For regular followers of this blog here is something brand new. We the editors (Brian Chidester and Alessandro Keegan) were given first access to artist Matt Marello‘s new series of works, which may or may not comprise his next solo exhibition, but which as of this writing has no firm date established. As such Marello personally gave us the thumbs up for these works to be discussed and below is the result: the first-ever “Ephemera” discussion on an artist or exhibition. Let us know what you think!

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Brian Chidester: I can’t remember if we ever discussed when you first became aware of Matt Marello’s work. Did you see his show at Pierogi [Gallery] in 2012?

Alessandro Keegan: I’m familiar with some of his earlier work, the stuff that referenced 2001: A Space Odyssey and drew parallels to 9/11. Not sure about the show you’re referring to though.

BC: It was the one with all the paintings that had the blue circles. It was 2012 I believe. At the time he was calling the circles “Ophanim,” but I think he’s moved on from that now.

AK: Yes, I know the ones. Some are very apocalyptic. There are also paintings with gold leaf, like Byzantine icons, right?

BC: Right. Those were a few feet wide, the iconography rendered in gold and silver leaf, placed against black backdrops with stars. There was also a room of xeroxed pages from his notebook, which was his research on the blue circles and whatnot. It was kind of a simulation of an obsessed, manic guy’s basement.

AK: Ophanim is a reference to Ezekiel’s vision of the wheels within wheels right?

BC: Yeah, sort of an arcane symbol which has lost its circulation for the most part now. Matt claims to’ve had a vision of it, or something like Ezekiel’s wheels, when he was a teenager in the seventies. That’s kind of what interests me about his work and makes it contemporary I think. The newer paintings are all vertical. The three that I saw at his studio recently begin at the bottom in a terrestrial landscape and then extend upwards into a heavenly space with all kinds of exploding clouds and eyeballs and chimera. And of course the blue circles.

Matt Marello, "Untitled (Patmos No. 1)"

Matt Marello, “Untitled (Patmos No. 1)”

AK: And what makes it contemporary for you is that Marello is reviving that arcane symbol?

BC: And that he’s using it in an existential way as opposed to a communal one. It used to be something that everyone in the community understood, as everyone shared the same religion back in the Byzantine Empire.

AK: There’s also something postmodern about getting into the esoteric, the lost relics of past mysticism. It is not at all like the classicism of past centuries, when artists tried to uphold a tradition or match the accomplishments of the Greeks or Romans. When artists today excavate the esoteric past they are bringing something to light that was never fully utilized, especially when it is something occult.

BC: But is it postmodern because it treats religious symbology as something to be deconstructed, able to be copied, transformed?

AK: It could be taken that way, but I actually mean it is postmodern because it blows off the hierarchies of history.

BC: What’s cool about it also is that Matt’s research is so sincere, which is maybe why his paintings and sculptures suggest Masonic icons and even older mystical objects, but then he’s also populated the landscapes with farting gargoyles and things that are right out of Mad magazine. It isn’t ironic or malicious per se; but there does seem to be a healthy dose of skepticism about how far to take it.

AK: Exactly. They embrace the sacred and profane, which isn’t irony or mockery, but is a key part of the mystical experience and very real in Matt’s work. It’s sort of like what happens in a very heavy psychedelic trip; you can have both the extremes of ecstasy and the depths of hell.

BC: And now with this newest series he’s even allowed for some traditionally religious elements to appear.

Matt Marello, "Untitled (Patmos No. 1)," ink drawing.

Matt Marello, “Untitled (Patmos No. 1),” ink drawing.

AK: How so?

BC: I think you saw that short documentary I made about him last summer, which I shot at his studio in Greenpoint, and he showed me what his next show would essentially contain. There were some medieval reliquary boxes, an occular stained glass window, three altar paintings, and a few other things. All things you’d find in an old gothic church.

AK: The reliquary sculptures are incredible. And the stained glass. Did he make that himself?

BC: I think so. I have video footage of him cutting the glass by hand and measuring it out so that every part fits just so. I also filmed him a few years prior in his studio as he was teaching himself to make the reliquary boxes like a medieval artist would’ve done in the 12th century. There was all this preparatory work just to get the gold plates cut right and all the colors locked in to their specific grooves so they melted without overlapping the other colors. And then the oven had to be set at a specific temperature and I actually found myself quite nervous for him. It took like a year for him to get it all right and then in a few hours it was melted together, for better or for worse.

AK: Most contemporary artists would outsource something like that. I think you also told me recently that you felt there should be a temple or some kind of church where this was shown and that it should be set up in a ritualistic way.

BC: Well, there’s a painted element to his work and sculptural element, but then a lot of it feels conceptual too, almost like part of a performance.

AK: Really? A performance?

BC: Yeah, the performance would be kind of the setting up of an ersatz temple and then seeing how far the viewer will allow himself or herself to go with the whole experience.

Matt Marello, "Europa Linea (A)," stained glass window.

Matt Marello, “Europa Linea (A),” stained glass window.

AK: I could see it being a performance, if it was documented that way; but I wonder if the act of preparation itself might get him in a psychological state that effects the work too?

BC: It has to. He says it all derives from the research he does, and I guess I just find myself questioning whether a traditional gallery space can contain something like a religious experience, what with people snapping selfies and chit-chatting over wine and IPA beer? A lot of his artistic process, like you said, seems to come from the preparatory aspect.

AK: Yeah, research as a kind of meditation, learning as a mystical path.

BC: Once the idea has found an external model, though, the process then becomes technical and pretty arduous.

AK: The same could be said of someone making a sand mandala though. The labor is a kind of prayer, getting lost in the mind and the process.

BC: I think the show would work really well in a sacred space, but not as something where people could walk in, get a cup of wine, talk to their friends, lean on one leg while they look at the art for a few seconds, snap an Instagram picture, and then leave. I feel like for it to be a real probe of the religious or existential experience it should somehow simulate an actual ritual or initiation. Like once the viewer decides to partake in it, they cannot turn back, go outside and smoke, or meet up with their friends for pizza. They need to complete the initiation.

AK: Yeah, I think there should be a code of conduct, like when you enter a church for a service; seeing art as though you are attending Sunday Mass.

Matt Marello, "Reliquary No. 2."

Matt Marello, “Reliquary No. 2.”

BC: In that way I can see it being postmodern, albeit not liberal postmodernism, which would treat religion and religious history with irony and disdain, sort of correcting for the past by deconstructing it.

AK: Yeah, and I don’t mean to conjure that kind of postmodern here.

BC: No, but the mimetic element could touch on something historical that modern rationalism has maybe overlooked; namely the organizational side of religion in the individual’s life and what having a religious experience can tell us about being human.

AK: The side of postmodernism that isn’t all about ironic distancing.

BC: Simulating a religious experience as a way of deconstructing secular hegemonies. Investigate the actual value spirituality still has in our lives.

AK: We have to be able to exercise free thought and discernment and to find what we truly connect with in religion. Matt’s circles, for instance, remind me of a lot of religious images, but not just Western ones. I think of both the vesica piscis and of the many Buddhist mandalas when I look at his art.

BC: The blue circles definitely seem to have some kind of universal meaning. Or at least a universal appeal.

AK: And in that way I don’t think he’s just re-tooling the past.

BC: No, me neither. That’s why I said when we first started that there was something distinctly contemporary about the work. It’s probably also what separates him from a lot of so-called “visionary artists,” or people who create occult imagery.

AK: That he doesn’t offer any one interpretation or answer.

BC: It’s questionable when looking at his work whether he’s even an actual believer or whether he’s just proposing the question and leaving the answer open-ended.

AK: There’s definitely something about the work where I feel him searching, trying to unravel the meaning, just as much as someone looking at his art might.

Matt Marello, "Untitled (Patmos No. 3)," ink drawing.

Matt Marello, “Untitled (Patmos No. 3),” ink drawing.

BC: The reference to old icons is super-clear, but there’s also the punk element, the low-brow side, which kind of offsets the religious aspect in a way.

AK: I see a lot of Keith Haring and Kenny Scarf in there.

BC: That’s interesting. I remember when I interviewed him after his last show, he said he felt really insecure about what he’d just done, like it might all be taken very silly. I think I said I thought it was like baroque punk, or something along those lines. I wish I remembered his response.

AK: The influence of a culture like punk, especially if you were immersed in that scene like Matt was when he was young, would be hard to avoid. Its sensibilities and aesthetics would have to find a way into you.

BC: And punk is totally big-business. The impetus towards nostalgia is huge and that generation is way more affluent now than they were in the seventies and eighties.

AK: Up until the nineties punk was still making up the rules as it went along. Now it is very orthodox.

BC: Orthodox is a great way to describe it. I guess I’m wondering if the punk approach is able to then grapple with such spiritual concepts in a way that doesn’t suggest destruction? Can punk be mystical?

AK: I think there is a religious or mystical frenzy in the ecstatic violence of punk. But it’s more of an experience. It’s non-verbal.

BC: Well in those three new paintings Matt did he set them on the island of Patmos where St. John had his vision of the end of the world.

Matt Marello, "Untitled (Patmos No. 2)."

Matt Marello, “Untitled (Patmos No. 2).”

AK: Very surrealistic the way it’s all juxtaposed.

BC: I think he’s always had kind of a weird sense of humor. I’ve familiarized myself with his eighties post-punk group Executive Slacks over the years, even wrote some liner notes to their anthology a few years ago, and a lot of that stuff sounds like performance art, or at least like punk novelty. Matt doesn’t so much sing as shout weird observations and vulgar aphorisms in a kind of comedic voice.

AK: There’s a lot of humor in the paintings too. But do you think he was trying to get at some more universal, non-verbal experience in the performance aspect that wasn’t in the lyrics?

BC: From what Matt told me it was never a serious thing for him. The music that is. In my liner notes I quoted him as saying Executive Slacks started out as an art gallery project, with himself and co-conspirator John Young, both in art school in Philadelphia at the time, putting on a gallery show where they placed wine and cheese at the far end of the room, but to get to it the viewer had to go through them barraging you with amplified noise.

AK: That’s pretty awesome. Seems like there is a strong desire there to perform or generate some kind of experience. It’s hard for me to think it’s just a joke.

BC: I think when Matt introduced me to his music and to the old punk posters he’d made in the early eighties, that’s when I started to really peel back the onion and see the autobiographical element to his work. I realized it went way beyond just the vision he’d had of the circles. Maybe for him that external thing that happened to him as a teenager remains the pursuit, but I think we the viewers are drawn to the entire picture, all the details. They remind us that it isn’t just about one thing, but about everything; not just one moment in a lifetime, but all the moments, all the rest of it, the farting and the violence and the mundane shit, like religion. I mean, church is meant to be this experience between yourself and the maker of the universe, and yet the actual mechanics of going to church are so incredibly boring. You have to ask yourself: Is this all some incredible cosmic joke?

Matt Marello, "Reliquary No. 3."

Matt Marello, “Reliquary No. 3.”