding their interest, so that there is an intimacy between the viewer and the art.

LF: Your series Map Works is quite compelling (and of course there is no shortage of maps to choose from). Is there meaning behind constructing human form out of a map?
MC: Each new Map Work begins with extensive research into the subject matter. The people I construct out of maps represent certain ideas and moments in time that resonate deeply with me. The maps I choose for each work relate to that person’s timeline and history. I’ll use these maps as a surrogate for paint but also as a way to expand the limits of representational painting. Each map fragment is employed both as a brush stroke and a unit of information. The human form acts as a matrix in which inlaid maps from different places and times coalesce into a narrative.

LF: You use a fair amount of religious references, in Passages and Constellations, and even in Happy Endings, which seems to elude to death by car crash (or that’s how we interpreted it) with a “happy ending”. Are you a religious person?
MC: I was born into a large Irish Catholic family in New York City. I went to Catholic school until I was expelled in the 5th grade. This had a huge impact on me and all of my work reflects this to some degree. Religion and spiritual conflict is a constant theme in my work, especially in the Passages and Constellations. The Happy Endings are more about sex than death. Each one eludes to a different type of sexual encounter. They are also depictions of death in bloom. The car crash is coupled with an explosion of flowers. I don’t really think of myself as a religious person, just someone contemplating the mysteries of life and death.

LF: How did you come to the idea for the Defacements series, where you sanded away everything to leave only your chosen message?
MC: One of the reasons I was expelled from Catholic School was because I had a tendency to mark up textbooks with irreverent commentary. A few years ago I came across an old textbook and just started messing around with it again. I found that by scraping and sanding away the text  I could use the printed words already on the page to create my commentary rather than adding new words. This allowed the authorship and intent of the defaced message to become ambiguous and cryptic. The voice behind the Defacements is that of a smart-ass 5th grader who is possessed by an oracle, acting like a shaman, and trying to be a poet.

LF: Back to Map Works, we want to know a little bit about your process. You seem an expert at seeing depth, highlights and shadows and translating that with collage. Were you ever a photographer or painter first?
MC: I look at things as a painter. I started painting when I was twelve and never really stopped. I experimented a lot with photography, sculpture and film in college, but after graduating I worked as a carpenter and a graphic designer and just continued painting at night. I’m still a painter, I just don’t use much paint.

LF: You were born in NYC and now live in Dallas. Why Dallas?
MC: My wife is from Dallas. When our daughter was born we moved here to be closer to her family. It’s been great so far. Dallas has a lot going on at the moment, especially in Oak Cliff, which is where we live. I still visit NYC quite a bit, but I don’t miss living there as much as I thought I would.

LF: You CV is quite extensive, you have been involved in many solo shows, group shows and artist residencies. Can you talk a little bit about your growth as an artist?
MC: After school I just hit the ground running. I got a job, rented a studio and started making work. There were a lot of peaks and valleys. I had success very early on but didn’t take advantage of it. Instead I kept pushing things further in the studio and my work kept growing and changing. I needed the work to live up to my own expectations, not anyone else’s, so I just kept working and didn’t worry about what people thought. I think in the long run, that kind of attitude is rewarded, but you have to be patient and willing to lose some of the early rounds.

LF: You also have quite a blog following. Has the Internet changed/helped your career in any way?
MC: The Internet has enabled people from all over the world to see my work. It is a virtual global exhibition space. The only problem is that people are not seeing the real thing, only a digital representation. This is the trade off—access for authenticity. The best part is that I am able to communicate with my audience. We exchange emails and I try to stay in touch. So it’s strange in a way, the internet, it brings people closer together. It’s just that, for now at least, the quality of that exchange has its limitations.

LF: What is on your playlist right now?
MC: Go-go Boots, the new album by the Drive By Truckers; Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, by Black Sabbath;    Stoner Witch, by The Melvins; and a compilation of Townes Van Zandt.

LF: How do you LIVE FAST?
MC: By drinking way too much coffee and staying up all night.

LF: Art Talk: What inspires you? Favorite art or work?
MC: In no particular order: Greek Myths, movies from the 70’s with great car chases, Bob Fosse, Philip Guston, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Natural History, William S Burroughs, Walt Whitman, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, Max Ernst, James Castle, David Hammons, Bruce Conner, Joe Zucker, Conan the Barbarian, Krazy Kat, Thin Lizzy, AC DC, John Coltrane.

LF: Sex Talk: What gets you off? Literally or figuratively?
MC: My wife: smart, sexy, funny, and kind. A fancy hotel room with a view. The backseat of a car. Spontaneity.

LF: Travel Talk: Favorite destination or travel stories (besides this epic journey) that you want to share?
MC: I once went Kayaking in an alligator infested swamp. I’ll never do that again.

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