Art Seen: Chicago

PROFILE OF THE ARTIST // MATTHEW SCHLAGBAUM

An Interview with MK Meador

This year has been a busy one for artist Matthew Schlagbaum. His recent exhibitions in 2013 were with the West Loop artist collective, and the Chicago Artists Coalition, where Schlagbaum was a 2012/2013 HATCH artist. Through CAC, Schlagbaum met fellow artist Helen Maureen Cooper and was selected for a June show in her private apartment gallery, Azimuth Projects, entitled Gild. The show featured a fantastic survey or Schlagbaum’s work, particularly his ongoing preoccupation with gold, as a medium and conceptual framework, especially of the faux variety.

This fall, Schlagbaum’s work was included in the current show at the DePaul Art Museum, Histories/Photographies. The SEEN had the opportunity to catch up with one of the curators for the exhibition, Gregory Harris. Harris curated the show along with English department professor Marcy Dinius and together they developed the exhibition out of a shared interest in photography – conceiving a collection of work that deals with ideas about the history of photography. The main themes involved “history itself and traces of the past that exist in photographs,” as well as a focus on Chicago artists. In speaking about select artists included in the show, Harris noted of Schlagbaum’s work, that he was working on “really interesting things with photographs and how people use and interact with personal, sentimental aspects of photography… the areas that are not explicitly about photography but deal with the same intimate personal way people interact with photographs.” Schlagbaum’s piece in the exhibit, titled Treasured, stands out as the only sculptural piece in the show. Comprised of 500 vintage photographs piled on a white pedestal, each gilded with faux gold leafing, Schlagbaum’s work is mysterious, even bordering on the esoteric.

THE SEEN recently spoke with the artist about this piece and his practice. What follow is an interview with Schlagbaum and discussion of his work, his process and his involvement in Histories/Photographies show at the DPAM.

Treasured, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

Treasured, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

THE SEEN: Your work exists in many different mediums, is there one you prefer?

Matthew Schlagbaum: I think of myself as a sculptor. So even the photos [at Depaul] take on more of a sculptural method. Sculpture is a more encompassing medium – in the sculpture department [at The University of South Florida] people were really doing anything….

TS: What does this exhibition mean to you and your body of work?

MS: The show itself is about the history of photography but also about its materiality – how it functions, not just with regard to it being about an image. Treasured is the only real sculpture in the show. It is a sculpture that uses photographs, and is also about photographs.

TS: When did you start on the gold series of works? When did you come to realize the version we see in Treasured?

MS: The piece is something I started later in 2010. I have always been really interested in photos as objects, as well as how I can manipulate what that photograph is, or represents in the sense that it is an object, but also still photographic depiction. It incorporates a lot of aspects that I’m interested in: photo-as-object, surface, color and the emotional aspects attached to how we read these types of images…there used to be this objectness that was precious. When people used to say if their house were burning down, they would grab their photographs…which I think is ridiculous. I am more interested in how the physical photograph functions in an emotional realm.

Keeps Me Safe, digital photograph, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

Keeps Me Safe From My Trouble and Pain, digital photograph, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

TS: How do you deal with value in your work? In terms of material, it seems that you upgrade the physical quality of the work, while removing its contextual value. Do these things level out for you, or do you see it as a way of democratizing certain aspects of the work?

MS: I tend to be attracted to things that are undervalued or not valued at all – both monetarily and emotionally. I am interested in things that are discarded, or seen as not important.

At the same time, I am also interested in how something can be considered valueless or content-less – and yet be so prolific, for example how certain people can think an object does have value, and how that is directly related to emotion. I work a lot with materials; typically these were things that I liked when I was younger that I grew to dislike. By reworking with them, I learn to like them again. When I was younger, I loved gems and gold. Then I hated it, like “Gold is the tackiest thing.” It has been a way to reevaluate my and other people’s taste and why taste is socially influential.

TS: What was involved with the making of Treasured? Was it difficult to gold leaf so many old family photos?

MS: Yes, it was really hard for me to destroy the photographs – to cover them up, even though they weren’t my images. I was having trouble going through the photos, thinking, “I can’t cover this one, it’s too good.” It was a challenge for me to destroy these photos even though I personally had no attachment to them.

TS: Why gold?

MS: Well, the gold leaf is in a sense removing the very thing that supposedly defines a photograph as being important or having use – its visual content. The piece literally suggests value, by way of that perceived value being absent. All the images now look exactly the same, democratized by the surface treatment. In many ways, this piece mimics the way that we idealize and place emotional value on things, versus the reality of the situation. Meaning that we build up the idea of something by placing value on an image. Photographs have become this very important object, yet are at the same time neglected and neatly stored away – organizing them, and then never looking back.

And then there also is the whole history of gold leafing things, which directly adds value to them. Its like you see at the Vatican or Versaille, they just went and added gold leaf and it makes it more beautiful.

Untitled, digital photograph, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

Untitled, digital photograph, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

TS: What does this process say about history, in terms of the exhibition, but also how you personally deal with used, often dated objects?

MS: When I have selected objects to work with in the past, I wanted them to look used and run down.

Regarding the photographs, just by them being old, it deals with history of photography and how the snapshot plays into that. I wanted them to have that white border that photos don’t have anymore, which means it is a snapshot. That crinkly edge also functions as an iconographic part of vintage photography. And with that white border, they really say snapshot and that was my reason for selecting the vintage photos… My work is about a history that wasn’t covered by the other work in the show – the other works dealt more with photography as a medium, that wasn’t necessarily personal.

Lately, I am moving away from using objects that appear used because I think that old objects tend to imply a specific history. Old things that have been used have a patina of age – even though I think everything ages similarly – everything that looks old, looks old in the same way.


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Matthew Schlagbaum is a Chicago-based artist who received his MFA in Fiber and Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his BFA in Sculpture and Extended Media from the University of South Florida.  Recent exhibition include Azimuth in Chicago, as well as a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center in Las Vegas, NV. He will be included in The Tyranny of Good Taste at Glass Curtain Gallery, curated by Danny Orendorff, opening November 14th – which will then move the La Esquina Gallery in Kansas City, MO in January of 2014.

MK Meador is a writer and curator living in Chicago, IL. She is currently on the curatorial panel of the Comfort Station in Logan Square and HATCH curator-in-residence for 2012/2013.

Histories/Photographies features work by Jeremy Bolen, Alan Cohen, Adam Ekberg, Myra Greene, Shane Huffman, Barbara Kasten, Jason Lazarus, and others. The exhibit runs through December 8th.

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