INTERVIEW: Landon Metz in conversation with Christopher Schreck

I first met Landon Metz at an opening in September of 2011, less than a week after moving to New York from Chicago. At the time, he was receiving a lot of attention for a series of paintings rendered in enamel on unprimed canvas – gestural, highly tactile abstract works that made clear references to people like Twombly, Kline, and De Kooning. Having seen and liked the works as online reproductions, I decided to introduce myself, and after a brief but warm exchange, we agreed to meet up the following afternoon at a pho restaurant near his apartment in Williamsburg. Once seated and served, we proceeded to have what still ranks as one of my all-time favorite conversations: a sprawling, hours-long discussion that covered and connected topics ranging from Joseph Campbell and John Cage to concrete poetry and teenage punk rock.

In the nearly two years that have passed since that initial meeting, Landon’s practice has matured considerably, as his transition to a more precise, dye-based approach has brought with it international representation, increased exhibition opportunities, and a clearer sense of his position within the broader conversation of contemporary painting. All the while, he and I have continued to enjoy an easy, thoroughly rewarding dialogue, each offering the other encouragement and insight in his respective pursuits.

Earlier this month, I visited Landon at his Greenpoint studio to discuss some of the interests and influences that inform his practice. What’s presented below represents only a portion of what ended up being a two-hour-plus conversation, but I think it captures the thoughtfulness and approachability that are so characteristic of Landon, as both an artist and a person.

What are you reading at the moment?

I've been really enjoying the Afternoon Interviews Duchamp did with Calvin Tomkins. It's maybe not obvious, but especially with the work I'm making now, I feel really indebted to Duchamp; the more I’ve read of his interviews and speeches, the more it seems like we're coming from a similar place. He’s a really interesting interview subject: so witty, totally casual, and sometimes even dismissive of his own work - of all art, actually. He just doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and doesn’t feel the need to explain or define his art for anyone. Like, where I'm at in the Tomkins book, when he's asked to explain his "Bicycle Wheel" piece, he says flat out that it was never even intended to be art - he just liked the way it looked in his apartment, and that people took it a different way. Whether he’s being truthful or not, who knows, but the point is that he’s obviously not interested in offering any inflated explanations for his work, which I find refreshing.

For sure. I think his reticence makes sense, given that so much of his work reinforces this idea that meaning lies not in the artist’s intentions, or even the object itself, but rather in the viewer’s perception. In that light, you can see why he might view a straightforward Q&A interview as sort of a pointless activity. It’s funny, really, because people often think of him as being responsible for the whole “It’s art because I say it’s art” mentality, but with so much of his work, there's this other argument being made, that the way art functions is completely relative and ultimately outside of the artist’s control. I know that's a pretty important idea in your work as well.

Definitely. I'm very interested in the role of communication in visual art - the question of how, or even if, certain ideas can be conveyed in visual terms alone. You can have an artist translating his or her external environment into a creative gesture, trying to get something particular across to an audience, but the reality is that a "finished" work is only partially realized when it leaves the studio. Once it's out there, it makes its way into various settings, gets read in different ways, and becomes something else. So it really is the viewer who completes the work and establishes its relationship to the world. The artist’s intention might end up being validated by some viewers’ interpretations, but I think it’s always the audience that gives the work meaning, at least on a cultural level.

Having said that, the meaning does end up changing along with the culture. There’s definitely this continual paradigm shift that can make certain work speak louder at different points in history than others. You can’t really quantify it. Everything flows in waves, in and out of fashion.

But I wonder how someone like you, being so precise and intentional in what he does, reconciles himself with that lack of control?

Well, like I said, I do think the work definitely takes on a life of its own once it's out in the world, but I also think there are certain inherited cultural expectations that I can take into account as I'm presenting it. It really just becomes a matter of strategy, using different languages and visual approaches in order to leave a trail that points to the work’s concepts.

Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about pop music along these lines. When I work out, I listen to this “shitty” - I'll use quotations because I actually do really enjoy it - but this "shitty" Eastern European pop music. English is clearly not the songwriters’ native tongue - I’m assuming it’s being utilized as a tool for global accessibility - but the lyrics are really straightforward, usually about love, or the club, or falling in love in the club. (laughs) They’re amazing songs, but they pretty clearly reference American pop music - they’re using what’s been proven effective. I don’t believe these are abstract patterns. With pop music, you have a precise language that effectively communicates emotional tableaux. It’s about what happens when the beat drops and the chorus hits, you can feel the serotonin floodgates releasing, and you’re like, “Oh fuck yeah!” (both laugh) It’s really a primal response, but it’s triggered by these very intentional strategies that always seem to work, and I find that very interesting.

Absolutely. Take something like the I-V-VI-IV chord progression - you’ve heard that sequence in thousands of songs, and yet people are able to keep on using it, just by adding the slightest variation. It takes some skill and imagination to do it right, obviously, but the fact is that that certain strategies just seem to be strong enough, or maybe it’s simple enough, to allow for constant revisiting.

There’s this really great quote by Delacroix: “What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.” I think painting and pop music are similar in that there’s an established framework that you can work with or against. Painting carries a lot of historical baggage, but it also carries a lot of useful precedence, and I feel that in my work, I’m engaging with both sides at once. I truly believe in the artistic enterprise - I'd never intentionally disenfranchise myself from art history. I really like the notion that you can be part of an ongoing dialogue with your predecessors, so you not only have access to history but become a part of it. For me, being progressive doesn’t mean having to deny what came before you - it’s really a matter of contributing to an ongoing conversation and, hopefully, advancing it.

Well, something you and I talk about a lot is this idea of the “usable past” - the idea that the figures of art history are readily available, almost like advisors, to be consulted as we push our own work into new territory. Are there any particular artists you’ve found yourself calling on lately?

A really important concept in my work at the moment is perception, and that interest has led me to take a closer look at people like Duchamp, Warhol, and Matisse - all of whom used their practice to engage the viewer’s perception of themselves, their work, and art in general. I’m most interested in peoples’ relative perceptions of art, and the value it holds in their lives. I love Duchamp’s ideas about turning high art into banal objects. I’m particularly thinking of his proposal for a “reciprocal readymade,” where he talks about using a Rembrandt as an ironing board. The truth is that painting - particularly abstract painting - has long since been appropriated by popular culture. Its language extends beyond artistic discourse and into everyday life. Which is to say that Duchamp’s idea has become reality: a painting made today is in fact a banal object. And by using painting in my work, I’m putting the ironing board back on the wall - essentially, I’m reciprocating Duchamp’s reciprocal readymade.

In the same way, I find it fascinating that a creative practice has the ability to affect the viewer’s perception of an artist as a person. Warhol was a master of this, obviously, but Matisse also seemed to use painting and the content of his work to build an autobiographical narrative about his life and where he came from. Lifestyle can be a vital backbone to an artist’s repertoire.

On that note: How did growing up in Arizona affect your work? I feel like it’s maybe reflected in your palette with these dyed works - although I can see a definite Matisse influence there, it also seems pretty reminiscent of the American Southwest.

Definitely! My palette has always been heavily influenced by my upbringing in the desert. It's subconscious, but I do think it has a lot to do that idea we mentioned earlier of the artist translating his environment. Actually, earlier this year, I was standing outside of a restaurant near where I grew up, and I was staring at this mountain that I used to climb all the time as a kid. I realized that within that view were all of the colors I’m obsessed with - the peach and beige of the land, the muted green of whatever plants are able to survive, the blue of the sky, even the grey of the asphalt. It comes up in other ways, too: for example, when cacti die, they leave behind these really cool grey skeletons that become bleached by the sun, and that same blown-out effect is such an important element of my aesthetic. I also feel like with the dyes, the drying process accentuates the cycle and states of water - which obviously is such a crucial and scarce resource in the desert. So the desert definitely taught me to find delicate detail in what appears to be a harsh, barren landscape.

Another thing that’s maybe not obvious but definitely important to me was growing up in the punk scene in my town. I played in bands, went to shows, and so on, but more than anything, I was attracted to the attitude, the emphasis on confidence and individuality. That’s definitely stayed with me, and I think it’s reflected in the way I work. Even just the decision to make paintings feels like a gesture, since it’s so often presumed to be conservative or somehow outdated. To me, turning it around and running with being a painter today - especially one who makes “beautiful” work, when so many other people are caught up in trying to be “difficult” or whatever - I think it’s actually totally punk.

Obviously, people know you for your paintings, but a lot of our conversations about your upcoming projects have involved sculptural objects made from any number of materials - fabricated steel, plexiglass, silkscreens, and so on. Outwardly, it seems like quite a departure, and it raises the question as to what extent you feel tied to the conversation of painting, and how these new works might fit into it.

I think it’s important to clarify that I don’t necessarily consider myself a painter, or feel limited to its conversation. Contemporary painting is inherently paradoxical, and I don’t feel any need to resolve that. If anything, by acknowledging and exaggerating its contradictions, I’m able to use painting and its historical baggage as a tool. So I’m not really so much a painter as an artist who works with painting.

The thing is, painting is a resilient medium - it may be declared dead every so often, but it’s demonstrated a capacity for perpetual rebirth. It’s become a philosophical enterprise that doesn’t even require paint. Painting works with, rather than against, other media, and maybe more than ever, I think its relevance to contemporary discourse can reveal itself through other mediums. Ultimately, the contradictions of painting are inherent - they can’t be resolved - but I do believe that those very contradictions are a continuing source of vitality. They ensure that there’s always something more to be said.

Originally published in Human Being Journal Issue 3, September 2013