Back to the 1990s with Matt Keegan

In the beginning of March, the Pedro Cera gallery opened a solo exhibition of Matt Keegan’s newest works, titled Recycle. Keegan grew up in the 1980s and ’90s in the United States and explores the socio-political and mass media impact of these decades on the country. Recycle features new video, photography, and collage-based work made from pre-existing mass-produced material, as well as a personal archive of his mother’s collection of images that she had prepared for her English language-learning classes. Using a language of advertisements as a foundation for his work, the artist experiments with decontextualization and inversion of the imagery, that formed a counterpoint for capitalist society.


Dasha Birukova – Lisbon is a city of immigration, especially in recent years. Does your solo show at the Pedro Cera Gallery explore these issues? How did you build this show and did you work with the Portuguese context in particular?

Matt Keegan – I made my four videos for a solo show that I had last year, at Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco. When my mother initially began teaching as an English as a Second Language (ESL) educator, she worked with public high school and adult ed students that were predominantly from Central America and Mexico. This is the same population Trump has criminalized in their efforts to enter the US. Although I’ve worked with my mother’s ESL flashcards since 2010, the current response to these immigrant populations has new relevance.

I did not have Portugal in mind when making this work, but as your question highlights, there’s a global crisis related to displaced immigrants and refugees. Regardless of the US or Portugal, English is the default language for commerce (art or otherwise), so the ESL content has relevance. Additionally, I’m working with commercial images made in the US, and these stock photos have possibly circulated abroad, and are likely legible in an international context.

DB – Could you tell more of the stories behind these videos? And why did you decide to animate the still images?

MK – I chose four flashcards to animate from a set of 400 double-sided image-only cards. Based on the type of images that my mom selected, I tried to address categories of her collection. A still-life: with 2 Gallons of Milk. Catalog advertising: Ready for work. Depictions of ethnic/racial diversity: Fellow Travelers. And the auto/biographical: College Graduate. The process of how I animated these four cards was fairly intuitive – what I thought each image required. I tried to activate what was already depicted in the still image, with the exception of College Graduate. I wrote the brief script for this video, based on an actual exchange I had with my maternal grandmother when I graduated from college.

Reanimating these still images involved returning to the recent past to mimic different lighting, clothes, and style, but also to see how certain ideas have aged. The process of reanimation may be easiest to discuss in Fellow Travelers–the video of people on the subway—that comes from a 1996 New York Times Magazine cover story. I was interested in the language that was used to frame different people and their subcultures. The language is outdated, but it’s also from a time when identity politics is in its early formation. That early-to-mid-nineties moment is when gender and cultural studies are beginning to be taught at colleges and universities in the US.

DB – Referring to the visual mass culture of 90’s, which could evoke nostalgic feelings or aura–but your way of alienating this visuality creates a dissonance that lays somewhere between sarcasm and sentiment. What is your vision of the aesthetic of your videos? And how did the 90’s influence your art practice?

MK – The flashcards were mainly assembled between 1987/88-the late 1990s. They, therefore, become a particular and peculiar time capsule of 1990s middle-class desire and aspiration. I’m interested in this time period because from the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency through two terms of Bill Clinton, the middle-class shrunk significantly in the US. Although invoked often by politicians, this demographic does not exist in the numbers (or financial viability) that would have been relevant, as my mother taught ESL coursework.

I’m interested in humor more than sarcasm in remaking these commercially lubricated images. All of the flashcards that I selected feature still images ripe with different registers of absurdity. I hope to enhance that and tip it in a direction that’s funny and hopefully uncomfortable or unsettling. Ideally, the response is more than a chuckle.

The 90s have a significant influence on my art practice and on me as a human. I began college in 1994. I was part of the early years of gender & cultural studies. I was introduced to the work of artists like Fred Wilson, collectives such as Group Material, and shown that art and broader culture, museological framing, etc. are all up for consideration as an artist.

DB – Let’s talk about collages, what attracts you to this technique? What a critical layer could we find in the collection of discount coupons?

MK – I started making photo-based collages in grad school and they have continued to this day. My earlier collages consisted of cut and pasted photos from my personal archive. Locations, people, and moments were fused together in formally-driven arrangements.

My mother made her flashcards with cut and pasted printed matter that came into our home (for free with catalogs). I started to make collages using coupons that are left at my doorstep on a weekly basis. It’s free collage material that holds a lot of information, and I find it to be visually appealing. I love the images and I’m interested in the time marker of the prices. They approximate this current moment. For example, the various items would have been cheaper in the 1990s than they are today. The coupons also highlight a different time in my neighborhood. Younger residents are not using these coupons. Older people, that predate my time in my Brooklyn neighborhood, are the target audience for this material.

DB – Your series Clockwise embodied your classical approach of playing with material and form, could you tell more about the process of cutting the covers of news magazines and transforming them into objects?

MK – Those three issues of Time magazine (all from 1996) all feature the milk ads that my mother cut up to make her related flashcard. I was interested in the fact that the 3 cover stories all have relevance to this current moment: Russia in relation to an election year, as well as Russia’s own election of Yeltsin (not presented is a Time cover story on American intervention in the election of Yeltsin), women being an important demographic for US presidential candidates (Trump was able to secure a large percentage of white female voters in 2016), and Dr. Ho, a scientist, whose research significantly impacted the AIDS crisis.

The Clockwise works engage my interest in the transition from two to three-dimensions. Like a pattern for a dress or shirt, that transforms a flat pattern into a dimensional garment. It’s a specific tactile translation that I have been working with for years. These sculptures begin in paper and the specific cuts are translated into CAD files that machine cut aluminum. After the aluminum was cut on a waterjet, the three cover photos were printed as dye sublimation prints. This photo process fuses the image with the metal. Lastly, the photo printed aluminum gets folded on a press brake to create dimensionality.

DB – Do you feel a difference between the North American and European art worlds? How is it to be an American artist today?

MK – I have never lived in Europe and although I have exhibited there, not extensively. The US is very large. I can speak as an artist who lives in Brooklyn, NY. It’s not easy. I’m fortunate to teach, to be provided with a steady income and an outlet to ongoing discussions. I don’t know what it means to be an American artist. Especially now, when 80-90% of Republicans are happy with Trump, and over 40% of the US is satisfied with him as president. Living in a major coastal and racially diverse city, I have no relation to the majority of America. Growing up during the 1980s, I consumed a lot of pro-America/pro-democracy propaganda through popular music, tv, and film. Cold war ideology that “Russia is an enemy”, as depicted by Sylvester Stallone in both Rocky and Rambo. So, it’s impossible to disentangle this from who I am. Who else could I be than an American artist? But I have never been more confused by who this country wants as its representative.

Dasha Birukova (b. 1985 Russia) is a curator and writer based in Lisbon. She graduated from the Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow, Russia, art history department and at the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK), Moscow, Russia, cinema history department. Her specialisms are experimental film, video and media art. Birukova curated the "New Media" programme at the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (Moscow) and co-curated the Festival of Media Art "VideoFocus" organized by NCCA (2014 and 2015). She was a co-curator of the exhibition "Error Message" that was part of the 4th Moscow International Biennale of Young Art, 2014. In 2016, Birukova joined the team of the high-profile project "Geometry of Now" curated by British artist Mark Fell, organized by the VAC Foundation in Moscow. In 2017, she curated the exhibition "Pink Flamingos" at the art space BLEEK in Belgium. In 2018, Birukova was a lecturer at The Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow, Russia, Department of the art history and at the British Higher School of Art and Design, Moscow, where she curated the exhibition «BRITANKA_coop: ritual», special project of 6th Biennale for Young Art, Winzavod, Moscow.

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