At Work: Landon Metz

Landon Metz’s workspace is a lot like the paintings he makes there: specific in palette and thoughtfully arranged, the studio's layout is all about the interplay of open space and accent, its decoration minimal but inviting. Set in the outskirts of Williamsburg, the space itself is familiar by now to anyone who follows Landon’s Instagram or keeps up with his printed output. Perhaps less apparent, however, are the distinct roles it plays in his work. With upcoming shows at Massimo Minini, Paul Kasmin and James Fuentes to prepare, our visit found the Arizona-born artist in full-on studio mode: large canvases laid on the floor in a grid, rows of Poland Spring bottles filled with blue and green dyes, assistants building stretchers, the stereo blaring. It seemed an outwardly hectic scene—but in sitting down to talk, surrounded by sparse patterns and overgrown plantlife, one is soon reminded of what Landon’s work so consistently provides: a calm amidst the clatter.

You’ve always struck me as one of those artists for whom the studio's inseparably part of the work. You’ve had two spaces since we met, each of which seems clearly reflected in the paintings you’ve made there.

For me, the studio is definitely more than just a workspace – it’s an active part of both my process and my presentation. My practice is largely about breaking down polarities, and I think that’s apparent in the way I present my space. It’s about negotiating between setting and subject, public and private.

The way it's been integrated it into your output—not only as the focus of books, but also as a space for social gatherings and a highly visible part of your social media presence—seems purposeful, almost performative.

Well, I’m offering up this private, productive space as an autonomous public entity—it can’t help but be performative. I think of it as an inverse to the way I approach exhibitions, where I try to encourage a sense of intimacy by installing works that live in an ongoing state of production, activated by their relationship to the space and viewer. Both methods are aimed at eroding the lines between my own perspective and what’s available to the people interested in my work—allowing things to become intimate and relative to personal experience. There’s a kind of vulnerability in working that way, which I welcome.

There’s that great passage in the intro to Columns & Catalogues where Schjeldahl talks about how viewing art offers him the opportunity to experience things as someone else does, to “replace [his] eyes and mind with the eyes and mind of another for a charged moment.” It seems to me that the way you’ve been working lately—inviting chance, flirting with performance, moving the active content from the canvas to the gallery itself—somehow allows you to have the same experience with your own output.

Oh, definitely—I learn so much from other people’s reception of my work. I’m really interested in the opportunities that come from giving up control. I feel as though, in producing these shows, what I’m really manipulating is not physical materials, but rather a person’s relationship to—and expectations of—a work of art. I’m using what Duchamp would describe as “retinal art” as a tool, a framework for a sort of performance that has less to do with my paintings than the viewers’ responses to them. It’s about their notions of what a painting is, or how they’ve learned to approach exhibition settings, or, hopefully, their own role in the process. I still need to be precise in my execution, obviously, but the point is that the work unfolds in person, subjectively and in real time. This is something I’ve gone out of my way to invite with this recent work, but I think it’s inherent to the process anyway. A painting’s value always lies beyond the intentions of the person who made it.

An artist should know what he means, but he shouldn’t presume to know all that his work might mean.


Do you have to be in a particular frame of mind to paint?

I do. In order to really thrive, I have to find a certain mental clarity. In terms of my practice, that’s really become the function of the studio for me—creating an environment that fosters a centered, almost meditative state.

So how do you cultivate that?

I have to set the stage. Some of it’s just a matter of decoration—leaving large portions of the wall bare, caring for the plants, and so on. The room itself definitely has a calming effect. But it has just as much to do with mental discipline. I feel like most of the central themes in my work—accessing levels of subtlety, using repetition as a means of focus, denying polarities, and so on—reflect the way I try to approach things in my personal life. It’s all part of the same larger effort. In that sense, it’s definitely a practice for me, both in an out of the studio. There’s really no division between the two.

That seems to translate pretty clearly in the objects you make.

I think that’s true. More and more, though, I feel like my actual practice is immaterial—it manifests more in the way I choose to relate elements than in their formal qualities alone. Yes, pressing two materials together with my hands is a physical exchange that requires a certain mental quietude. I still believe in making beautiful things. But at this point, I see my studio process as more of a meditation on a philosophy than an autonomous artistic expression. I’m more interested in the way my work relates to broader culture, how it moves through the world, than in the way paint dries or whatever. I feel that my raw material is culture, not canvas, and finding ways of acknowledging those relationships requires mental stillness: it makes room for intuition within a systemized approach.

You and I talk a lot about the role that music plays in what we do, and I think what you’re saying reinforces comparisons many (myself included) have made between your approach and those of people like John Cage and Morton Feldman. At the same time, though, as a frequent visitor to your studio, I know I’m more likely to hear Young Thug or a fucked up Taylor Swift remix on Soundcloud than some contemplative modernist composition—which is completely in keeping with your personality, but I’m not sure most people would necessarily draw that connection to your work. Do you feel like that side of things comes through in your presentation as well?

I hope so! I think both sides are crucial. Actually, I've been listening to a lot of early house lately, particularly Frankie Knuckles, and I feel like there are a number of parallels to my own work. On a formal level, there’s the use of repetition, rhythm, and so on. But more than that, what Frankie epitomized, and what I think these Soundcloud mixes continue to exploit, is this idea of broader culture being a pool for raw material. When you hear a Selena Gomez song slowed down 300% and mixed with a new beat, you’re not just absorbing those tones and chord progressions as some personal expression; the producer is also manipulating the public’s knowledge and expectations, using them not only as an entry point, but also as a kind of cultural posturing. So there’s this interesting game taking place: The work is inventive without losing accessibility. It plays around with a motif, even makes fun of it, while still taking genuine pleasure in it, acknowledging its worth. It uses cultural artifacts as a means of arriving somewhere else entirely. These are all are fundamental concepts in my relationship to painting.

I like how subtly those references are integrated into the work. It’s always nice to be reminded that influence might be a matter of translation rather than simple quotation.

For sure. I’m just not interested in drawing any “high-minded” distinctions. I love DeeKay Jones and Rihanna just as much as I do Matisse or Ellsworth Kelly. They’re all equally exciting to me, equally instructive, equally legitimate as points of reference in my work.

That said, I’m curious to hear about some of your other, less artistic influences. For example—and this is broad, admittedly—but how would you say living in New York has impacted your practice?

It’s been a crucial part of my work. I’m a self-taught artist, and in many ways, I feel indebted to this city as an educator. I’m someone who learns best from experience. I think I have a healthy relationship to failure, and I’m not afraid to simply try something out and see what happens. New York, at least in my experience, has always really fostered this mentality. The city has its issues, of course, but I feel that it’s given back to me in ways no other place could. Even with its problems, it’s still the ideal meeting place for like minds. It has the cultural cache and infrastructure in place to allow for an exchange of ideas, a platform to execute them, and a captive audience to receive them. So it’s benefited me greatly, both as an artist and a person.

How important is it to you to feel part of a community, to be in dialogue with your peers?

Community is incredibly important to me—it’s a huge part of why I love being in New York. The various relationships, conversations and encounters I’ve enjoyed here constantly push me to dig deeper into my practice, to strengthen my ideas and arrive at places I wouldn’t have known existed otherwise. But I also think an artist has to go where the work leads him, and sometimes that can have an isolating effect. Your community changes according to the conversation you’re trying to have, and I think that’s healthy and actually necessary. At this point, I’m most interested in challenging notions of contemporary art as a hegemonic class that is somehow above or separate from the culture that surrounds it. I feel like that sets me apart from some of my peers—but I also think it lends my work to a different and perhaps broader discussion.

Would you ever consider living elsewhere?

It’s something I’m seriously considering. I’d love to spend half my time in Europe—maybe a studio retreat in Italy or the south of France. I’ll be working in northern Italy this winter for my show with Massimo Minini. After that, we’ll see.

One often hears of career ambition as being an inhibitor of experimentation, of risk and organic growth. As your own career has advanced these past few years, how have you balanced those two impulses?

Once your work becomes public, it takes on its own place in the world. It becomes an autonomous entity. So at this point, I feel it’s simply my responsibility to produce the work, supported by a rigorous practice that might strengthen its development and enhance its reception. Experimentation is definitely an important part of that. I’m always looking forward—I have years’ worth of ideas in journals that may or may not ever be realized—but in doing so, I also need to stay true to the core values of the work. I like to approach my studio practice as I do my personal experience outside of it: both are incredibly malleable and centered in knowing that change is not only certain, but necessary. You can’t stay in one place.

It’s the idea that in order to arrive somewhere else, you don’t change course—you dig deeper. That definitely rings true in your case: from the outset, you’ve approached each succeeding project as a sort of variation on a theme.

Definitely. But while there are conceptual and philosophical constants in my work, they’re designed with an awareness of variability, an allowance for flexibility and growth. It’s a delicate balance: you can’t rely on spontaneity entirely, but you can build a practice that allows the element of chance to intervene. It’s ultimately a matter of being honest in what you do, which I think is an artist’s most important resource. You have to believe that although trends will come and go, truthful work always stands up on its own.

What’s the most difficult decision you’ve had to make as an artist?

That changes with time. In the end, I think it’s about calculated risk. It’s important to be making constant leaps of faith—it’s the only way to ensure that you’re always making progress. But obviously, in doing so, it’s important to gauge which risks to take and when. You have to learn which instances require action, and which require some patience and perspective.

At this point in your career, then, how do you measure success?

Success for me is waking up each day and living a life that’s true to who I am. That might sound obvious, but it’s not always the easiest thing to achieve, and I’m genuinely grateful to find myself in that position. The only useful measure of success for me is the degree of contentment I’m able to find in being genuine in what I do, and not giving in to outside pressures to be anything I’m not. The real strength lies in being able to tell the two apart.

Interview originally published in Office Magazine, Issue 4, Spring/Summer 2016