Matthew Shelley is a friend and colleague at Moravian College where we both teach. He's been an incredible addition to our faculty. When I first encountered Matthew's work he was making meticulous graphite drawings of what appeared to be sublime arctic landscapes. They were mesmerizing. His new body of work has the same magnetic pull but has since evolved into 3-dimensional collage that ultimately widens the conversation around images, space and form.
Where do you live, where is your studio? Who makes up your day to day world? friends? partners? pets? kids?
I just recently moved to Philadelphia. Prior to that, I lived in New York and Washington DC. I keep a studio at Moravian College where I work, but that’s about an hour outside the city, so I’ve been setting up a studio space here in Philadelphia for the days that I don’t teach.
My day-to-day experiences rotate between teaching and studio. My girlfriend is also an artist, so we spend a lot of time talking about studio life and different ideas we want to work with. During our free time, we go out on drives or check out different parts of the city because we’re pretty new here.
What’s an average studio day like?
On the days that I teach, I work in my studio at Moravian College. Every other workday is spent at my studio here, in Philadelphia. I spend the first hour or so getting organized, sorting through images, and preparing surfaces to work on. My studio work is full of different routines, so I try and follow a consistent order of operations. Like a lot of artists I know, I have a tough time committing to one idea, and maintaining that commitment long enough to let the piece really develop. The routine helps me work on a problem without getting overly critical too soon. When it’s about a series of steps, I can kind of coach myself through the process without constantly changing direction.
Because I work with pre-existing pictures, I can change things a lot at almost any stage in the development of a piece. The process is really flexible, so I can set up a goal and execute it, then evaluate it, then rework it, and try it again from a different perspective. I try to photograph the work at its different stages so that way, I can revert to earlier arrangements if needed. At some point, something will click and I’ll start fastening everything down.
All of the different routines really help me be patient throughout the process, which is great because I have time to really consider what I want out of the image. With this method, I find I can spend time with the idea, instead of rushing toward a finished product, which was a problem for me in the past. Strangely enough, I find a lot of freedom in being systematic. When the process is ordered, you don’t always have to worry about doing it right. You can just do the steps.
What are you working on now? (what are you most excited about/ confounded by/ obsessed with?)
Unexpectedly, I have been really into sculpture lately, which is strange because I’ve always been a 2D person. I’m not sure what contributed to that interest, but every project lately, has been something Dimensional. A lot of what I’ve been making over the past couple years has been sculptural in some way, but I never thought it would move off the wall completely. At first, the sculptures were more like armatures that supported a dimensional framework, but now that’s starting to dissolve.
The realization that there isn’t a strict boundary between 2D and 3D work gave me a nice sense of freedom. There was a turning point when I realized that a picture could be a part of a sculpture, and the two things could communicate with one another. In fact, trying to bridge the gap between the pictorial and 3-dimensional has become a big part of my work. I’ve been thinking a lot about different ways to soften the transition between pictures and real space. Because the illusory nature of pictures is something that I work with a lot, it seems natural to look for ways to try to get the image to confront real space. Recently, I’ve been folding the paper that I work with and finding ways to physically act out the geometries and perspectives in my work. Depending on the situation, I think that the folded picture plane either extends the fiction of the piece, or deactivates it. That really fascinates me because it’s a little disorienting.
I like working with photographs because you can make small changes to the format, and totally distort what happens inside the image. By changing the frame, you can either compress or expand the space in the photograph. I really like playing with moments like that. There’s a kind of vertigo that occurs when a photograph no longer seems reliable. I think that kind of spatial confusion is somehow relevant to our relationship with landscape and location. Our sense of direction and orientation has become really abstract. I don’t think I’m ever able to really visualize where I am spatially or regionally. That’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.
What do you do when things aren’t going “right” or you’re having a fallow period in making/ thinking?
When things get dull in the studio, I often repeat things that I’ve done in the past. I’ll remake old compositions, or make another version of an old piece. At least that way I’m still making something. It never hurts to re-examine old ideas, and sometimes that leads to a tangent that spurs me in a new direction. If I sit and stare at a blank wall, I loose my confidence really quickly. At that point, nothing is good enough and every direction is a dead end. I have a tendency to get uptight about my work. It’s pretty funny from the outside looking in, but because of those anxieties, I’ve learned to just focus on whatever steps are right in front of me. I usually locate that I’ve been in a slump some months after the fact, when I look back at a bunch of really dull work and realize that it wasn’t going anywhere.
I also rely on the feedback of other artists to put things in perspective. When you’re making something, you loose a sense of objectivity really quickly. That’s one of the reasons that I like working around so many other artists. They’ll always see something that you don’t, or help break apart some distraction in the work. Lily is someone that I rely on constantly for feedback. Aron Johnston is another great voice in my practice. I think having that kind of community is really essential.
How do you sustain your creative life? (how do you pay the bills or what kinds of jobs have you had in the past?)
Teaching has been great because it’s really connected to my life as a studio artist. You go to class and talk out a set of principals, and then you try to stay true to that when you transition into the studio. It doesn’t always happen that way, but I think through teaching others, you also learn to moderate yourself. Many of the lessons my students take on are applicable to studio practice at all levels, so there’s some comradery with the students there.
But before I came to Moravian, I did all kinds of jobs. I did administrative work at a number of different galleries, but I was really terrible at it, so I stopped after few years, probably to the relief of my bosses. I was comically bad it. I worked as an art handler and on installation crews, which I liked a lot. I also did some totally non-art related jobs. I worked in a barbershop for a while. I also worked in coffee shops and kitchens.
What advice would you give a young artist just starting out?
Find your people. Find some kind of community that you can be a part of. Shows are great opportunities to present your work to a wider public, but it’s the work that happens on a day-to-day basis in the company of your peers that has the biggest impact. As long as you have a community of other artists to interact with, then you have an audience and a conversation to be a part of. At that point, I think that you discover that it’s not really about originality, or branding the next big thing, but more about being a contributor. If you have dialogue with other artists, then you are a part of something bigger than your perspective, and I think that’s a richer experience.
check out more of Matthew's work at www.matthewgshelley.com