The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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I visited Matthew Weinstein’s studio on a sweltering Wednesday this past summer to watch his latest video work É lobro . He lured me as usual with cookies and lemonade and, as always, his studio was a cool refuge, an escape from the heat and noise of Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill. Paintings of lens flares and glowing orbs watched us as we watched his video.
His studios over the years have always had a minimal feel but there is, most of the time, more new work than one can humanly look at in one visit. Weinstein had his first exhibition in 1989 at Daniel Weinberg Gallery in Los Angeles when he was twenty years old. He had shows in New York in quick succession at Postmasters and Sonnabend galleries. Being interested in his work, I invited myself to his studio around that time. We share the habit of myopically watching films from the ’50s and ’60s; waiting for certain moments that we know by heart to happen, and then watching them again to find their source codes.
Weinstein has always managed to evade styles and -isms, staying his own course while keeping a watchful eye on ongoing contemporary art dialogues. He somehow manages to distill his wildly diverse background in theater, acting, film, screenwriting (in fact, he wrote the script for my 2006 movie The Music of Regret ), design, and painting into concise paintings and sculptures, as well as videos that feel like Pixar dropped acid and then freeze-framed its hallucinations. Using professional actors and musicians and enlisting the services of his community of talented animators, Weinstein creates not just his own virtual world but one that is highly available, considering the abstract nature of its content.
If you listen carefully to his films, nothing will make sense. If you listen and look really carefully, you will be forever ensnared in Matthew Weinstein’s universe.
Laurie Simmons We just watched your latest animated film, É lobro, together. The title is a letter jumble of Boleró.
Matthew Weinstein And it still sounds Spanish. Dyslexia is the gift that keeps on giving.
LS Why the reference to Ravel’s Bolero?
MW This piece started out as a public commission to make an animated film to be shown on a movie screen while an orchestra played Ravel’s Bolero. It’s odd that the allegedly asexual Ravel posthumously created an anthem for sex. I read that he was listening to machines when he wrote Bolero, which makes sense for a modernist. So my animated female fish is inside this machine controlled by a gigantic clock. The machine keeps generating pleasures for her, until she burns it all down. A desiring machine; this is quite literally what she is. But the piece didn’t feel like mine in the end, because music is very important to my films and I didn’t choose the music. So I brought it to this musician I work with, Francis Harris. I said, “Can you take Bolero apart, make an echo of it, and give it back to me?” Basically I hired him to enable my dyslexia. So that’s why I scrambled the letters in the name of the piece. Now it sounds like “lowbrow,” which I like. And now it’s mine. I also re-animated most of it.
LS Has every one of your films had this beautiful, exquisite, sexy female fish?
MW No, Chariots of the Gods has the metal fish, which Natasha Richardson played, and the film I’m making now, Anna Kavan, is actually a female human, beautifully voiced by Hope Davis. I also created two male Betta fish who perform an operetta based on Brokeback Mountain in my film, Siam. There is a solid-gold chauffeur. There are three porcelain pigs, a Chinese toddler with blue eyes, an old man who climbs out of a roast chicken—I created these for my film The Childhood Of Bertolt Brecht.
LS But the koi is in most of them. What’s the story with you and that female fish? Where does she come from?
MW I was in Kyoto. I was looking at a koi pond and this fish saw me, which I thought was shocking, because I’d never noticed a fish seeing me. I didn’t think that it really saw us, or I thought that fish were just self-absorbed, like artists. It’s like the time I saw Anna Wintour looking at me; I somehow couldn’t believe she saw other people who weren’t on her list of people she was supposed to notice. So I created a fish who is very famous; a celebrity.
LS Did you start with a certain fish?
MW No. I knew her already. I suppose she is me, even though I don’t have a face for makeup. She gets more nuanced as I work on her, because we keep increasing her range of facial expressions. Blair Brown has been voicing her for years; so she has this specific personality. She’s entitled, intelligent, and melancholic.
LS “We” meaning your animation team?
LS Even though it’s not Pixar, it’s pretty incredible for artist animation.
MW I decided early on that I didn’t want my animations to be scrappy; I wanted them to pass. I wanted them to be culturally transgendered, existing between entertainment and art. They express themselves between these polarities. That’s the reason that my avatar, that fish, is female. Another odd quality of computer animation is its inherent academicism. You build perfect forms out of simple geometry within a grid, you light them. Just having to develop technique seems academic and I decided not to rebel against this. I love Poussin, so what’s the point? But the inherent academism of computer animation, combined with its link to the world of entertainment, make not deconstructing its technical givens an inherently counterintuitive way to make contemporary art.
LS The scene in É lobro where the golden skeleton is putting makeup on the koi; it’s so sexy, and I have to say the makeup is done so well, and this beautiful female suddenly becomes even more beautiful. For this film, was beauty on your mind in some new way?
MW I wanted her to look good in her makeup. I don’t know what beauty is, but I know what you mean. The piece has these perfect reflections, and it’s very slow; hypnotic. In all my films, I use one camera that slowly follows the action. No edits. I don’t like them. This new piece is the most fluid. Also, there’s no dialogue. The visuals and music are everything.
LS I remember seeing your first animated film, What Luis Nivelo and Zalmen Rosen Heard. What caused you to begin working in animation, and to incorporate music and dialogue?
MW I had stopped painting for a while. I was burnt out on it. I was doing some work in film. I was writing. I was going to LA to pitch film ideas. I was home a lot. And this was when telemarketers were really on the rampage. This was not a good period for me. One day the phone rang, and I heard that delay, and then, “Is this Mr. Weensteen … ?” I was very snappy with her and she called me on it, she told me to be nice. And it was like that koi looking at me from inside that murky pond in Kyoto. Something across the void reached me, which is what my films are always about; that moment when the unreal becomes hyperreal but skips over reality on the way. I knew that this experience could not be painted, or just written about. It needed to seep slowly out; it needed the element of time. And this character couldn’t be human because she had no specificity for me; she was a voice, maybe from India, maybe from Mars; who knows. But I felt it was necessary to address the inherent surreality and dehumanization of contemporary communication.
LS In the two examples you’ve given, you’re being snapped out of that artistic narcissism that we’re all guilty of.
MW Yes. And snapped back into making art. So I made this goldfish who is a telemarketer. For whatever reason I had The Brain That Wouldn’t Die on all the time. Virginia Leith’s disembodied head reminded me of one of those body-free flying-head cherubs or, really, a fish, which is a floating head. And Virginia Leith’s character develops psychic abilities; so I made my fish believe in her own psychic abilities. She doesn’t know where she is or what she’s selling, and she keeps cold-calling people and asking them unanswerable questions. An actress I knew, Kathy Simmons, had the perfect exacting yet seductive quality I wanted in her delivery. That was the first fully animated film that I showed in an art gallery—What Luis Nivelo And Zalmen Rosen Heard. It refers to two people who allegedly experienced a miraculous talking carp at a fish market in 2003. The fish was predicting the end of the world. So does mine.
Two previous films, live action with animation, were shown in museums in Europe, but I have never shown them here. I’d like to shoot live action again some day, but people get in the way of the abstraction of reality I’m after. Humans are so lifelike. Some of them anyway.
LS Sometimes I feel that when I use a stand-in for a human—a doll, ventriloquist, dummy, or a mannequin—something hyperreal happens because, if it’s not real, people regard it in a different way, and they regard it more closely.
MW I like the generic quality of the non-human or the humanoid; it can’t help but lack specificity and nuance. There’s a blankness to the proxy; the proxy is an abstraction. There is something inherently pornographic about looking at images of real people; the proxy overrides that and allows meaning to float more freely.
LS The most glaring lyrical fact about your lyrics is that you don’t care about rhyme or rhythm.
MW I don’t.
LS And they don’t make sense. But then they do. It puts it back on the viewer—I almost feel like, what’s wrong with me that I’m not tracking this language? It takes awhile to realize that it’s unstructured narrative, because it sounds authoritative, like it might be over one’s head.
MW I don’t know what any song lyrics mean usually, do you? Like Sister Christian, what the hell is that?
LS I always figured everybody else got the lyrics, and I didn’t.
MW Most of us are in the closet about our various confusions.
LS You’ve always written. You’ve written art criticism, you write song lyrics, and you’ve also acted and directed.
MW These films are my gesamtkunstwerks.
LS There is a song at the end of Chariots Of The Gods, the one with Natasha Richardson, very bluesy and abstract, what is that song about?
MW “The Full Moon Song”? It’s about the moment in The Birds, when a bird crashes into the door, and Annie, Susanne Plechette, says “Poor thing, probably lost his way in the dark.” And then Melanie, Tippi Hedren, says, “But it isn’t dark, Annie. There’s a full moon.” In the song, my metal fish character is very seductively informing us that she knows everything, and we know nothing. She’s a pundit. That’s basically what pundits do. We live in a world of one-way communication. My character claims to know what is happening in different dimensions, on different planets, in people’s heads. She’s the uber pundit. Francis Harris wrote the music. The song takes its time. It’s almost not a song. More like notes and words just hanging around in space. Natasha’s natural authority and wonderful speaking voice make the character completely convincing.
LS We both loved Toy Story.
MW When I first saw it, I was creatively stumped. I was looking for—
LS —a new vocabulary?
MW Even more; I was looking for a new experience to describe with a new vocabulary. And that space in the movie, it was like a room in my mind that nothing had moved into yet. The movie itself is … whatever, for kids, charming, the Disney model of characters running around and learning things; but that animated hyperreality—that was very profound to me. I realized that it may not be an art space, but I didn’t care. I had to move very far away from art to come back to it with knowledge of this space.
LS That’s really interesting because I always feel like the best art teeters so perilously on the edge of something terrible. Like if it just fell over or went an inch in another direction, it would be something else quite banal or horrific. Then it’s on me to understand where it has stopped short, and why it’s so powerful.
MW I inhabit this culturally indeterminate space because it’s who I am.
LS The art world has a very conflicted relationship to the cartoon, to animation.
MW Cartoon. It’s a bad word. It was first used to identify a type of drawing that was just a plan for a tapestry, so by definition it’s something that isn’t art. Which made me even more interested in animation and determined to find the technical knowledge to express myself with it. So I began studying computer animation and teaching myself as well; I stopped showing.
LS I’m sitting in a room full of your paintings of sunspots and lens flares, and haven’t really talked about them because I’m so into this new video. A lot of your images in the paintings, and in the videos, are psychedelic. And I don’t ever think about you as someone coming from, you know, an acid-dropping—
MW —coffee makes me tired and drugs make me compulsive; the opposite of expansive. I’m wired wrong. Literature puts me in the place I like to be in to make my work: Raymond Roussel, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Lautréamont, Proust, Beckett—writers who distill essences, who create narrative stillness. I like stillness. Classic science fiction as well. I’ve been doing some public readings lately; performances actually, of texts that I’ve written over the years. Performing is a state of hyperawareness, but at the same time it’s a self-induced active hallucination, because the world you are creating becomes a substitute for the world that you think of as your actual environment.
LS Your song lyrics and dialogue have an automatic writing aspect. It’s not an affectation. It’s the way you think about language, and about getting the language out of you, and about pairing the language with music.
MW Yes. And I write very quickly. It’s something I do between making paintings; or something will hit me when I’m doing something else, and then suddenly I’ve got a script, or a monologue, or a non-lyrical poem that needs to be forced into a song. One of my favorite authors is George Simenon. He used highly conventional forms—the noir, the police procedural—but he wrote each novel in about a week. I have dozens of them. I think he’s the link between automatic writing and pulp fiction. He’s transcultural—occupying a space in pop culture as well as one in literature; very inspiring to me.
LS Language is powerful, music is powerful, but when they’re paired effectively, there’s nothing more powerful.
MW You’re more of a believer in theater than I am. I’m a painter. I like stillness. I’m not interested in telling stories. I’m even terrible at following stories. It’s why I like books and movies with abstracted narratives; that’s where I already am, they describe my reality.
LS When video art started and we understood that time-based work was going to depart from entertainment, there was an element of challenging the viewer—the viewer had to become more and more sophisticated to endure. Like Warhol and Sleep, and even Stan Brakhage or Michael Snow. But I think it’s historically appropriate for you to decide, in your work, that you might not want to challenge people in that way.
MW Yes. We’ve already gone to the entertainment place with painting that normalizes gestures that were once radical. But video is still in this place where it needs to instruct; an alternative is also valid though—one where people want to stay in the room because what they are seeing borrows from the language of entertainment. They sense familiarity; they are primed to accept my content. This model of art film has always been there with Jack Smith, the Kuchars. For them, entertainment was a fetish. But I don’t want to confuse entertainment with empathy.
LS What do you mean?
MW I was always interested in Brecht; in high school I thought the plays were cool. Marxism hadn’t tanked yet. But Brecht dawned on me as a theoretical model for video art much later on. His idea that empathy is the thing that makes bad art, not entertainment—this was very useful to me. He used entertainment, specifically the form of the cabaret, to move his narratives along, to keep people interested, to keep them engaged with the moral conflicts within his narratives. He avoided empathy because it leads to sentimentality.
LS I think you have to have empathy for the characters—particularly in Mother Courage. You want to feel empathy for her in order to endure the length of that play.
MW But your empathy for her is clouded by the fact that she keeps sacrificing her children for her own survival. She becomes a symbol of war, not an expression of it. I create characters who are self absorbed; unlikeable, yet charismatic. Unlike Brecht, I don’t have a moral or revolutionary agenda, but I want to have an effect on the viewer outside of conventional mechanisms of cathecting to characters through empathy.
LS What is that effect?
MW I want to create the effect, with video, that is similar to the effect of an abstract painting—using language and characters and all of these very non-abstract elements to create conceptual abstraction. The way we communicate with each other is becoming more and more abstract as the menu of forms of communication expands. Meta languages; quotes within quotes; as our technologies become more precise, our ways of describing our environment to each other are becoming more abstract. I’m representing the time in which I live. Manet didn’t critique the lack of authenticity that modernization was creating—the flatness, what people called vulgarity. And Modernism, for him, didn’t mean painting a machine. It meant painting flowers, familiar things, familiar genres, in a way that represented the time he lived in. I don’t know if virtual equals bad. I don’t know if becoming a social abstraction is bad. It’s too soon. I just want to leave a record of this period of social transformation.
LS And in your paintings?
MW In my paintings, more and more, I am eliminating the traces of process, even though they are painted, touched, and revised. I want even their surfaces to be an abstraction of touch, not linked to me, not linked to anything that would get in the way of their ability to avoid identification. They clearly aren’t printed, that’s too identifiable; too many associations. They are handmade, but how? People always ask that. I think of them, in fact, I think of all of my work, as a series of moving targets. We are all moving targets now. We are continuously being detected and avoiding detection as we detect others. I don’t think a strident fixation on “the hand” is a reparative measure to our growing personal abstraction. I think it’s an avoidance of it.
LS But to get back to É lobro and to your idea of entertainment and familiarity—the pace is slow. It’s not like you’re making it easy for people.
MW Yes, even Fantasia ended up only appealing to stoned teenagers. No one is going to ask me to do a giant feature film.
LS You never know!
MW True. But entertainment is more of a quality than a reality for me. This fairly new form of entertainment, 3D animation, is not yet linked to the narrative of contemporary art at all, nobody has done it. So it communicates very clearly, at first, as mass entertainment. But this is just on the level of a first impression. Also, I truly believe that my films are objects, not narratives.
LS We had a disagreement about this when I made my forty-five-minute video piece and wanted to show it in a movie theater. I loved the idea of people submitting themselves to it. You didn’t.
MW Well, I go to movies all the time, like any good American. But for my work, I want that moment where someone notices it, goes up to it, and starts to experience it. When I see that happen, I get very excited about the medium. I think like a painter. You can look at a painting for a minute or an hour. Maybe you have to pee, or your tour bus is leaving, whatever. That’s your experience, that’s the one you chose. So you see five minutes of my video, not all twenty. I want you to see twenty, I want you to stay; so there are songs, jokes, and very beautiful animation. Robbe-Grillet didn’t want the readers to get annoyed and throw the book out once they figured out that nothing was going to happen. He added things that he liked and that he knew other people liked as well, specifically pornography and suspense—just like Brecht added songs and cabaret numbers.
LS Artists strike a delicate balance between their desire to drive people away by being radical, or angry, or difficult, and their fear that they will really leave, and then figuring out how to bring them back again. Would you say that’s true of your paintings as well?
MW Yes. Early on, in my paintings, pushing the boundaries of taste seemed to be a metaphor for the eruptions going on around me. I was making paintings in the late middle of the AIDS crisis. And my early paintings, I mean, I was painting the cosmic joke that the awareness of death makes sex sexier, but when death comes from sex you are truly fucked. I was cutting letters out of body-building magazines and using them to write out huge passages from Rimbaud that wound across the paintings, connecting blobs of paint and images of physical extremes—Rimbaud, the archetypal adolescent raging against the machine. In these paintings, I was representing the infantilization of revolutionary people, angry people, and sick people that was happening during the AIDS crisis. I was consciously making the paintings that an angry adolescent would make—thus the presence of sick jokes and irreverence to the medium itself.
I have this character now of a Chinese toddler who gives fist-pumping speeches about revolution. It’s the same idea. A big influence on my early work was the writing of Kathy Acker. I had met her in London when I was in school and we used to go to nightclubs together. I painted her apartment. I loved her books. She used any device to keep us turning the pages, deeper and deeper into her rage against social and formal structure. I also loved the assemblage paintings of the Argentinian painter Jorge de la Vega—crazy monsters made of paint blobs and plastic junk. He also wrote and made music. His sense of the artist as painter and entertainer always made me feel that I would end up pushing a less conventional model of art making than the one I was occupying as a painter.
LS So when did you first use skeletons in your work?
MW God, I don’t know, early ’90s, I guess?
LS And you haven’t given them up yet?
LS What is it? What is it about them?
MW They are always smiling. And they’re so … obvious. Things that are overloaded and obvious have always had a dangerous appeal for me. I made this sculpture called Triumph of Painting. It’s these two life-size bronze skeletons playing frisbee. Each one is fully articulated, like a marionette. It occupies a lot of space when it’s installed. It took two years to make—and to pay for. I thought this would be the last skeleton, but no.
LS When there’s suddenly a lot of death around—wars, plagues—humor and death become very comfortable bedfellows. I think when death feels like an uncommon occurrence we all take a moment to try to figure out what grief is.
MW I agree. I love Arnold Böcklin’s Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle. He is looking in a mirror, or at us, and he’s painting himself, or us, while a skeleton plays a violin in his ear. This is where I ended up. Except I’m actually a very funny person and there are a lot of, well, not exactly jokes in my work, but things that are funny.
LS There’s a moment that’s worth describing in É lobro when the beautiful fish swims up to this golden man with sunglasses on, and they almost kiss, but they don’t. It’s like they keep trying to kiss, but they can’t. And there is something painfully sad about that.
MW They’re self-absorbed.
LS There we go again with the narcissism.
MW She’s floating around in the proximity of this other being and they can’t ever—
LS They can’t find each other.
MW Yes. Perhaps they would have a better relationship via Snapchat.
LS And to take us right back to where we began, in some sense they both need to be shocked out of their narcissistic reverie, and maybe that will be the next film.
MW I’m not great with causality or even endings. My films never end, they loop. My film Anna Kavan is now in production.
LS Who is Anna Kavan?
MW Anna Kavan was a writer whose book Ice I came across by chance in a used bookstore in Spain. She was also a painter. She died in 1968 of a heroin overdose. She began writing books under the name Helen Woods, fairly conventional novels. She attempted suicide and re-emerged as a platinum blonde with the name Anna Kavan, which was the name of one of her characters from a former book. Her books got more and more abstract after that, a lot like Kafka but also a lot like science fiction and even fantasy. I found all her books on eBay and read them over and over. Then I wrote a piece in her voice—as if I was her. Besides being fascinated by her books, I also related to her own odd story of artistic transformation.
LS What is the piece about?
MW It’s a narrative about self-entrapment. In my film, a woman is trapped in a community resembling B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two, which was Skinner’s misguided idea of a perfect community based on his principles of behaviorism. She’s in an enclosure, much like the infamous Skinner Box, and she is slowly sensing that she may never get out. But it is a very seductive piece. She is very beautiful; she’s based on Tippi Hedren. Anna Kavan was herself very much a woman of the 1950s. The piece is initially about women of her generation and the controls put on them, and then it expands to being about how becoming sealed off from what we used to quaintly refer to as “reality” is a national pastime. Self-absorption and isolation. I keep creating these closed mental microclimates in my work. Each film is one. Each painting is as well. I am making these semi-reflective paintings with images that look like lens flares and film artifacts on them. You only notice these abstract forms from certain angles. They are the ghosts and motion trails of the hyperrealistic images I create in my videos. You don’t have to refer to a world outside my work to understand it. You can, of course, it abounds in references, but it doesn’t depend on these to make sense of it; it depends on the viewer to complete it. And viewers have everything they need to do that—they arrive with it. They just have to want to, and I try to make them want to. The contemplation of an abstraction of reality can lead to self-recognition in the viewer. I have no advice for the viewer. I don’t know how to avoid falling into the expanding wormhole of space that is opening up between our physical and mental lives. I don’t even know if it should be avoided. I’m in the same situation that everyone else is vis-à-vis the increasing abstraction of our physical relationships toward our fellow humans. But it can be a very good thing to see yourself in something outside yourself. I believe that. This type of identification with art, with abstract ideas, is a very profound and slow-motion form of communication, and it may outlive our reliance on intimate contact.
LS What are you reading now?
MW I just started László Krasznahorkai’s War and War. The first page just says, “Heaven is sad.” I love gigantic, incomprehensible, and comic gestures like that. They seduce me, make me want to read on.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.