On Ruins: A Converation between Landon Metz and Christopher Schreck

LM – The apartment I stay at in Brescia is across the street from the ruins of a Roman temple. There’s this set of columns at the remaining facade that’s always struck me—just seeing how they’ve remained intact over so many years as the city developed around them.

CS – That's one of my favorite things about traveling through certain parts of the world: that overlap of histories, rendered apparent through architecture. The very presence of ruins in a cosmopolitan space suggests a deliberate, collective decision, reflects certain cultural priorities. It's pretty telling. Just compare that view from your window to what we see each day in New York. We have historic landmarks, of course, and they're often just as culturally relevant, but at the same time, they’re actively preserved, updated. They keep up with the surrounding architecture as it unfolds. To me, that’s a meaningful cultural distinction, as it suggests two entirely different ways of relating to history. America was founded on this supposed ideal of reinvention, which I think directly informs our attitude towards cultural inheritance. When it comes to traces of what’s been, we tend to be all or nothing: wholly maintain or demolish and start again. But keeping ruins around means acknowledging the way things submit to time: progressively, indiscriminately, unexpectedly. Both strategies invite a certain amount of post-facto idealization, but ruins do so while still acknowledging this notion of passing phases. They’re reminders that left to its own devices, an item will eventually defer to outside influence—and that, on some level, it might even be more interesting for it.

LM – Exactly. I think what struck me most about those columns was the idea of context—how they had remained in place while the world around them changed, to the point that their very purpose was lost as the surrounding structures broke down. Over time, they became cultural or philosophical motifs rather than architectural supports; their value now lies in what they represent, which is dictated by external sources. I think visual art, ancient or contemporary, functions the exact same way. That's why I'm so interested in how the viewer relates to environment - not only the architecture, the space of the gallery, but even the surrounding locale. I'm interested in situating the work in real time, actual experience. Regardless of my intentions, I know it’s those outside elements that determine how the work is received. This is what those columns reinforced for me: the knowledge that the surrounding narrative ends up becoming more important than one’s initial strategy.

CS – The gradual shift you’re describing, from vital entity to abstract symbol—it’d be interesting to relate that idea to your engagement with painting.

LM – My practice draws a line between making paintings and employing the medium itself—its motifs, its rhetoric, the place it holds in culture—as a raw material. I’m far more interested in the latter. For me, the trope becomes a tool, the same way the canvas and stretcher bars are tools, and its various functions and roles are all part of it. The iconography is a prop or a stand-in, ready-made to be used towards exploring broader ideas. It’s about painting as an act of construction, in every sense of the word.

CS – But you still take measures to engage that inherited vocabulary on its own terms. Each of those panels is a realized painting in its own right.

LM – Right. That's where the element of performance comes into play. The canvases do work as individual pieces, but the effect ultimately lies in the strategies of presentation. I think of Warhol’s work in similar terms. As a painter, when he's good, he's great - his work definitely extended preceding conversations surrounding the medium. But the contextual stage he built around the work was always more important than any particular technique or individual work. That performative element is what allowed the work to accommodate a broader, more varied reception over time.

CS – For sure. If an item retains vitality, it’s precisely because it remains unresolved, with even outward “decline” providing a new potential reading. So as with those columns, we’re really talking about approaching one’s output as an ever-unfolding event. On that point in particular, I feel like one could arrive at a similar reading of your own practice. Especially in looking at these latest shows—these freestanding forms, cropped from earlier canvases—it seems like the work confirms the two fundamental ideas behind ruins-as-aesthetic. First, there’s the idea that items might actually be more meaningful in their fragmentation. You seem to favor a similar logic: from the beginning, you’ve retained a core set of concerns, but in taking them further, it’s been this process of continual refinement—of composition, of palette, even of physical structure, to the point where you’re now dealing solely with the figures themselves.

LM – Right. In my practice, revision is renewal—with each new iteration, I arrive at a place that feels definitive but always seems to provide some new direction. A lot of that has to do with strategies of fragmentation, isolating what’s vital and discarding whatever else remains. But it’s interesting: the more focused the work, the broader the scope of the practice seems to become.

CS – Well, that speaks to the other side of ruins-as-aesthetic—namely, the element of projection, of allowing what’s absent to serve a figurative, even conceptual function. Part of what affects us about ruins is imagining what it once was, the implications of preceding cycles. I feel like this has been especially true of your work as it’s grown more sculptural, more performative: even as the work evolves, the work retains legibility through its connection (explicit or not) to previous works. Despite its being “depleted,” the wholeness of each offering is ensured, above all, by the viewer's ability to perceive it as such.

LM – Definitely—at the moment, it’s often what I’ve eliminated that ends up demanding the viewer’s attention. Eschewing standard framing, doing away with blank canvas, asking the audience to reimagine the gallery itself as the picture plane: with each revision, the work is informed by the iterations that preceded it. That’s the point: the sculpture works don’t exist isolated from the rest of my practice—they’re married to a larger ongoing conversation. That narrative doesn’t need to be blatantly present in the pieces themselves, but they’re undoubtedly informed by it, and the viewer’s reading is likely to be enhanced by being aware of it. It’s like that Sontag quote you’ve mentioned before about the Venus de Milo: on purely visual terms, it’s hard to imagine it being as striking with limbs intact. At the same time, though, its beauty owes much to its history—the lost limbs confirm that it's gone throughout different contexts, that it's allowed for changes both physical and environmental. Both of these points are crucial. But again, as with the columns, it comes down to a question of time: these objects have changed along with the surrounding circumstances, and that’s what gives them continued life. Context ends up becoming the reality in itself. My goal is simply to create work malleable enough to accommodate that process.

Interview originally published in Club to Club, published by Libraryman Press, 2016