Matthew Picton

Artist, Ashland, Oregon // June 2013
I’m not looking for dry factual accounts of a place, instead I aim to...create a visceral, lasting impression of a particular place and time.

Philosopher and scientist Alfred Korzybski famously stated that the map is not the territory, asserting his view that the tools we use to represent reality can never fully equal it. Reality- the “territory”- is infinitely inaccessible because our perceptions always intervene to create “mappings” based on our distinct and skewed understandings of the world around us. Matthew Picton’s paper sculptures based on cartographic city plans quite literally take on Korzybski’s ideas concerning representation and reality. Using city maps from specific periods in history as a starting point, Matthew examines correlating literary narratives to amplify our knowledge of time and place. He focuses on cities during periods marked by great transition, upheaval, or catastrophe, as these events often create significant shifts in a city’s history. These series of ‘city sculptures’ are heavily researched and painstakingly planned out— in preparation for each work Matthew reads seminal texts and often considers relevant musical scores as well. Once he begins, much of his time is taken up with the grueling process of meticulously drawing out, cutting, and numbering each section of his three-dimensional cityscapes so that they accurately portray the cartography of each metropolis.

What I find so fascinating about Matthew’s sculptural maps is that though precision and accuracy are central to his process, the work acknowledges that data can never fully depict a place. Though diagrammatic representations may show shifts in terrain, bodies of water, the tiniest of streets, and municipal boundaries, the practice of mapmaking inevitably fails to express our experience of place. By bringing subjective narratives such as excerpts of fiction or musical compositions to his maps, Matthew attempts to flush out our sense of particular cities. Cartography assumes spatial information can be modeled, that reality can be fixed and illustrated, and Matthew complicates this premise and attempts to reveal just how multifaceted and ever-changing reality is.

Poet and philosopher Paul Valéry said, Everything simple is false. Everything which is complex is unusable. I think Matthew’s work is self-reflexive enough to know it’s framework is flawed from the get go, that mapmaking simplifies truths too easily, but undaunted it delves deeply into the cartographic practice to touch upon the unknowable nature of reality. It’s a tough balancing act Matthew is managing— working within enough representation to be accessible, but broadening its perimeters to accommodate for all that is too complex to chart out.

Matthew’s solo show Fictional Perspectives is currently on view at Toomey Tourell in San Francisco until July 15, 2013.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I would describe the subject matter of my work as fictional cities, viewed from writers’ perspectives and set in specific time periods. Right now I’m making a piece about Istanbul— it’s a good subject as it’s a city that has existed in history in different permutations and has a very rich and important history in over a number of different time periods quite a few centuries. The piece I’m working on is looking at Istanbul mostly in the 20th century and I’ve chosen novels to work with that consider Istanbul in this time period. In general I like to work with cities that have gone through significant change or disaster, and many cities fit the bill because most cities have gone through massive transformations at one point or another in their history.

What mediums do you work with?
I usually work with paper. I cut out all the pieces of the map of whatever city I’m working on and then I make correlating pieces cut out of foamcore to provide the base of each mounted part of the sculpture. I utilize a numbering system because there are so many pieces involved, sometimes around 700-800. As I’m planning out the sculpture/map I also delineate bodies of water because I often will put excerpts from the novels I use in my research along those edges. My system of placing all the actual bits that go along with the creation of a piece is quite complex and painstaking. A lot of planning is involved— definitely slow going.

Much of your recent work involving cities deconstructs cartographic representations— can you tell us what prompted this body of work?
I have always been interested in cities, history and fiction. Accuracy is important to me in my work, and I like the idea of having a record of something that occurred in the past. I studied history and politics at university and I find pivotal moments in a city’s history incredible interesting. A city is like a living organism and there will always be a time when it goes through some kind of watershed moment; most cities have had impactful significant events have occurred and I’m very curious about these periods.

You do a great deal of research and incorporate texts and materials into your work that directly relate to distinct periods of a city’s history— how do you choose what to utilize and focus on?
I choose sections of texts to embed in the piece that relate specifically to the time in a city’s history that I’m working with, but I also look for poetic descriptions that express the atmosphere or character of the place in a way that is compelling and evocative. I’m not looking for dry factual accounts of a place, instead I aim to work with literature that creates a more visceral, lasting impression of a particular place and time. I also prefer to work with texts written by writers from that particular place so there is authenticity in the voice. The passages are often embedded into the sculpture in a fragmented way, so some sections might be more legible than others. For the Istanbul piece there won’t be that many legible portions because the city is broken up into so many small bits. Text in Turkish as well as in English will be included. I have also done a number of works that include sheet music as well— For example my St. Petersburg piece incorporates several different sources of literature along with sheet music. This has been a very involved work.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I am currently reading Ahmet Tampinar’s A Mind at Peace which looks at the Turkey of the 1920s through the 50s and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City as well as Mehmet Kalpakli’s Ottoman Lyric Poetry. I just recently visited Istanbul and so I’m fully engaged in researching and reading about it in order to make a sculpture of it.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I usually try to be able to make work in any space, most of the time I just work at a table at home, any will do, later I need space for mounting so I have space in my basement for that.

Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I always feel a connection to Brian Dettmer’s work. Brian makes work from books, he cuts into them to reveal layers of buried text and image, I like the process of discovery here, a process almost akin to archeology in a way. I think he described his work as being a bit like taxidermy in it’s dissecting of the corpse of the book. Although his work is not what I am actually doing there is a clear relationship, especially to the burnt cities.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I currently have a solo show up in San Francisco at Toomey Tourell that runs until July 14, 2013.
A comprehensive (ebook) catalogue of my paper sculptures from 2009 – 2013 with essays on the content of many of the sculptures and a detailed description of each work is available here.
My work can also be seen at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry, UK until July, 2013 and at the Stadt Museum in Dresden, Germany until September, 2013.
I have another solo show with Lacoope Gallery in Monterrey, Mexico in November 2013 and I’ll also be showing work with The New Wall gallery also of Monterrey, Mexico at the Miami Art Project this December.
And then I have another solo show in London, UK in June 2014 with Summaria Lunn.

To see more of Matthew’s work:

Matthew with his wife and fellow artist Claire Burbridge, whose work you can view here.  When we visited she was hard at work on a series of fascinating new drawings.