Bow Truss’s first artist installation: A Q&A with Matt Woodward

Like a blank canvas, the walls of the newly opened Bow Truss Coffee Roasters present a great opportunity for local artists to display their work. The Bow Truss walls, like all of the coffeeshops Phil has opened, offer an informal gallery space.

Local artist Matt Woodward just installed his graphite on paper sketch, “Ode to Sullivan (2009)” here, inspired by a Louis Sullivan arch. Woodward has many pieces, in fact, paying homage to the architectural wonders he sees throughout the country and has work currently on display at the Chicago Cultural Center and is in residency at the Linda Warren Gallery in Chicago.

His pridefully aged and tattered pieces, patina’ed like the oft-Neoclassical structures they were painstakingly drawn from, each tell a story of their travels. The smudges, tears and pinholes speckle the work like battle wounds.

We caught up with Woodward after the installation of his “Ode to Sullivan” at Bow Truss.

Doejo: Your work is inspired by Beaux-Arts and Neoclassical design, particularly as it influenced late 19th century U.S. architecture. What about this period of time fascinates you?

Woodward: It’s important to note that my work isn’t really about architecture. Certainly I talk about it often and it’s central to my work, but when I bring up something like the Beaux Arts my aim simply is to put the work in context.

What’s always fascinated me about Beaux Arts Architecture is that arose during an important transition where America began to realize its role as an industrial powerhouse, embracing a capacity for mechanized repeatability not since understood or experienced before in the world. It’s something that we might take for granted, in that repeatability is simply part of our daily lives now, it wasn’t always. As a movement in art, historically, the Beaux Arts marked a new sea changing era, where repeatability itself became synonymous with truth and practicality. It was a technological, specialized, and fixed point of view that would both lead to and mark a significant shift toward homogeneity. America was capable of copying architectural detail and edifice and ornament at an unheard of pace, and defining the architectural landscape, the identifying space of American cities, essentially, with it. And by doing so it also simulated a history where there was previously no history. 

There, I think, is something interesting in the Beaux Arts Method. … The copies were taken from actual European buildings and finials, made into casts, sent over and duplicated throughout American cities and applied wherever anyone felt like putting them up. However, since architecture is, like I said, particularly reflective of pressures that occur in a specific place and time, not only did these copies lack their own autonomous contexts, they also lacked the typical degradation and destruction that time and nature would have weathered upon it.

All of the architecture we imported, dating back hundreds and thousands of years in Europe, was made to look new again, and applied here in a way as if it had all happened at the same time. And built by the same mind. Thus drawing every period of art and architecture into simultaneous existence, paralyzing time itself. And if anything, I think my work tries to look at the trauma of the body trapped in a space with no time.

You said that your work is heavily reliant on the precise and meticulous measuring of the ironwork and molding you depict, can you walk me through that process, where you begin?

Of course. Almost all of my work is taken from the streets I find them on. And each piece is named after its street. None of these designs are my own creation. How it works is that I’ll make a surface, a ground, generally of paper and graphite and whatever else I have lying around, and I’ll sit with it for a few months and when I decide what’s best for it I’ll start drawing in what eventually becomes a manic, intensely measured matrix, or a grid, and the purpose of this is to make sure that each part of the design that I’m repeating across the surface is exactly alike throughout. To the centimeter. And I’ve found that if I stick to the design, if I stick to the module, and I mean strictly stick to the module, there also arises room for an unusual kind of expression.

Many of your pieces you show the scars and wear of its travels in and out of gallery walls and displays, why does this add to the character and story of the piece?

I think the document of an artists misgivings are much more interesting than a polished product. I think drawing as a practice itself is important for embracing that idea, in that it bridges the way someone sees the world with what it is they are looking at. The ‘scars and wear’ of the drawing, as you say, are like a kind of living map that accounts for the pristine volatile pressure that bore the drawing there to begin with. It’s all there, it’s active. When we were installing the work, we tore a little at the bottom on a cord in the wall, I’m not going to change that, it happened, it’s part of the work now. In the same way, time will have its way with any work of art, it will reclaim what we’ve done, art or otherwise. The very idea of trying to protect the work is silly, it’s completion is affirmed by its destruction.

And much like your painstakingly comprehensive sketches and antiqued pieces, you yourself have battle scars to show—what happened to your right arm and how has it effected your work?

Indeed, nerve damage. My right side is all kinds of messed up. It’s pretty painful. I’ve injured myself from working too often and I’m supposed to be taking a break and relaxing and resting or something but I’m not really sure how to relax. And I can’t just power through it, it’s an injury. So, I’ve been doing anything but work, although I still manage to end up in the studio for a few hours a day. I have a show coming up at Linda Warren Projects in November 2013 and it’s breathing down my back so I’ve got to get something done.

What piece has been your biggest challenge to complete?

Definitely Sullivan Imitation, it’s the triptych at the Chicago Cultural Center, which actually has a fourth panel. The fourth was separated and bought by the Ritz Carlton residencies on Michigan Ave. It took the better part of a year to make and was part of a show almost two years in production. My arm gave up on me after that. 

What is the process of hanging these pieces in galleries and spaces? Any interesting stories, locations you’d like to share?

My good friend Noelle Mason and I had to hang a drawing in Barringotn at their library. The space is gorgeous over there and has a massive humungous cavernous lobby, big enough to accommodate a thirty foot drawing I made for it. However, being a little green, I hadn’t figured out how to hang it. But we got these terribly unstable ladders and went at it anyway. They were wet, mind you, from being out and frozen in the snow, and we hiked the drawing up the thirty feet to where it was I planned to pin the work on some wooden beams. And when we got up there I realized we both needed a third hand.

Anyway, at one point, dangling off a wet ladder, scared to death, I was trying to clutch myself down while holding the drawing in place and press a pushpin into these rock hard wooden beams and I pressed a little too hard and ended up pushing the ladder off the beam so that I was straight up in the air like I was walking on stilts. I was terrified.

What other media do you work in or have worked in?

I try to work in as many non traditional mediums as possible, but have stuck to a kind industrial theme. Wood-glue, wall paper-glue, spakle, wood joint compound. Whatever I can find at the hardware store, and it doesn’t always work out, surely. But there again is that living map I’m concerned with. Anyway, I’m mostly going for texture, I want them to look corporeal, or delicious, like skin, and these materials, I think, do the strangest things when you draw on them and make them meet each other.

What artistic medium would you like to work in but haven’t yet?

I would like to eventually work in terra cotta, but found terra cotta, and make found sculptures out of them.