All images © Ruthie Abel 2011
Sitting on school chairs with Matthew Ronay in the middle of his Long Island City studio, I had a chance to preview a portion of Between the Worlds, his new sculpture installation, opening today at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York. Sandwiched between the forest-like objects and works in progress, including an abacus with hundreds of hand-sanded beads, we had a chat. Here's a condensed version of the conversation:
RA: What do you want to say with this show?
MR: The space that's created is similar to the way cave paintings worked, a space that brings you out of your current reality to help you reach a new level of consciousness, or a new level within yourself, whatever that is. I view the project as that kind of sacred sanctum, for lack of better words.
RA: How did the project evolve?
MR: The project in its essence came to me in a night of not being able to sleep, kind of all at once. Not in it's articulated form, of course. The image of the forest, the cave, the abyss, the ocean, the outer space, these are all images or ideas that have a thread through all cultures.
RA: So you're having this sleepless night and you get up, with a vision?
MR: I don't remember it being a super-anxious, anxiety-filled insomnia. I was laying there and it was a wave that came and I sketched it out. It was this main figure, and this is the costume I inhabit and activate for the opening.
RA: You inhabit the sculpture during the opening?
MR: This (figure) slips over my shoulders. I can't see out of it, I can't breathe that well. I found that making things just to add to the pool of art objects stopped being enough... I needed to be inside, at least once, to give it a use and a need.
RA: Do you have religious or spiritual influences?
MR: I think all religions and all roots of spirituality are so intertwined that there's no use for me to say that 'Islam is really near and dear to my heart' or 'Native American work is...' I don't want to make a division. Divisions just lead to more divisions.
RA: Do you always work alone?
MR: I have great studio-mates, friends around me. It's not that I wouldn't have an assistant, but all of these marks (on the fabric backgrounds) are all moments that have passed when I was thinking about stuff, some moments I try to focus my energy and get it in the fabric and others I was probably depressed or thinking about money. But I got past it, and it was like humming.
RA: Please tell me more about your performance.
MR: Most of the performances I do involve a large amount of pain and endurance. And during those moments that it's painful I feel stupid for thinking it would help get me to a different place. The pain of getting through things can get you into another state. The history of reaching higher states is always accompanied by something that jars you. Whether it's drugs or breathing or pain or fasting, sleep deprivation, sweating, it's always something that you need to jar you out. Unless you're a spiritual master, and those people hardly exist.
I think that the creative act for a lot of artists is similar to having sex or masterbating or something that you have to do in order to get closer to your desires. It is obsessive and it's nice. Some people work out all the time; artists have to impose their imagination on material.
RA: Do you meditate?
MR: I try. My willpower is not very good. I did spend a year doing floating, sensory deprivation.
RA: You floated?
MR: Floating is nice because in the city you go into this weird guy's apartment, into a room within a room and you lay in this water that's the temperature of your skin, with no lights. It's like floating a womb. You can hear your heartbeat, your eyes blink, your stomach growl, you can hear all these things... I thought it was going to be psychedelic and stuff. The experience was great because every time I went I expected something amazing to happen and nothing did and it was really humbling.
On good days you can empty your mind. On bad days, when you're worried about something, you're there with your thoughts. I was really hoping that I would have visions; a lot of people say they have visions, but I never had that.
RA: What are you reading?
MR: I just read a bit of the Koran. And I started this book called Black Elk Speaks. Before, I read a great book called The Forty Rules of Love. It's about Rumi and his companion, best friend, who completed his spiritual path.
RA: You mentioned something in Turkish, do you speak the language?
MR: I can get by. I've been together with my (Turkish) wife for 15 years. I tried to learn through her but it was impossible. And then I started studying at NYU at night. One time we were in Turkey at dinner and I said to her father, "I'm going to learn Turkish." And he said, "You'll never be able to do it." And I was so insulted but it's stuck with me in times that I've
RA: When did you decide to become an artist?
MR: I grew up in Kentucky, where I went to a magnet school for art. My dad is a businessman, but used to make marble sculpture. A bunch of his friends trained with a guy named Paul Fields. (They) made abstract sculptures and I was interested so he took me. I wanted to go to art school, but my parents didn't want me to make that decision at 14. But I took a test and convinced (them).
RA: Anything you do on a regular basis that's not part of your creative process?
MR: I am an insane baseball fan. I think that the action of being a fan is actually pretty selfless because you put all of your hopes and desires into someone else's talent. I love the narrative of sports. It's parallel to spiritual heroes. I became obsessed at one of my lowest points.
RA: Do you play baseball?
MR: I try to get my studio mates to play wiffle ball in the summer. And I welded a basketball hoop. I'm very competitive and passionate and sometimes I can't get people to play as much as I want. I would drop anything to play wiffle ball or ping pong, but you know, you have to get shit done.