Landon Metz

Text by Christopher Schreck
Photography by Clément Pascal

April 29 2015

I first met Landon Metz at an opening in September of 2011, less than a week after moving to New York from Chicago. At the time, he was receiving a lot of attention for a series of works rendered in enamel on unprimed canvas—gestural, highly tactile abstract paintings that made clear references to people like Twombly, Klein, and De Kooning—and having seen and liked the works as online reproductions, I decided simply to walk up and introduce myself.

After a brief but enthusiastic chat, we agreed to meet up the following afternoon at a pho restaurant near his apartment in Williamsburg. Once seated and served, we proceeded to have what still ranks as one of my all-time favorite conversations: a sprawling, hours-long dialogue that covered and connected topics ranging from Joseph Campbell and John Cage to Ab-Ex painting and punk rock.

In the nearly two years that have passed since that initial meeting, Landon’s practice has matured considerably, as his transition to a more precise, dye-based style has brought with it international representation, increased exhibition opportunities, and a clearer sense of his position within the broader conversation of contemporary painting. All the while, he and I have continued to enjoy an easy, thoroughly rewarding dialogue, each offering the other encouragement and insight in his respective pursuits, so it seemed only natural to visit him in his Greenpoint studio and discuss the more personal aspects of his practice. What’s presented here represents only a portion of what ended up being a two-hour-plus conversation, but I think it captures the humor, thoughtfulness, and acuity that are so characteristic of Landon, both as an artist and a man.

Schreck: Are you reading anything good at the moment?

Metz: I’ve been reading a lot of Duchamp lately, specifically The Afternoon Interviews with Calvin Tomkins, and any essays of his I can find online. I feel increasingly indebted to his work, and the more I’ve read, the more I’ve found that my views on art seem to come from a similar place. He’s also a really interesting interview subject: very witty, casual, and at times even dismissive of his own art—of all art, for that matter. He doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and doesn’t feel the need to explain or define his art for his audience. Like when asked to explain his Bicycle Wheel piece, for example, he says that it was never actually intended to be art—he just liked the way it looked in his apartment. Whether he’s being truthful or not, he’s obviously not interested in offering any grand explanations for his work, which I actually find refreshing.

I agree, and I feel like it makes sense, since a lot of his work speaks to this idea that art doesn’t lie in the artist’s intentions, or even the object itself, but rather in the viewer’s perception. He probably saw explaining his own work as a pointless exercise. It’s interesting, because people always think of him as the one responsible for the whole “It’s art because I say it’s art” mentality, but with so much of his output, there’s this sense that art’s meaning is relative and, ultimately, outside of the artist’s control. That seems to be a pretty important idea for you as well.

Definitely. Relativity is the major theme in my work.

So much of what interests me in art is the process of translation and communication. On a basic level, an artist translates his external environment into a creative gesture, and the effectiveness of his work depends on how well that gesture communicates this to his audience. But really, an artist’s work is always only partially realized when it leaves the studio – it goes on to live a life entirely separate from its creator and his or her intentions. It’s really the viewer who completes the work and establishes its relationship to the world. At best, the artist’s intention might end up being validated by some viewers’ interpretations, but it’s always the audience that gives the work meaning, at least on a cultural level.

Of course, that meaning ends up changing along with the culture. There’s definitely this continual paradigm shift that can make certain work speak louder at different points in history than others. You can’t really quantify it. Everything flows in waves, in and out of fashion.

But I wonder how someone like you, who is so precise and intentional in what you do, reconciles himself with that lack of control?

When I make work and put it out into the world, it definitely takes on a life of its own, but I do think there are certain inherited cultural expectations that I can assume about it. It really just becomes a matter of strategy, using the language of emotional aesthetics to leave a trail that points to the work’s underlying concepts.

I’ve been thinking a lot about pop music along these lines. When I work out, I listen to this “shitty” —I use quotations because I actually really enjoy it—Eastern European pop music. English is clearly not the songwriter’s native tongue; I’m assuming it’s being utilized as a tool for global accessibility. The lyrics are usually about love, or the club, or falling in love in the club. They’re amazing songs, but it’d be generous to say that they borrow from American pop music—they’re using what’s been proven effective. I don’t believe these are abstract patterns. With pop music, you have a precise language that effectively communicates emotional tableaux. It’s about what happens when the beat drops and the chorus hits, you can feel the serotonin floodgates releasing, and you’re like, “Oh fuck yeah!” (both laugh) It’s really a primal response, but it’s triggered by these very intentional strategies that always seem to work, and I find that very interesting.

Absolutely. Take something like the I-V-vi-IV chord progression—you’ve heard that sequence in thousands of songs, and yet people are able to keep on using it, just by adding the slightest variation. It takes some skill and imagination to do it right, obviously, but the fact is that certain strategies just seem to be strong enough, or maybe it’s simple enough, to allow for constant revisiting.

There’s this really great quote by Delacroix: “What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.” I think painting and pop music are similar in that there’s an established framework that you can work with or against. Painting carries a lot of historical baggage, but it also carries a lot of useful precedence, and I feel that in my work, I’m engaging with both sides at once. For me, being progressive doesn’t mean having to deny what came before you – it’s really a matter of contributing to an ongoing conversation and, hopefully, advancing it.

Well, something you and I talk about a lot is this idea of the “usable past”, the idea that the figures of art history are readily available, almost like advisors, to be consulted as we push our own work into new territory. Aside from Duchamp, have there been any particular artists you’ve found yourself calling on lately?

I believe in the artistic enterprise, and I wouldn’t intentionally disenfranchise myself from art history. I like the notion that you can be part of an ongoing dialogue with your predecessors, so you not only have access to history but become a part of it.

A really important concept in my work at the moment is perception. That’s led me to take a closer look at people like Duchamp, Warhol, and Matisse, all of whom used their practice to engage the viewer’s perception of themselves, their work, and art in general. I’m most interested in peoples’ relative perceptions of art, and the value it holds in their lives. I love Duchamp’s ideas about turning high art into banal objects. I’m particularly thinking of his proposal for a “reciprocal readymade,” where he talks about using a Rembrandt as an ironing board. The truth is that painting has long since been appropriated by popular culture. Its language extends beyond artistic discourse and into everyday life. Which is to say that Duchamp’s idea has become reality: a painting made today is in fact a banal object. And by using painting in my work, I’m putting the ironing board back on the wall – essentially, I’m reciprocating Duchamp’s reciprocal readymade.

In the same way, I find it fascinating that a creative practice has the ability to affect the viewer’s perception of an artist as a person. Warhol is perhaps the master of this, but Matisse also seemed to use painting and the content of his work to build an autobiographical narrative about his life and where he came from. Lifestyle can be a vital backbone to an artist’s repertoire.

On that note: How did growing up in Arizona affect your work? I feel like it’s maybe reflected in your palette with these dyed works. Although I can see a definite Matisse influence there, it also seems pretty reminiscent of the American Southwest.

Definitely! This is all subconscious, but it has a lot to do with that idea we mentioned earlier of the artist translating his environment. As you mentioned, my palette has always been heavily influenced by my upbringing in the desert. Actually, earlier this year, I was standing outside of a restaurant near where I grew up, and I was staring at this mountain that I used to climb all the time as a kid. I realized that within that view were all of the colors I’m obsessed with: the peach and beige of the land, the muted green of whatever plants that are able to survive, the blue of the sky, even the grey of the asphalt. There’s also the fact that when cacti die, they leave behind these really cool grey skeletons that become bleached by the sun, and that same blown-out effect is such an obvious element of my aesthetic. I also feel like with the dyes, the drying process accentuates the cycle and states of water – which obviously is such a crucial and scarce resource in the desert. So the desert definitely taught me to find delicate detail in what appears to be a harsh, barren landscape.

Another thing that’s maybe not obvious, but definitely important to me was growing up in the punk scene in my town. I played in bands, went to shows, and so on, but more than anything, I was attracted to the attitude, the emphasis on confidence and individuality. That’s definitely stayed with me, and I think it’s reflected in the way I work. Even just the decision to make paintings feels somewhat provocative, since it’s so often presumed to be conservative or somehow outdated. To me, turning it around and running with being a painter today, especially one who makes “beautiful” work, when so many other people are caught up in trying to be “difficult” – I think it’s actually totally punk.

Obviously, most people know you for your paintings, but a lot of our conversations about your upcoming projects have involved sculptural objects made from any number of materials: fabricated steel, plexiglass, silkscreens, and so on. Outwardly, it seems like a fairly major departure, and it makes me curious as to what extent you feel tied to the conversation of painting, and how these new works might fit into it.

I think it’s important to understand here that I don’t necessarily consider myself a painter, or feel limited to its conversation. Contemporary painting is inherently paradoxical, and I don’t feel any need to resolve that. If anything, by acknowledging and exaggerating its contradictions, I’m able to use painting and its historical baggage as a tool. I’m not so much a painter as an artist who works with painting.

If nothing else, painting is a resilient medium. It may be declared dead every so often, but it’s certainly demonstrated a capacity for perpetual rebirth. It’s become a philosophical enterprise that doesn’t even require paint. Painting works with, rather than against, other media, and maybe more than ever, I think its relevance to contemporary discourse can reveal itself through other mediums. Ultimately, the contradictions of painting are inherent – they can’t be resolved – but I do believe that those very contradictions are a continuing source of vitality. They ensure that there’s always something more to be said.