77th Street installation view, each 9.5 x 11 feet. Graphite on paper, 2010.

Days before his solo show closed at Linda Warren Gallery, I briefly met Matt Woodward while he was on his way to the opening of yet another solo show of his work at the Union League Club. Warren had been raving about Matt for weeks, and when I finally made it to her gallery to see for myself, I understood why prior to even stepping inside. From the street through Warren’s window facade, Woodward’s art stood towering and vividly announced itself – nearly ten-foot square graphite drawings – with mastery. The pieces were streaked and smeared, rubbed away and sanded down and even ripped in places, but remained exquisite; each a rough Rorschach blot of the city from which emerged architectural forms, smooth buttery bright curves and repeated patterns that adorn so many of the buildings we walk past everyday. I won’t deny that I was instantly taken by Matt’s work, and I asked Warren how she came to know him.

Linda Warren: Artists that I represent or know at the New York Academy, where Matt had just graduated, told him to get in touch with me when he got back to Chicago, so he did. He sent a very, very polite, like the most polite email submission I’ve ever received, along with some images of his work. It was just weeks before I was printing an invite for a show called Somewhere, Elsewhere and I thought I was set as far as artists to include in that show. But as soon as I saw Matt’s work, I knew it was a perfect fit for the theme. I rarely do group shows, so it was kind of perfect timing to get his work into the gallery. I receive email submissions every day of the week from artists from all over, and it is rare, though it happens, that I respond immediately to work upon first glance.

Damien James: But your first impression of Matt’s art?

Surf Street, 50 x 51 in. Graphite on paper, 2010.

LW: That it was very unique. I had never seen anything like it. And that it was both haunting and mysterious – that it represented something literal but clearly so much more. This was just from an email image…not from talking to him or anything. Anyway, I called him immediately and without further ado, his work was in the show and I continued to be stunned and intrigued by its beauty and ambition.

Warren’s enthusiasm is often contagious, so I convinced Woodward to answer a few questions. Fortunately, he’s as eloquent with words as he is with graphite. Unfortunately, his answers inspire far more questions than can be asked here at the present moment.

Born in upstate New York, Matt moved to Chicago at age 21 to study at the Art Institute, then to the New York Academy of Art for grad school, spending about three years in each city. Since then, his time has been divided between New York and Chicago. Matt’s show at the Union League Club closes February 6th, and in 2012 he’ll be exhibiting at the Chicago Cultural Center. Between now and then, I’m sure you’ll have several opportunities to see his art.

DJ: First, I’d like to know about the process, and then the driving concept behind that process, what it is you’re actually saying?

Matt Woodward: My, those are some loaded questions to start off with. My process is a pretty filthy one, actually. I always start with a blank surface of paper. Usually it’s paper left over from other pieces, or paper that doesn’t fit together neatly so it has to be tiled together or constructed in some way.

And then I begin sanding into the surface. Actually, what I do is not so much sanding into the surface as it is beating the hell out of the surface. I’ll drag whatever I can find across it and throw things at it and generally get into a fight with it until it starts to let go of its face a little and dissolve out. I do this is because of the graphite; the paper is going to record just about everything I do to it, and when I get around to laying the graphite powder down it’s going to sneak into all of these grooves and tears and make what it is I have done to it into a more visible mark. It’s also going to make itself difficult to get out again. And, of course, it’s then that I go about trying to get it out again. I start scraping and sanding and erasing or getting it wet and pulling it out however I can. Sometimes I’ll add more paper to the surface, over the graphite and get back into it and repeat the process.

Eventually what starts to happen is that because the surface remembers just about everything, the paper and marks that have been built up create a kind of document, remembering what I’ve done to it, and all of this adding and removing, this deconstructing and reconstructing is clearly illustrated there. However, what I’m left with, essentially, is a surface covered in a field of graphite. And it’s from this field of graphite that I will start pulling out the image.

DJ: Tell me about that image, about your architecture.

MW: The work isn’t so much about architecture as it is about space and the way architecture, through a relationship with the space it occupies, is capable of forming an impression of time. The images in my work come straight out of the cityscape; they are representational objects, and so they are tangible and therefore form an expression of a given space. Taken in their original context, as public monuments or as symbols of affluence or what have you, they also represent not only a specific space and time, but also a value system.

But I have also deliberately removed them from this context and presented them in such a way that their place in any particular index of ideas which would firmly locate them in history is called into question. In short, I have taken them from where I found them and where you might know them and brought them here to where you may not.

But getting back to the process, I’ve taken these objects, these images and I have put them in the dark, in the graphite bed that I have made for them. And, if you’ll humor my analogy a moment, after this I then begin to pull them back out. I do that by applying light to the object, by erasing the graphite out of the surface. It’s really your traditional reductive drawing, and in this way, I think, reductive drawing has more in common with a sculptural idiom, an architectural idiom than you might expect. I am letting the light of the image, which is the light of the paper – the paper that is buried beneath the graphite – signify the things presence by pulling and carving it out of the surface. It’s very much like a relief.


So, the use of reductive drawing in my work really is an attempt to mirror, metaphorically or literally or otherwise, the push and pull of deconstruction and reconstruction that shapes the ever-changing city as we come to know it. The city occupies a particular time, it is constantly ruined and put back together. All the while it is developing a memory of that process. It is recording its own indelible sense of loss. The drawing, then, becomes its own record of the effort it took to get it up there on the wall. Like I said, I have taken these things from where I found them and brought them here, where they mean nothing, essentially, where they depend on a particular history to define them and guide them out of anonymity. I have let whatever history, whatever motivation that put them where I found them begin to disappear. And I have let the meaning fall out of them by doing so. I have suspended them in a moment of unaccountable loss, of dark, bodily grief and in a presentation that confronts these things directly, forwardly.

DJ: It sounds as if we’ve arrived at bedrock. Talk about loss and dark bodily grief.

MW: Firstly, I think I should say that I’ve always been a little weary of the kinds of people who are quick to look down their noses at a thing and call it naive if at the core of it there is an emotive unfurling. If there’s something other than a center sound in conceptualism then they seem suspicious of it. And certainly, I understand how it can be overwhelming, else it seem a little solipsistic, a little insular. However, it’s a disproportion difficult to isolate. And at the same time, I’m immersed in it. Impossibly. These are very personal drawings that I take very seriously, they also happen to be about death in a lot of ways. And how do you talk about death without cheapening it, without watering it into particulars? It’s like fine tuning a little golden spider.

That being said, I’m interested in making work about this theme of loss, about a tremendous alone. What it does to you, how you find it in the world. I’ve spent a lot of time finding it there and I’ve also spent a lot of time looking for a way to emblematize certain things about it, realities against which you can follow or measure or locate certain pretensions of cultural and political upheaval and revival. A revival deliberately located in this absence.

But getting back to all that, yes, the work is specific to a lot of things, and I wouldn’t be very truthful if I said that so much of it isn’t that glaring deafening absence, that it didn’t come out of that first. Or if I didn’t say that at one point I felt compelled to stick a gate in front of someone in such a way that it was flat and so always confronting you; and figurative in that its proportion called the perspective of the body into denial, and the same if I said that I wasn’t trying to make it unclear whether you were inside of or outside of something, wanting to get out or get back in, or that I made it in such a way that you could no more see the thing that contained you here in this nowhere nothing city than you could understand the long historical story of its enfranchisement with the world it came from originally.  A world that seemingly left it behind. That is dead now accept for this, that it’s still here and here with you, drawing the past into the present, drawing you into the past.

They are sleeping. They mean nothing. They were waiting to be replaced before they were considered worth preserving and thus made obsolete in doing so. They are somnambulists and we too are somnambulists. The human world is, indeed, made by us; everything in it is made by us and what we encounter in it is already implicit within ourselves.

I’ve tried to balance it as well as I can on a conceptual platform in order to talk about it without really believing that there is such a thing, such a balance, with anyone. With anyone’s work. I like to believe that it’s possible but I’m not sure. Architecture has been supportive in that respect. But you could take it a step further and say that the work isn’t so much about architecture as it is about the drama of objects. How they represent a kind of hinge between the passing of things, like time, or like ourselves, and into something else. How objects when they’re denied, become people. And in the same way the memory becomes an object when it loses its context, and the world becomes around it. When the memory slips out of the knowing of its history it becomes the hollow shell of the thing it once considered to be sacred and profound.

Portuguese Synagogue, 63 x 59 in. Graphite on paper, 2010.

DJ: I’m curious what first drew your attention to the architectural embellishments? Was there a definitive conscious choice to take these symbols and remove them from their environment? Maybe what I’m really asking for is this: Was there a moment of inspiration, a moment that the idea simply came to you, or was it a more labored exploration full of evolving interpretation?

MW: Definitely the decision came as an organic one at first, out of other ideas out of other labors. So, yes, it has evolved over time and is still evolving. I can’t name any singular event, you would’ve had to have been there, I guess. I walk a lot. I walk everywhere and I’m alone when I do it. And this is what I look at when I’m walking. When I moved here I wasn’t ready for it and so I went out walking around often, trying to find something. I’d get lost for hours. I took these things out of their environment because when I was taken out of mine I was effected greatly. To be honest with you, when I came here I lost touch with something and I spent a lot of time trying to get it back. And when I started making these drawings I wanted to make sure that the documentation I was talking about earlier was there in the work, was visible, present. I hope that’s appreciable. But it wasn’t enough to me that I made them and in making them was saying how I felt about them. There was more.

One summer at the Art Institute I had the chance to take a class with James Yood, who had more to say about architecture than I thought you could possibly say. I took that class simultaneously with another taught by Paul Ashley, and both of these two were about as smothering a pair of minds as you can imagine. Paul was teaching Going to Hell at the time, a class about Dante and Milton and the infernal city and Blake and Sylvia Plath. And I started to gain on this a little. The city repeating everywhere in an arcana table of timelessness, fecund and extending everywhere at once in a way that made it empty and that meant nothing. A maze. Like an illusion. There was nothing there. And I was there in it. Walking. Waiting. Walking like in a giant delusional memory recalling itself, deformed by the redundancy, the repetition of objects. Of language, printed on everything like a mirror and I hadn’t noticed it before. And outside of my apartment was a row of cast iron flowers, like a machine had made them there. They were everywhere. They had been everywhere.

Lincoln Ave, 60 x 81 in. Graphite on paper, 2010.

DJ: Though you’ve removed these architectural fragments from their history by taking them out of the space in which they reside, do you cast your own history into them in some way beyond the act of building and reducing them on paper?

MW: Certainly I change them, I edit them or what have you. I mean, I try to remain as close to the original as possible. I do try to make work that is as indistinguishable from the model as possible, which is what all representational art does. Only in this case, the model isn’t so much Architecture as it is, say, this issue of displacement.

And the kind of displacement I’m trying to represent here is an arranged kind, a kind that produces an equivocal domain somewhere between where I found them and took them from and their place here, in the same way as it was before, only now as this representation. A representation that isn’t the same thing as the object but refers to it, relying on the appropriation of its displacement. So that when you stand in front of them it starts to talk on to you about what it used to say before I put it here in a drawing. That’s what it was made to do. I’m trying to get it to do that again, and I think it does. It’s like hearing a sound when you’re sleeping and it makes its way into your dream. It’s like being able to take the voice out of the face and make it sing again. What does it say if the face, in death, has become part of the head? Like when my dad died I kept calling his voicemail and listening to it. I just kept calling his voicemail and listening to his voice. Only it wasn’t his voice.

DJ: In your experience thus far, I’m curious about the response you’ve heard from others, how people read and interpret the work?

MW: People have responded quite well, actually. They take the work seriously and respond with candor. And I’m very fortunate for that. I get a lot of emails from people just wanting to write and say hello and this is what I think of your work. Which I love. That anyone would put time into writing me is gorgeous, let alone the energy it takes to go about sharing really very thoughtful and complicated and personal emails. It’s befuddling, it befuddles me with gratitude. I went back and forth with an artist in Upstate New York named Dave Dorsey, on whom nothing was lost. In fact, a lot of what we talked about was defining to me; he brought up some things that I wasn’t seeing and I ended up paying closer attention to it and bringing it further into the work. That kind of thing is encouraging and it happens quite often. And I get to work with Linda [Warren], who’s more like a really good friend than a dealer. I trust her. She’s a visionary. She has this incredible way of listening and coming back to you with a profoundly sympathetic and vigilant reception. It’s brilliant. Her attention to detail is inescapable.

DJ: Is the reductive nature of your art something that has manifested – now, in the past, ever? – across other aspects of your life? Is it part of your nature, or strictly relegated to artistic practice?

MW: I think so, certainly. That’s really an interesting question. Yes, there’s very much a rhythm blinking out of it, out of the chiaroscuro difference in ruin to proliferation. I was a terribly impatient painter and ended up making mud out of everything. And what I liked so much about drawing was its ability to bridge how we see the world with what it is we’re actually looking at, how drawing allows recourse to the entirety of a particular episode. And what’s more, I think the record of an artists’ attempting to create something is much more interesting than a record of an artists’ misgivings. And the paper itself provides access to that, it provides that recourse. It refuses to be polished and this unstomaching palimpsest of layers accumulates so that when you see someone like Auerbach insist the drape of skin over a face you know that he could not have painted it that way. If he could have painted it that way he would have painted it that way. And I think that’s really quite important, especially with artists like Auerbach, or even with Kurt Schwitters, or Wyeth. There is an excitable piney down in their drawings and you can see them at a most impossible vulnerability trying to get at it and there’s this lasting molt of ephemera gathered there like debris and brine on the surface. And also not on the surface. Not anywhere.

Look at Kentridge. As if Kentridge in drawing isn’t making loveless indifferent dead tin charcoal men, laid in, taken out, laid in again. Taken back out. Men who at their centers are better machines than children and even better ghosts than machines.

Fuller Street, 54 x 70 in. Graphite on paper, 2010.

DJ: When we spoke at Linda Warren Gallery, you talked about how these architectural ciphers are a kind of forgotten lyric, a music of a particular space and time. Can architecture function as a voice of the people?

MW: “Voice of the people?” Sounds like some kind of a manifesto. I’m not an architect and I’m not qualified as some kind of architectural historian. I’m not trying to be either of those things. I simply have a working wide-eyed and gleeful awe for architecture and for the nature of the city. I think that you can’t help walking through a city and noticing that certain streets, certain neighborhoods are a kind of public, inclusive expression of different and specific stages of human development. You can watch them pour into and anticipate one another, you can see one remembering the last like rows of great, intelligent faces. The activity of their event contained like a ghost in a glass. And all of them seeming to have a preoccupation with symbols. A language of symbols. Symbols upon symbols like a massive, inclusive library in perfect proportion with every philosophical, every religious, every dogmatic block that we position ourselves up on.

So, in terms of a voice of the people, sure, I think if art is a kind of voice coming up out of history and singing, if you will, for humanity, singing into the space that people occupy everywhere, then you might say that architecture is, indeed, the form of that voice, the shape of it, since it’s everywhere people are and since it has been the principle expression of this language contained in the symbol. Furthermore, I think that what is intolerable in life is decorous in art, and in architectures ubiquity you may find that, historically, for every infraction of tolerance there is an underlying shift somehow, there is a dogmatic shift, is there not? I think you could make an argument that there is. There is a building for every shift and for every building there are lyrics, or a language; there is a symbol for that shift. Every building seals in itself the time and the pressures of that time and the people replete with those pressures.

DJ: You take these dead flourishes and emblematize loss and death through them, and though the nature of the work itself is reductive, the scale turns these flourishes into monuments, grand works of aloneness. I love the overwhelming scale you work in, and I’m curious if it relates directly to the size of your own entrenched consideration of absence, aloneness, loss? And is this absence something you can talk about?

MW: I’m glad you pointed that out, the idea that the work is reductive but, in contrast, will fill a room. There’s a lot of that in the work. Definitely the scale is something I take personally. The scale but, furthermore, the repetition of things at that scale. They work in service of one another. There’s a relationship between them that engages, tacitly, this issue of absence. Of loss. In having done something again, tried it again, why is there a swallowing ‘again’?

There’s a kind of portent that arises with repetition. And I think this is essential to the work. There’s an anticipation in repeating something, as if it will, naturally, be repeated again. A waiting for it to repeat again, to return to repeating itself. Like a machine or a pattern locked so deeply in place it doesn’t know it’s there. If it’s there at all, having forgotten the name of the world that put it there. It presents a kind of impasse, it either will or will not repeat itself again, since that’s what it clearly wants to do and hasn’t done. That impasse, in terms of scale, becomes literal here. I mean to seriously confront the viewer in their space, physically confront them in the crushing powdering dim. And stuck in this meantime, it calls into question memory, the memory of a city or person or both, working in tandem, which is what we were talking about earlier. I’m presenting the event of an archetype, an archetype confirmed in its repetition and stimulated by the viewers relationship to that archetype.

State Street installation view, each 100 x 88 in. Graphite on paper, 2010.

And at this perspective it rather earnestly calls to attention the absurdity in making monuments for monuments. And there again is a contrast, commemoration and denial. I mean, thinking of the key each confirms his prison. Anyway, I think what is important here is this intersection. Certainly; this impasse presented. And history and everything in it belongs to that intersection. The gloamy static memory of having died in a place that still remembers you everywhere. The work, having called on its own place in history, also calls on the epitomes of every person since they belong to that history, too. And there nothing happens, until you are aware of it, aware of this impasse, then you are waiting in it.

DJ: You mention vulnerability and displacement, and I can’t help but wonder if your art is about a certain vulnerability in yourself as well, if it nests somewhere in an attempt to find a home?

MW: Am I casting about for that? I think you’d have to have loved me in order for me to answer. I think if you’re talking about vulnerability as a kind of subject matter that’s there – that’s there in the work because in making it I am susceptible to it – then I think you’re on to something else. And, yes, I agree with you, there’s certainly something in what I’ve been saying or something present in the work that alludes to this. To vulnerability.

As an issue of subject, I think, if it’s something that’s always there then this is something you take with you and, indeed, try and apply somewhere else. Home; exile; you take it with you like a device and you commence things with it. Like turning people into places. Into a value gathering and borrowing somewhere between being temporary and being indifferent. Like home to house. Hydra to head to head to.

And somewhere in there is this vulnerability, coming up, prompting itself. Whether you’d like it to or not, it’s there. Procuring the doubtful Pygmallion.

So, in this case, if the subject is this occasion, if you will, the occasion in Vulnerability, then it’s probably something you’ve had in you to make art about, beyond the need to make art and make it with trivial subject matter. And it’s probably something that began long before art making had anything to do with anything. And with me, the better I’ve gotten at looking at it, the better I’ve gotten at looking right at it – vulnerability or not vulnerability, absence or not absence – the better I’ve gotten at being able to trace it against certain contexts. It may even be that locating it in certain contexts is the occasion that more completely designs the content. The two correcting obsessively. You’re hydra again.

Like I said; leaving. The tax in leaving and having become alone in doing so and it your home thereafter until you forget or leave. Having lost something in doing it. But, then again, the ear you’re whispering in might be your own.

Damien James

Damien James is a self-taught artist and writer who has contributed to New City, art21 blog, and, among others. This year he will complete illustrations for a Jonathan Lethem story and is participating in a show at Gruen Gallery with The Heartland Alliance. Damien is happy to be alive with you, for the most part.