By Katarina Hybenova
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Twin Peaks. Space Oddity. Synth Magic. Odd Blood. The names of the paintings by Matthew Mahler document the journey you undertake when you take a dive into his work. References to the video games, encounters with aliens, rad 1990s TV shows, Native American motives… The visual language of Matthew Mahler is peculiarly odd, magical, and fascinating. Yet his works feel so familiar to someone who grew up in the ’90s, and was surrounded by the same pop culture and the common objects of fascination. Matthew Mahler says that it took him a long time to figure out how to create art that represents what he knows the best. He talks about his MFA break as the time when he was able to fully focus on his work and make a lot of progress in finding himself.
Matt has been a vital part of the Bushwick arts community. Last year, he and his buddy artist Jonathan Terranova opened a gallery located in the basement of a Ridgewood building. They named it Small Black Door after, well, its small black door. They have been putting up amazingly refreshing group art shows focusing on underrepresented artists from the Bushwick area.
Matthew is also one of the artists in Mushroom Universe, which is the second exhibition of the internet-based gallery BushwickGallery.com. You can catch up with him at the offline opening of the show this Friday at 950 Hart Gallery.
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I caught Matt in his studio in the industrial part of Greenpoint. He was just about to start working on a drawing. He was using a ruler and wide markers. “There is something wrong about using markers for fine art. That’s why I like it,” Matthew was laughing. We chatted about Small Black Door, his MFA experience and the role of the 1990s in his work…
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Are you going to show your work eventually at Small Black Door?
I am curating a show there in April, and my work may be part of it. It won’t be “The Matthew Mahler Show,” though. It will be a group show, and I feel like it makes sense to include my work.
I keep asking this of many people. How do you feel about self-curatorial endeavors?
It can be done, but has to be done in a tasteful way… I don’t like when somebody curates a show, put themselves in it, and then they even use their own image for the postcard…. By the way, would you like some water? I only have these shot-sized cups…
[We do shots of water.]
Can you describe the role of the 1990s in your work?
The impact of the 1990s in my work is pretty overt. Having grown up in that time; meaning literally becoming a mature person, I can’t help but include that experience. I don’t mean in a nostalgic or comforting way, but the 1990s are what I know. I have always made work based on my experience, and I can’t deny that I grew up as part of that generation with a certain visual language. I think that’s why I am so drawn to using it and adopting it as my visual language.
Before I could get where I’m now I had to learn a lot of things the hard way. Before I could innovate, I had to imitate. It sounds cliché, but I literary had to practice making somebody else’s artwork before I figured out what it was that I wanted to make. I had to figure out whom it was I wanted to make artwork for. I feel like many people make their work for specific audience that has been around for a long time. It makes sense, because people who are 50-60 years old are of the demographics that is most likely to buy work. They feel comfortable with things that look certain way…I don’t want to be misunderstood that I make work to sell. That’s obviously not what this is about; my work is about feeling that I’m alive. Making art makes me feel like I am here and I contribute in some weird way…
But I definitely think about who I make my art for; who is my audience. I believe I make work for my peers. I don’t know if I could make work for people who are 30 years older than me, because I wouldn’t be as familiar with their visual language as I am with my own generation.
You graduated from an MFA program 2 years ago. How was it to come to Bushwick and become a part of this community?
You go from being a part of one community that is very protective, to another. Grad school provides you with a community where you are sheltered from the outside world in many ways. Then all of the sudden you’re put out there in the real world. It’s shocking and exciting, all at once. I’m very happy to be out of grad school.
I think that the Bushwick arts community is very welcoming and inspiring. Just the fact that there is a place like Bushwick where there is room for everyone! Maybe because it’s still kind of on the young side…But during my first five years in New York, I never really felt like I belong anywhere, and now for the first time I feel like I can participate. I feel comfortable with what I’m doing in Bushwick., and I don’t have to play with a specific crowd…
How did you come around to opening your own gallery?
I had the opportunity, and I felt like I had to take it. When the opportunity presents itself, at any point in your life, but specifically in New York where opportunities come and go in different frequencies, you should take it… Also I know so many great artists who don’t get their opportunity to show, and we wanted to put these people out there. Our openings are like parties for everybody. It’s a celebration of the people that participate in the show, and of people who come to see the work.
Small Black Door is in Ridgewood. How do you feel about Ridgewood these days? Do you think that Ridgewood will be the new Bushwick?
I don’t think so. I think that Ridgewood will always be a really beautiful cousin of Bushwick, and I think that Ridgewood will be pretty content with that. I think it’s a pretty special place, because it allows those who live and work there to be involved in with what’s going on in Bushwick. But also still be in distance from it so that we can do our own thing. I think Ridgewood is really cool…