More Than the MediumA conversation with Landon Metz
There’s an economy of form in my work that is very much inherited from growing up in an environment where superfluous information is useless. If that information doesn’t serve a function, it can even be deadly.
“I’m interested in looking closely at life,” says Landon Metz. He’s hunched forward in a desk chair in the office-like wing of his Brooklyn painting studio. It’s a Tuesday morning and the cold and grey day is an accessory to the sparse, airy interior of the 31 year old Metz’s space. The studio has all the trappings that have come to be associated with millennial, minimalist décor – bleached walls and floors, an abundance of leafy houseplants, a smattering of modernist furniture, colorful tomes. The work space is clear – Metz has tucked his canvasses away. The gesture is appropriate: Landon doesn’t want our interview to be about painting. “I think I’d like to talk about my life and see where the parallels exist [between it and my work],” he says with a toothy smile, pushing his long hair from his forehead. “I would love to do an interview that’s kind of loose.”
CEREAL: You seem to have a wide scope of interests. How did you settle on painting as a medium?
Landon Metz: My draw to painting wasn’t purely self-expressive. It comes from a broader perspective. I asked myself why so much historical baggage comes with this medium. Why are people so invested? I found painting to be a complex narrative. People loved it. They also hated it. It’s immediate and easy to look at, but it carries the most massive burden of any medium in contemporary art. I was drawn to it because it didn’t feel straightforward, and it has kind of a fucked up position in society. I think it’s just as possible that I could have ended up being a sound artist.
CEREAL: Is that because you had a background playing and being around music?
LM: I was always interested in music as an outlet. I played violin, piano for a while, trombone, and trumpet. I still love jazz – Miles Davis, Don Cherry. I grew up outside Phoenix, Arizona, in Scottsdale. It’s very suburban, but there was a small punk music scene, and I was interested in becoming absorbed into that movement. Later I learnt how to make electronic music, so I played synthesiser and sang in a few funny bands.
CEREAL: How did your music morph into visual art?
LM: I was always doing visual work, and visual expression had always been very important to me. As a kid, I drew, and made ceramics and little paintings. The idea of subculture was my highest ideal as a kid – the idea of thinking in a counterintuitive way and also of making something and showing it to your peer group. That’s kind of the genesis of the punk scene. When I started studying John Cage, that was the connection for me between music and art, and between art and philosophy.
CEREAL: What happened after you left Arizona?
LM: I drove from Scottsdale to Los Angeles, and then up to Seattle and Eugene, Oregon, before landing in Vancouver. I left all of my instruments with some friends in Tucson. It was a starting over moment for me. In Vancouver, I lived in a house with a bunch of other artists and we just experimented.
CEREAL: How did you arrive back in Los Angeles?
LM: I applied to attend school at the Art Center, but I hated it and only lasted two terms. Then, for two years I painted in my studio apartment. I stuffed the paintings in my car and drove across town to have them photographed.
CEREAL: So you had already zeroed in on painting by that time?
LM: It wasn’t so much the medium that interested me. It was more about how these narratives were situated within our society. How people compartmentalise what these things are or aren’t, and how they’re meant to engage with them. I was interested in the parameters that society has established for what art looks like, or what music sounds like. I realised that I had never really been a musician. It was more that I was interested in what music was – not what it sounded like, but how it fit into the world.
CEREAL: Did you feel that creating these paintings would give you a better understanding of how visual art fits into the world?
LM: Yeah. It’s a game, almost. I sometimes feel like I’m performing as a painter. I like playing the game of being an artist. I like manipulating. The real work is dealing with the cultural predisposition around a medium such as painting. I play with that more than I do the actual material. I’m not trying to find out something through the colour blue. I think every artist finds something that resonates with their personal history, or philosophy, or with an audience – even if it’s not the audience they were looking for. Once you’ve established that vocabulary, you just kind of pull the strings and see what happens. That’s what I’ve been looking for these last seven or eight years. I made something, and once it was realised, a language evolved and rose to the surface. Then it became a matter of chasing it. Some things work and some things don’t. I try to keep myself open and neutral enough to find out what those things are. The work now, I think, has some direction or purpose of its own. It doesn’t even feel like it completely belongs to me. I’m just trying to feed it and keep it going in the way I think it wants to go.
CEREAL: How does this affect your role as the artist?
LM: I think there are multiple versions of who we are. The deeper you go, you uncover a deeper nature. There is more truth, but I think the human condition means that we try to cover all of that up. We’re born as these weird blank things, and our culture, society, and family experience give us sets of information, creating the way we see the world. There is my ‘life’ and then there is my ‘life situation’. While I like to try to keep my life situation separate from my work as much as possible, I hope I can always stay open to some part of that life. It’s not something I can really articulate. It’s just kind of there. You know when you feel it, and that’s where the work comes from.
CEREAL: Is it like an intuition?
LM: Absolutely. It’s the intuition versus the intellect. It’s the heart and the mind. I think the mind works overtime to cover up the heart all the time. The work comes from that other place.
CEREAL: How does your ‘life situation’ come into it?
LM: There is a certain relationship in my paintings to nature. I grew up in the desert. It’s a very resourceful and economic environment. Every drop of water goes further than it would elsewhere. Every little detail serves a function and has a purpose for survival. There’s an economy of form in my work that is very much inherited from growing up in an environment where superfluous information is useless. If that information doesn’t serve a function, it can even be deadly. There is also a kind of approachability, democracy, or even vulnerability to my work that I feel is very welcoming, that comes from the subculture element of my youth. There’s a certain allowance for outsiders to appreciate the work who aren’t necessarily part of the art world. That, to me, is subversive.
CEREAL: Is it punk to make something everyone can enjoy?
LM: Sure. There’s a moat around much of contemporary art that keeps 99.9% of humanity at bay, an attitude of ‘you’re not smart enough to digest this’, and I’m really, really against that. The closer someone gets to my work, the more layers they discover. If they would like to have a deeper conversation, I’m available to do that.
CEREAL: How do you balance structure and chaos?
LM: When I travel, I love wandering. I think I could disappear into Europe and Asia indefinitely and become a conceptual artist with zero visible practice. I’m a naturally curious person. I want to touch this or that – I’m easily distracted. I like doing lots of different things, I like reading all different types of things, I’m a huge fan of collecting design and furniture. I love photography, I love cameras. I’ve been trying to learn more about wine. I think I really enjoy being alive. Without some structure I think it’d be easy for me to almost do nothing, because I’d do too much. So when I’m in New York, I have a structure to focus myself around, and that helps me to have clarity. Water too many plants and they would all die.
CEREAL: What do you do on an average day here in the studio?
LM: I have an evolving colour swatch archive on the wall over there. I make the same colour over and over again, and compare them side-by-side. I spend months doing that until I get it totally dialed down. I’m working with some weird colours that are hard to pull off, so it’s really important to get them super precise.
CEREAL: That explains your emphasis on only a few colours.
LM: For the past few years, I’ve used blue and green almost exclusively, in a very similar hue and tone. I’ll be adding two new colours next year. There’s this element of wanting to show things as they are. It’s very important to my practice. In contrast to John Cage or Marcel Duchamp – both influences of mine – I argue that it isn’t possible to completely remove the artist’s ego, or artist’s tendencies from the work. Even selecting something that already exists in the world comes with an element of taste. I want the things I make to be present, but also part of a system. They need to become serial and start to point towards other things – the architecture, and the way the viewer sees the image, and so on. So when I add these new colours, it’s a way of showing that my tendencies are present, but in a form that attempts to make them work with a machine that’s already moving. If I’m going to add new parts, I need to make sure I can weave them into the system appropriately.
CEREAL: What role does comfort play in your work?
LM: I think that the biggest flaw in the human condition is we’re consistently trying to make ourselves comfortable, calm ourselves, or make things easy. Our minds are trained to cover things up. Maybe it’s a survival technique. Everyone is every day trying not to face something. We use iPhones to remove ourselves from situations. We use food, sex, alcohol, and lots of other things. I hope to get to a place where I require less to feel comfortable. I want to present things in an honest way. If something is difficult or seems shitty, I believe it can be experienced and then moved past. You don’t need to cover it up.
CEREAL: True, but we’re sitting here in this peaceful studio surrounded by nice things. Surely, some things must comfort you?
LM: Food makes me feel comfortable. So does wine, conversation, and being around other people. I guess I’m an extrovert – I gain energy by being open, fluid and making connections with people. I’m definitely a city person in that regard. I go stir crazy in the countryside.
CEREAL: Yet you spend all day alone in here …
LM: The act of working in the studio alone is more of a meditative thing. I’m always trying to turn things that appear to be a means to an end, into an end themselves.
CEREAL: Could you give me some examples of that?
LM: There’s a language that happens to the patterns in the staples on the back of a canvas when you stretch it. Everyone does it differently. Also, the consistency of the tension of the canvas is significant. There’s not a lot of information there, so the information that is there really stands out. It may never be visible to anyone but me, but it’s still a meditative act. I have calluses on my fingers from the grain of the canvas. I know its thickness, and I can predict the depth of the pooling because I’ve been working with the same 10 oz canvas for the last seven years. I understand the materials. Working alone in here isn’t really an act of wanting to be alone. It’s more about wanting to be closer to the work.
CEREAL: Can you only pick up those subtleties when you are alone?
LM: If you turn the music off in here, there’s a lot happening in this space. The pipes are always creaking, there’s always a truck driving by, or someone sounding their horn. It’s about zooming in, finding a subtler way of seeing the world. It’s only visible if you allow yourself to step back. Somehow, some form of meditation, or solitude is required. I have my strengths and weaknesses as a person, but I think that’s really outside of what the actual work is. I think maybe there are parts of myself in it, but the core of where that work is situated is outside of my human condition. It’s somewhere else. There’s this other thing. That’s where the work exists. And this is a sacred place to let that happen in.
CEREAL: By sacred, do you mean spiritual?
LM: Well, I think ‘spiritual’ is a dangerous word. I have a strong reaction to the idea of dogma, or ideology, or to sharing the way you see the world in a way that would impose those ideas on someone else. There’s no use in trying to articulate what that word would even mean, there’s no use in trying to defend some kind of ideology. That being said, I think I say a lot of things that point in a certain direction. Of course there’s something out there. If someone were to take hallucinogenic drugs, for example, they would feel like there is something going on that we’re normally unaware of. But I don’t believe we are evolved enough, or intelligent enough to really comprehend what is happening around us.
CEREAL: So how do you explain intuition?
LM: We all have an intuition and some of us are good at accessing it, and some of us aren’t because we’ve learned to cover it up with a bunch of shit. I think that intuition is the closest thing to spirituality we can achieve.
CEREAL: Where does your interest in philosophy come from?
LM: I’m an optimistic person, and maybe I have humanist tendencies, but the way I saw the world was lacking a singular text to tie back to. There was never any one thing I could fully stand behind. The way I see it, there are two ways of approaching philosophy. The first is as a kind of aerial tool to articulate and acknowledge the current state of humanity. The second is as a way to pull ideas that are too close to be visible into the light of society with the intent to say, “okay, this is what’s happening, so how do we move forward? How do we provide an alternative?” One is passive, the other is more active.
CEREAL: And it was the latter that drew you in?
LM: Yes! The zooming in. But the word ‘philosophy’ is kind of misleading to me. I’m interested in looking closely at life. I’m curious. Why do people think what they think? Why are we still so tribal? Where do these tendencies come from? Why do these certain colours or patterns resonate at different times in society, then disappear, and come back again? That’s why I was interested in music, rhythm, harmony, chord structure, and progression. A lot of the patterns that make a song successful are very primal.
CEREAL: How does that relate back to your work?
LM: There’s a lot of crossover with why we find certain things visually interesting. Rise and fall, and pause. Repetition. There are these strange primal patterns that are deeply ingrained in us, and it’s interesting to try to pull them out. Music is maybe one of the most successful art forms in the sense that it forces you to feel something specific. A lot of our negative responses to pop music are a reaction against the earnestness of the emotion. If you put someone in a room with a song, they feel something – that’s fascinating! What is this intrinsic code? We’ve picked it up through evolution and haven’t shaken it yet. I like to play that same game visually.