01/03/2013 11:04 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mat Gleason Is the Sam Peckinpah of the Art World: Part 1 (VIDEO)

"Don't rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again."

So says Bertold Brecht at the end of Sam Peckinpah's 1977 war film Cross of Iron as Corporal Steiner (James Coburn) sardonically laughs through the credits over ghastly pictures of civilian victims from World War II and future conflicts. Hollywood filmmaker Sam Peckinpah once said, "...the outlaws of the old West have always fascinated me... I suppose I'm a bit of an outlaw myself."

So here is some lowdown on Mat Gleason.


Mat Gleason in Las Vegas / Image by Eric Minh Swenson

When I stormed the citadel of the art world a few years back, my initial goal was to target the institutions, the galleries, the museums and the collegiate art departments. I wanted to inspire them to film their artists, exhibitions, and collections and to share the films through ubiquitous social networking sites. Films are a social means with media potential, reaching far beyond the soon-to-be-obsolete standard website. Facebook's social networking has gripped our society and made us media junkies -- and what better way to get your art fix than by watching a flick on your daily newsfeed?

The lack of professional film documentation of the art world's activities was astounding to me, so I was aiming to fill a void. I first got my foot through the proverbial "door" with gallerist Jack Rutberg who presciently and instinctively knew to lead me toward a down and dirty source of juicy art world knowledge: intrepid art critic Mat Gleason. Rutberg exposed my then-naive mind to a YouTube video of him and Gleason at the Brewery Art Colony that was produced by Mark Walsh. At the time of my art scene myopia, I thought that the erudite "Jack Rutbergs" of the art world were the gatekeepers to my unfolding career.

As I watched the film, my initial intent was to study Rutberg, or to "do my homework," as they say. Within 10 seconds of the film, Mat introduces himself, while brandishing with pride a "quadruple espresso." I've been known to order a Starbucks Black Eye myself, so Mat was my kind of guy (not that I will ever admit to a man-crush) but I was instantly drawn to this guy who works at my tempo and understands what an espresso can do. At one point in Walsh's film series, Gleason states that the only reason there are art schools is for art professors to get laid by young girls. Rutberg's chuckling reaction was classic, as if we were let in on an "inside joke."


Mat Gleason with Leigh Salgado / Image by Eric Minh Swenson

I never thought of the art world as a laughing matter, but this small moment broadened my awareness. Through this seemingly insignificant revelation, I learned quickly that it was okay to have a real sense of humor about the art world and have fun with it, even when sitting next to a top gallerist.

Before that "profound" moment, my view of the art world consisted of those pretty galleries dotted along main street tourist destinations in Carmel, Waikiki, the Vegas Strip, Jackson Hole, and Park City, Utah. I thought the other half included high-end brick-and-mortar super-structures that people like Jerry Jones and Ed Roski would build, also known as universities and museums. They were coliseums of higher learning where MFA alums wore cardigans and turtlenecks and spoke proper English.

Up to that point, pop culture films based in New York like Pollock, Scorsese's Life Lessons, and Basquiat had created and fed my view of the Art World. Art world people were either chic-uptight-yuppies out of Sex and the City who had to wait in long lines or be on a VIP list to get into a show; or they were Upper East Side preps out of a Whit Stillman film. In Stillman's Metropolitan the "Urban Haute-Bourgeoisie" in lieu of WASPy preps, were those who populated museums on stuffy docent tours throughout Manhattan as the hoi polloi shuttled them in taxis from MOMA to the MET to the Guggenheim and to the Whitney. Let's not forget Gordon Gekko out of Wall Street who acquired art as trophies and investments that was seemingly rampant throughout the 1980s milieu of Ronald Reagan.


Gene, Mat, and Helen Gleason, Huntington Park / Image by Eric Minh Swenson

It was in Gleason that I found a lowdown, lewd, irreverent son of a bitch, whose passion was in Southern California sports and old-town Las Vegas gambling. He knew where the art world bodies were buried and who was sleeping with whom. It's obvious that his street smarts and predatory wit made him a contender in the "scene," and the stories I heard of him are legendary. Take a drive down Soto Street to the city of Vernon, just south of downtown LA, where Mat lives. It's an industrial no-man's land in the center of the city. You will ask yourself seriously, "WTF?" Then add numerous visits to artist studios in Echo Park, Lincoln Heights, Gardena, Torrance, or anything outside of Venice, Santa Monica, and Malibu and your knowledge of art expands real fast.


Gene, Mat, and Helen Gleason, Huntington Park / Image by Eric Minh Swenson

At the time of this writing I've done 10 films with Gleason, which means I've intimately studied his character through the camera lens, through direction, and in analyzing and cutting him in post-production. All of these films can be seen on my website, I may be the only guy who has the opportunity to nip-tuck Mat here a little, there a little, and edit and craft what he has to say. In post-production one can see someone's character, especially in the documentary sense where there is no acting, but a mere documentation of the persona itself.


Tim Youd, Eric Minh Swenson, and Mat Gleason, Coagula Curatorial, Los Angeles

When it comes to Mat Gleason and editing out the fat, there isn't much to edit since his wit is on-time and on-target. If I ask him to give me 15 seconds on the Light and Space Movement, he can sum it up in 10. In one film, Avant-LA, Gleason was to describe in 30 seconds or less, a piece of video-art by artist Mark Brandvik. When I said "action," Mat stood there staring at the camera as Brandvik's sexually subversive film played to the side. Within 15 seconds Mat exited frame left.

The point is that Mat didn't need to explain Brandvik's film. The film explained itself and if you didn't get it, then that was your problem. In the Tel-Art-Phone film I did, Mat is standing in front of Tim Youd's "Vibrating Super Cunt." Upon "action," Mat rips off his shirt laughing hysterically. Why, you ask? I'm not sure. But I used the shot anyhow. Perhaps this was Mat testing me to see if we were on the same page. Was I some academic prick filming Art 21 PBS style films or was I going to use the shock Mat wanted out there.

Working with Gleason, I got the sense that he doesn't really care what medium you use, where you're showing, and where you went to art school. He wants to know if you are human. He wants to know what sports teams you like. Why did you get a divorce? How did you pay for your college degree? Or better yet, why did you drop out of college? Were you the bully or victim in high school? What personal issues are inspiring your art? Have you ever embezzled? How do you pay your rent?

He wants to know if you're aware how bad your own shit stinks, before he has to go to your bathroom to find out. He'd rather not know the smell, but just wants to know if you're aware or do you disguise your waste with cheap cologne, flowery potpourri, or a burning match-stick. I only bring these things up because I'm starting to meet more and more artists who feel they must be validated by Gleason. Artists are asking me how they should approach Gleason and my gut reaction is to just be yourself, and yet, how many of us have trained ourselves in this Hollywood system of glam and glory to be something we're not?