There’s no one in criticism (or maybe anywhere) quite like the Philadelpia-based artist Matt Kalasky. His own autobiographical narrative work ranges from pop culture-inspired story telling and plays to painting and sculpture, so it’s unsurprising that he shows similar range as an editor and art critic. His online magazine The Nicola Midnight St. Claire integrates creative writing, podcasts, and online art (“the centerfold”) alongside calls-to-arms and his own semi-fictional creative reviews.
This sometimes sets us up for things to get goofy (think what Dave Berry, or Abbott and Costello might sound like as art critics) which, is, actually, refreshing. “Is a monkey wrench the right tool for every job?” He asks. “Does it makes sense to use the same structure to write about both a performance piece and a painting?” Nothing drives the point home like Matt as interviewee, who talks about the state of criticism– and shoots from the hip.
Last August, you wrote quicky reviews of small, mostly collectively-run galleries in the Vox building titled “Two Timing: Words for Napoleon, TSA, Marginal Utility, Grizzly Grizzly, & PRACTICE.” You wrote it as a series of breakup letters, with lines like “I had a real sense of excitement when I first met you that hot Friday night. The work seemed potent and captivating. “
To be honest, I initially found that pretty annoying, just because it seems to have more to do with the writer than the art. But I do see how it might be a necessary wake-up call for the audience– I’ll take that over a sugary throwaway post any day. I especially appreciated this: “JUST A WORD OF ADVICE: HANGING OUT ISN’T ENOUGH. TAKE SOME CHANCES—INCITE A RIOT—MAKE US REMEMBER.” Is hard criticism something you’d like to see more of?
I would like to see a non-formulaic approach to criticism. There are many art criticism techniques (hard, soft, squishy, squirmy, theatrical, spectral, sentimental) and each one possesses its own unique communicative strengths and weaknesses. It seems like writers in Philadelphia and elsewhere are content to apply a blanket rubric of examination across all artistic mediums, psychologies, tonalities, and most importantly readerships. Is a monkey wrench the right tool for every job? Does it makes sense to use the same structure to write about both a performance piece and a painting? I’m a strong advocate for criticism that takes an honest assessment of art and its audience and in turn is receptive to all methodologies of response. Ultimately, an adaptive approach to criticism will expand comprehension and better serve the audience, the artist, and the larger conversation.
I noticed that you followed the breakup post with another post of clarification. Why was that necessary? What kind of responses were you getting to the piece?
The intention of my initial post was to illicit a response. I wanted to challenge the idea of how a traditional review should read, behave, and maybe not use its inside voice. I was frustrated with the lack of conversation within Philadelphia art criticism not the lack of meanness. My friend Emily Davidson used the analogy of a rap battle. I wanted to provoke both artists and writers to new levels of wicked sickness through collegial prodding. When the responses began to reflect a decidedly venomous reading of the piece I felt that a simple note to clarify said objectives would be the best move. I wanted to reorient the discussion in the spirit of productive understanding.
Has there been any piece of writing or an artist that particularly inspires you?
I often look to Paul Chan. Not so much to his art work but rather the way he chooses to engage or disengage with an art practice. In the same way that it feels catatonic to be a painter and only paint I am renitent to be an artist and only make art. Paul Chan reminds me that the political, educational, social, and commercial can exist as artistic mediums. And once more that these outputs have the ability (and perhaps the responsibility) to operate exterior to the established art complex.
If you could have one person review of your work, who would it be?
If you are always in character can it still be considered a character? Andy Kaufman understood the theatre of society and employed mis-direction, ambiguity, and performance to terraform reality. Simulacrum as medium is an idea that I have a hard time escaping and I think Andy Kaufman would have a lot, or profoundly nothing, to say on the topic.
What’s a piece or project that you’re really proud of? Is there any particular conversation or idea that you keep coming back to?
Last summer, The St. Claire hosted another public discussion called “Fire your Internship.” The focus of the event and the corresponding editorial essay was to interrogate the inequities within the creative industry’s use of the non-paid internship. Increasingly I feel that a responsible examination of any city’s cultural output requires an engagement with a broader network of social, political, and labor issues. To not do so would be to neglect the complexity of our creative ecosystem and only perpetuate the pervasive dis-empowering of its members. This event was a direct response to that feeling.
Above all else “Fire your Internship” and other projects serve to lend visibility to the totemic privileges that shape our creative culture and pass largely assumed or unspoken. They are like giant foggy farts in the room that everyone pretends not to smell. They are also a chronic symptom of what appears to be a ‘if you don’t ask you won’t know’ policy that leaves a majority of young parties silent and disadvantaged. This practiced amnesia occurs when an artist powerpoints to a room full of students his or her personal chronology of grad school, to artist residency, to gallery representation, to tenured university position as if there is nothing more natural–a glacier receding north–salmon surging upstream. What is never addressed is how the rent was paid for eleven years or who kept Sallie Mae out the door.
Who are your three best friends and how did you meet them?
This year I fell into a position teaching ABCs at an arts preschool in Philadelphia. After a year of working in a bar and seven years of art school hanging out with humans who can’t tie their shoelaces is by far my most rewarding relationship. If you just hold them upside down for a second or pretend that you are a robot pirate, everything is sunshine. Needless to say I can learn a lot from them.
There are very few people I would tolerate urinating in my bedroom and still elect to spend a whole month’s earnings on their bladder surgery. Here is to you lady. We have come a long way since Indiana.
(THE SCENE: Nine years ago in the sculpture studio of our undergrad college. Approximately 11pm on a Friday night)
Mike: Hey there what are you doing?
Me: I am making this oil painting that tries express how much I miss my high school girlfriend.
Mike: I like the way you rendered that bleeding heart and the collaged road map is great. My name is Mike.
Me. Thanks. I’m Matt.