Artist Mathew Reichertz talks about his exhibition Dog Park
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the Canadian artist, Mathew Reichertz, on the occasion of his exhibition, Dog Park, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Mathew Reichertz is a fabulous painter whose artwork addresses contemporary themes. His recent work, including Garbage and The Fight, deals with narrative and sequential storytelling. He draws upon the comic-book form and cinema for many of the visual metaphors and framing devices he brings to his art practice. To create his large-scale installation works, he uses unconventional materials that open up exciting new possibilities for painting. His most recent work, Dog Park, combines representation and abstraction in a large installation in an attempt to visualize what a walk in the park might be like through a dog’s eyes, or more importantly, its nose.
The show was held at Hermes Gallery in Halifax. Find out more on this and past installations visit:
Here’s the video!
Below you’ll find the transcript of the interview which is also available on YouTube.
To view Mathew Reichertz’s artwork visit:
For more info about Mathew visit:
Visual Arts Nova Scotia (VANS):
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
Mathew Reichertz interviewed by Oh She Paints
“Imagine a world where your sense of smell was 45 to 100 times more sensitive, you were colorblind to reds, oranges and yellows and your visual acuity was decreased by 75%. Smell becomes utterly urgent….” –Mathew Reichertz
Christine: We’re here today at Hermes Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with Mathew Reichertz. This is his exhibition, Dog Park, an installation of image-based and abstract work inspired by ‘a walk in the park from the perspective of a dog’s nose’.
Mathew Reichertz is a contemporary artist and professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD). He’s agreed to talk to us today and answer a few questions about the work and his practice.
Mathew: I’ve always considered myself a painter, but really a painter in the context of what I thought of as contemporary art, and so the move from a rectangle, stretched canvas, to other kinds of materials and possibilities, came fairly natural to me.
Some of the previous work that I did had a very direct relation to comic books and that work happened on different materials. Different materials are really important in an art making context where the materials play a significant role. So, in the work that I’m referring to, I was painting on polystyrene, which is a kind of sheet plastic that comes in squares or rectangles but you can cut it. I started, eventually, cutting out some of the panels of the comic book that I was making and that’s what led to some of the possibilities that exist in this exhibition.
So, what were looking at, at the moment, is work which is still in progress and it’s meant to be a walk in the park for the perspective of a dog’s nose. There’s a move in the exhibition from representation, and when it is representation were dealing mainly with foliage, the kind of things that would be close to a dog’s head as it is moving through a park, to what you might describe as abstraction. That abstraction, in this case, has a representational purpose, and the purpose is to delve into what smell could actually look like, and the important part here is from the perspective of a canine, because the nose and the olfactory system of a dog is very different from ours. Different dogs have different abilities to smell, but even dogs that have the least powerful olfactory system can still smell things hundreds of times better than human beings. So the more that I thought about how to represent smell, the more I realized that the parts that are the smell needed to be as intricate and complex as the stuff that represents foliage.
Christine: It seems that there’s a spatial dimension to how you are representing smell. Is it the way that it would be spread out through a landscape or how odor moves through the landscape and the dog would follow that?
Mathew: I have a layman’s understanding of how smell works for dogs. There’s been a lot of scientific research about, for instance, how dogs trace smell through a terrain. So scientists have studied how dogs track smell and lose smell and the movement they make to find smell again. They have also done things to illustrate the way air currents move over a terrain. Some of that are references here; some of the shapes of the abstraction are references to that kind of research. But, more importantly, a dog’s olfactory sense is so amazingly powerful that it creates a kind of spatial architecture that the dog exists in. Some of the scale, and the way that there is a move from representation to complete abstraction, is an effort to engage that idea, which is quite alien to us. Of course, it may have nothing to do with a dog’s actual experience of smell, but at least I’m pointing at the possibilities.
Christine: An attempt to visualize it and to imagine what it might look like or feel like as an experience?
Mathew: In one sense, it’s a kind of effort at engaging with ideas about synaesthesia, but really it’s a kind of cross-species synaesthesia.
Christine: In terms of your representation of odor and smell, there seems to be several different ways that you’re representing it throughout the room and the space. I’m wondering if this is an evolution in time and how you’re thinking about it, or if it’s just the idea that there is such diversity and multiplicity in different kinds of odors—some being pungent, some being softer—did you want to capture that? Some of them seem to be really dynamic in terms of their movement and energy, and almost aggressive, whereas others are a bit more intricate.
Mathew: Dogs, they’ve got this wonderful sense of smell. Its very interesting, you know when a dog goes sniff sniff sniff what they’re doing is they’re taking more odor in, but part of that is also clearing their nose of other smells so they can be more precise about the smells they’re actually analyzing. The other thing about dogs is that their eyesight is actually not very good. They see about 75% as well as we see in terms of clarity. And they also don’t see reds and oranges very well, they do see yellow so I took some liberties. But when I thought about how these smells would look I decided to portray them in colors that a dog would not actually see. I thought a lot about formal aspects of painting. So you know, I’m talking about the quality of shape. For instance, is it jagged or is it rounded? If it’s jagged what character does that jaggedness have? Is there a sense of symmetry to a shape or not? All of these things are formal qualities and they all, for me, make me feel a particular way. I don’t claim to be synaesthetic at all, but I have a sensitivity to how form works because I’m a visual artist. And so, I’m quite interested in the complexity that exists out in the world as smell, and the question became for me what kind of formal aspects of abstraction could I manipulate to give a real sense of the diversity of smell that we might encounter.
In some cases, I did have a particular representation in mind. So the poop behind you, there’s a real representation of poop there, and red smell the smell that comes up, is the smell of poop in the park. I was trying to think of a strong shape that has a kind of overwhelming quality to it, and there’s an aspect to it that travels along the wall to another space, which, I hope, relates to how we might experience a poopy smell in the park. But for some of the other smells, I decided I didn’t want to be representing, you know, this smell of a rose or of rotting leaves. What I really tried to do was give as much variety to the abstraction as I can.
Christine: Narrative seems to be an important part of this work and your previous work. Could you talk about how it informs this piece?
Mathew: I’ve been drawn to using stories in my work since the very beginning of thinking about art. In that sense, it’s kind of a cross that I have to bear. I mean that it’s not just something that I’m intellectually interested, it’s the way that all of the processes that go into me thinking about making work function, whether I like it or not. This exhibition is probably one of the least narrative works I’ve made, but even it really does have this idea of a passage through time.
The thing is, if you look around in contemporary art, people use the word narrative a lot, but I actually feel that if were going to be clear about what narrative is, there isn’t much of it in contemporary art. There’s a lot of, what you might call, fractured narrative, incomplete or ambiguous narrative, but that’s not generally what we think of when we think about storytelling. If you’re watching an independent movie and the ending is a little bit ambiguous, people hate that. So when you’re talking about narrative in contemporary art, often it’s so ambiguous or fractured that really it’s not the first or even the second thing that a viewer might think about.
There are reasons why. Modernism was a rejection of the past, and art of the past had much to do with storytelling. At what point in history do we reclaim what was rejected? It’s not there aren’t people making stories in contemporary art, or that people don’t want to do that kind of things, but its not that prevalent yet. And the reason that it’s not that prevalent yet is because there are all kinds of other venues for it, writing, movie making, pod-casts. There are all kinds of ways to tell stories that are arguably better suited than painting. Having said all that, I’m wedded to storytelling in my work.
Christine: So, thinking about how to tell a story or how bring narrative to your work isn’t easy and doesn’t follow a specific formula; it’s something you have to invent for yourself to discover what’s the best way to bring narrative to painting? Or do you feel that you’re drawing on other traditions, other painters and artists that have come before you, or even other disciplines?
Mathew: I certainly do make reference to all kinds of other things. While it’s not that evident in this work, the reference to comics is really the strongest reference in my work, though I make it with a whole-hearted feeling of being embedded in contemporary are art and contemporary painting practices. So I don’t consider myself a comic-books artist, but I’m certainly engaging with aspects comics, more than the way that Lichtenstein would have portrayed one frame of the comic. So, here, the cutouts, the graphic quality, even though there isn’t a narrative with thought or speech bubbles still has a clear relationship to comics.
Christine: Do you think that escaping the rectangle, and leaving traditional painting aside, is what enables you to use narrative more? Do you think being able to spatialize the work and create an immersive experience for the viewer, who follows the scent trail, is fundamental to this story?
Mathew: You know, that’s a great question. I think I’d have to say yes. It’s not that there’s a beginning or an end in this particular space. I mean you walk in and probably you walk over to this wall, or something like that. But, the fact that there’s a feeling of a continuous connection between all these pieces is still going to, arguably, make you feel that you’re following the dog. And, when I think about the other work that I’ve done, I’m always thinking about the architectural aspect of the working, meaning that you’re body in space and you have to move to apprehend the work, as opposed to a painting where the implication is that, generally speaking, you can stand in one spot and get the whole picture from it. There’s a movement through time in the story and there’s also a movement through time and space in the gallery with your body.
Christine: In terms of storytelling, there’s a connection to place. You mentioned that a lot of the images that are more representational come from Point Pleasant park and from your experiences of spending time with your dog in the park.
Mathew: There are authors who write about things that have nothing to do with their own experience, but I don’t know how they do that. I guess with a lot of research. And so, most of the work that I do, although it really isn’t important it’s me, I don’t consider my work autobiographical, but I do need to be able to use my experiences to make the work. In this particular case, I had a dog and I walked her twice a day for a decade. As she got older, I would sit there while she sniffed a rock for 5 minutes and get aggravated, thinking, why are we still here? Often, I find that the things that annoy me are the things that I make work about, because I think about them a bit more. I spent so much time in the park with my dog that, at one point, coming back from a trip, I was in the Halifax airport and they had a kiosk that had brochures for tourist attractions. I saw one that said ‘Point Pleasant Park’, so I picked it up and it was a picture of me running in the park with my dog. So I do feel a particular connection to the park. I know the park like back of my hand.
Christine: You mentioned that part of this project was getting out of the studio and engaging more with the world.
Mathew: This project started as a residency in Point Pleasant park where I proposed that I’d be doing paintings en plein air and people would be able to watch me paint or ask me what I was doing. I had a lot of tools that I made. I had a wagon that I pulled through the park so that I could make the paintings. And I would make them from the level that which my dog’s nose would have been, which basically meant sitting.
This painting behind me, this stump, that’s from a 4×4 ft sheet of Lexan film. Often when people go out in nature to paint, they’re painting on relatively small surfaces. But when you’re painting on large surfaces it’s complicated. It’s heavy to bring the materials. Often it was really hot. I’d be outside 3 hours in the heat, or often it would be misting or raining and would get really cold. So just getting the representational painting done was really difficult. Many of the ideas about the smell came after the residency was finished.
Christine: What started you thinking about that idea?
Mathew: Well, it was always part of the plan, but I couldn’t do it all. I could manage to do all the things to make the representational painting and devote myself in a meaningful way to how the smell might look. It just took longer, everything takes longer, than I anticipated
Christine: You situate work within contemporary practice, you think of yourself as a contemporary painter. Can you talk about what that means to you and how that notion has informed your practice and what it means to be painter today?
Mathew: There’s a very basic aspect making a painting. It’s made through a lot of different marks over time. You’d have to work really hard to make a painting that wasn’t a buildup of marks over time.
Christine: It’s quite an intricate and complex piece, and as you say, you painted on and then cut out the shapes on Lexan film.
Mathew: That is an aspect, the build up of marks, that still is very much present in this work, even though I’m not using a traditional surface and I got rid of the rectangle of the painting. I think that those things—the traditional surface and materials, the rectangle—there are still a lot of possibilities within that realm, but it’s also a very problematic place because it’s where painting exists very strongly as an object to be purchased. Within the art market, everything can be sold as art, but painting is the most understandable and best idea of what art is, in terms of something that could be sold. And so it is so easy for that meaning of the tradition of painting to be imposed on what you try to do, even if your not interested in working within the market. That’s not the reason that I got rid of the rectangle but it’s an important aspect of it.
Christine: In terms of the actual set and where where the parts of the painting are placed, is that something that is site-specific and flexible, is it something that changes in a way—like different pieces that can take different forms—or do you have a fixed idea of where each pieces goes.
Mathew: This is not site-specific. My understanding of site specificity is when work is mostly informed by the site and really could not exist in any meaningful way outside of that site. I think we misuse the word site-specific in contemporary art. It’s very hard to make site-specific work, and if you do make it, chances are people won’t recognize that it’s your work because it should be so influenced by site that it won’t look like anything you’ve done before. This is what I call site-dependent work. I can take it from one place to another and with careful planning I can activate that space with the work. Sometimes it will work better and sometimes it won’t work as well, but I don’t know until I actually do it. I’ve documented every single piece that is available to me in this work, and I know what size it is digitally, for instance, in Photoshop, and then I can take every single wall that I’m going to work on and I can scale things properly, so that I can make designs for how the work might be in the space before I actually get in to install them.
Christine: In this work, there are bits of more representational painting like the log, the foliage, and the dog poo, and I wonder if having that aspect of the work is important to you, does it feel like it anchors it in some way? Or can you see this work moving more in the direction of abstraction? Right now there’s a tension between the two, but could it potentially lose representation, in that more realistic sense, entirely?
Mathew: I was very happy that the idea that I had about this being from a dog’s perspective brought up this idea of the relationship between representation and abstraction, because, really, for someone dealing mainly with narrative, abstraction is fairly alien to me. I don’t know why I would make an abstract painting, unless it had a reason, which this project has given me. The way I’m still envisioning this is that, as a dog is walking, they may get caught up in a smell, but they move back and forth between their eyes and their nose. So in this particular project, I think there’s going to remain a mix.
Christine: How are you thinking about scale in this work? Some pieces are almost life-size, whereas others are a bit smaller or seen from a distance. Was that conscious? And what effect did you want to create with scale?
Mathew: When you ask the question about scale, there’s this idea of painting as a window, so, how close to the window pane is something. If it’s actually life-size then it’s right up against the window pane, while if it’s smaller, it’s moving back into space. Saying that is much easier than actually doing it in a way which has tremendous consistency. And so, the idea is to portray foliage as if it’s up close and personal for the dog, but sometimes the dog looks up and looks far. But even though the dog is mainly concerned in a sniffing situation with what’s right around their head, every now and then they will look up and they’ll be the push back in space.
When I make work, it takes a few years to make the body of work. That’s my process. It does look, when I put work up like, ‘Oh, wow, there’s a lot of work here’, and there is, but it is because I take years to make it.
Christine: and you said this work is still in progress?
Mathew: Yeah, there’s the whole question of what a walk is. I might walk my dog for a kilometer or more. I can’t make a piece that’s a kilometer long, or I could, but it would be unrealistic. Somehow, in my mind,150 linear feet has come up. I’m more than half-way there, at this point, but it needs to be longer so that it really feels like its a walk and gives a life-like sense of complexity, meaning there’s too much to take in, too much to actually look at. But still, it’s a representation, it’s not a real walk.
Christine: Thank you, Mathew.
Mathew: Thank you, Christine. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
End of interview.
Don’t forget to visit Mathew Reichertz’s site to see his other art series!