Matt Ernst doesnâ€™t roam the streets of New York marking territory with his tag. Rather, Matt Ernst is an artist who lets the city streets tag him. In his most recent work, layering his canvases with found materials from stickers to advertisements, to drawings ripped right out of his own sketchbooks, Ernst brings the superfluity of visual information out of the city and into the studio, where he can scrutinize its impact on our evolution as a species. Ernst draws from Freudâ€™s school of thought, ever curious, albeit a skeptical curiosity, about where our illusions may take us, where they may leave us.
Ernstâ€™s paintings, atop the built up canvases, attest to the artistâ€™s imagination and subtle yet dark sense of humor, not to mention his technical skill. Ernst deftly illustrates the paradox inherent in the current state of humanity; if as humans we are the most highly evolved species on the planet, why is ours a world of fear, isolation and destruction?
Ernst, no relation to Max, earned his degree from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He currently lives and works in New York where he has had several solo exhibitions. He has also shown in Miami, Santa Fe, Florence, Vienna and Barcelona, and at the Housatonic Museum of Art in Connecticut.
â€œI try to recreate that organic sense of, something like cavemaning. Like a post-modern cavemaning.â€
Format: You titled your last series after Freudâ€™s book The Future of An Illusion, and the Freud quote on your website represents your work nicely. â€œBut how ungrateful, how short-sighted after all, to strive for the abolition of civilization! What would then remain would be a state of nature, and that would be far harder to bear.â€ But Freudâ€™s book is really about religion, right? Does religion play a role in your work?
Ernst: That book for me touched on so many elements. Principally what Iâ€™m interested in is where we are as a species, in our evolution, and what [Freud] talked about in that book is that religion is this vehicle for us to explain, all things creative, all things sporadic, all the things that we canâ€™t define. And itâ€™s fascinating to me that two thousand years later we are, as a species, still so deeply invested in religion. You know, Iâ€™m not a religious person at all, and I think in some ways itâ€™s an evolutionary hindrance to us, and we canâ€™t take that evolutionary step that right now weâ€™re at the precipice of, and weâ€™re either going the way of the dinosaurs or getting to the next place. We have all this consciousness and awareness of our own minds, and our history, and to this point we arenâ€™t able to really change, and religion is a part of that.
Thatâ€™s also why guns are a big feature in my work. First off itâ€™s just this amazing engineering feat. Hereâ€™s the thing that lead us partially to be the dominant species of the planet, but itâ€™s so destructive. And weâ€™re still so fascinated. Iâ€™ve got a son whose 11 years old and heâ€™s fascinated with guns, and Iâ€™m fascinated with guns. But what is that in us, that deep aggressive urge that I think really is a feature of the human condition. I think weâ€™re at that point now, I think about it a lot with my own kids, where weâ€™ve got to figure this one out, weâ€™ve got to evolve to that next level where thatâ€™s not such a driver of our species.
Format: Yes, we have to evolve to a higher level, out of our gun phase, rather than other species behind us like trees and other elements of nature evolving, and joining us in our gun phase.
Ernst: Right, the idea of that painting, The Forest of Blue Flame, is that we are just, we have this consciousness but we are just natural like everything else, we just have all this technology at our disposal.
Format: That idea gives The Forest of Blue Flame a sense of humor in a way. Do you find your work comical, ironic?
Ernst: You know, strange as it may seem, I don’t really strive to be humorous. It is more of a by-product of the subject matter. The Forest of Blue Flame is funny, I think, because the condition I am trying to describe is so ridiculous. The fact that we think we are so smart but we really might be the dumbest creature on earth is really kind of funny to me. I mean the smarter we get, the more advanced technologically, the quicker and more efficiently we are killing ourselves and our eco system. Now that is dumb and funny! The tree in Forestâ€¦ is just such a ludicrous image but also sad, I think, as so much humor is.
Format: You have a cast of characters in The Future of an Illusion. How are you influenced by comics?
Ernst: Growing up my first experiences in art aside from my motherâ€™s art history books were comic books. I drew comics as a kid and made an animated film with a group of young guys who had a little animation studio in their parentsâ€™ basement. I took lessons with Brian Walker who is the son of Mort Walker who drew Beetle Bailey. I just loved all that stuff. Mad Magazine, Don Martin in particular, Little Nemo – I was given a compendium of the entire series – Peanuts, BC.
Almost simultaneously, I was about 11 or 12, I became aware of the DaVinci cartoons. I loved those drawings! I had this giant DaVinci book someone gave me and I used to copy that stuff over and over trying in vain to get them right. A lot of my favorite fine artists growing up had a real comic feel from Hironymous Bosch to Max Beckman, Guston, of course. Of all Picasso’s work I loved the line drawings he made and those little pornographic drawings he made as an old man. Later on I got into Basquiat, Clemente, Baeslitz, Don Baechler and so forth – the new expressionists. And I love Rivera, Khalo and the Mexican muralists too. To me they were all just an extension of R. Crumb and Don Martin. And now with Joe Sacco, J.C. Ware, Spiegleman , not to mention the Anime masters, Ottomo, Miazaki, and all those guys, there is just so much great stuff that I draw on.
Format: You write on your website â€œpolitics is the perfect opposite of art.â€ Can you discuss any political implications in your work that may or may not be intentional?
Ernst: This is meant to be a statement that is provocative as much as it is declarative but I will attempt to explain what it means to me. When I talk about politics I mean politics, as in, the manipulation of ideas in the service of power or the gaining of power. This kind of politics, as opposed to simply talking about current events, eschews subtlety of thought, contradiction, questioning, and new ideas. Art, at its best, always explores new ideas, questions convention, and allows for subtlety and contradiction. I don’t dislike art about politics I just don’t like art that is politics. If art serves any useful purpose at all itâ€™s as a reflection of ideas of a civilization, not as a tool of power or partisanship.
Format: How did you develop your technique of carving into layers of found materials on the canvas?
Ernst: I donâ€™t know really why but Iâ€™ve always been really interested in collage. I used to study a lot of New Realist artists who did some stuff with ripping up billboards, so I just started doing that. Also itâ€™s partly about, really, I just love the aesthetic of street art, itâ€™s all around you all the time and I wanted to try to bring that into the studio, into the gallery. I go out with my son and start pulling stuff down, and we end up with bags of stuff. I try to recreate that organic sense of, something like cavemanning. Like a post-modern cavemanning.
Format: Speaking of the gallery, a lot of your works are really large scale. Do you ever think about the repercussions of that on the marketing of your work?
Ernst: It is an issue, itâ€™s difficult. As Iâ€™ve gotten older Iâ€™ve realized the market does exist, more now than ever before. But, I work from an organic place. I try to work smaller, and I do have some works that are smaller. But sometimes on a smaller scale it just doesnâ€™t work, so I have to do what works. I tend to use a lot of my drawings as collage elements so they usually end up getting torn up and thrown into pictures. It is definitely an issue.
Format: What are you working on now?
Ernst: More of a continuation of The Future of an Illusion stuff, focusing more on the drawing and kind of developing more of those characters that Iâ€™ve started. Iâ€™m using more language in the work, and Iâ€™m toying with the idea of, um, I donâ€™t want a narrative per se, but Iâ€™m working on developing my characters so that they symbolize more of what the work is about.