John Matturri – The Elements

4 minute read

Who are you? What are you doing?
In recent years my work has emphasized building up large photographic city archives – of Venice, Paris, Berlin – followed by a process of structuring the gathered material, often with additions of found and written texts, into arrangements and installations.

This concern for arranged images came out of my interest in film montage, particularly the rapid alterations of images and afterimages of flicker films. Such films are typically edited from a pre-written score, but I was more interested in a bottom-up construction, editing and re-editing tiny snippets of gathered footage. This was technically impossible or very difficult in the pre-digital era, but I eventually realized that photographic slides could be arranged and re-arranged at will on a projector carousel and the flicker effect was available just by continuously running the slides through the projector while holding down the play button. After the composer John Zorn asked me to do improvised projections as part of some of his pieces, I developed extended techniques for live optical manipulations, but my main interest continued to be in structuring images and words in into arrangements, sequences, and installations. For me, a gallery-goers’ physical movement through the sequences of images and texts is equivalent to the passing of frames through a projector and remains a kind of cinema.

Along the way, I did graduate studies in analytic philosophy and for many years was a college instructor, teaching both philosophy and film.

Why do you do it?

It provides a way of combining a direct engagement with the outside world through the many hours of pounding the pavement, almost always without map or guidebook, with the interiority of the even longer studio hours spent selecting, processing, memorizing, writing, and finally organizing the materials into coherent arrangements and sequences. The Seventeenth Century empiricist philosopher John Locke suggested that the mind is like a camera obscura which receives images from outside, stores them in a proto-photographic manner, and then associatively manipulates them in thought. This doesn’t quite work as a theory of mind but is a reasonable description of my working method, embodying a kind of concrete non-propositional thinking very different from but complementary to the abstract logical arguments of philosophy.

What is the connection between art, and your work in particular, and alchemy?

I see a direct analogy between the way alchemy and some forms of art use complex iterative processes to transform raw materials into objects with higher, perhaps transcendental, cultural (and financial) value. In Delmore Schwartz’ “Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine,” the artist is seen as sublimating pigments “into diamonds of blossoming radiance,” that represent a scene of weekend repose in a manner that transcends mundaneness and temporality: “The alchemist points his magical wand to describe and hold the Sunday’s gold, / Mixing his small alloys for long and long / Because he wants to hold the warm leisure and pleasure of the holiday / Within the fiery blaze and passionate patience of his gaze and mind / Now and forever…” The catalytic function of the alchemist’s philosopher’s stone is here played by an artistic vision that converts the pointillistic micro-patterns into a “splendour of order” of the “dreamed of or imagined macrocosmos,” of the painting itself.

What is described in the poem is an imagination that is disciplined rather than free. In alchemy even provisional results demanded the use of pure materials and elaborate series of exact procedures be followed. To produce a glass sulfur of antimony through a method found in a work attributed to Basil Valentine, the historian / chemist Lawrence Principe had to engage in repeated variant experimental trials but only achieved success after obtaining an Eastern European antimony mentioned by the alchemist, one that turned out on chemical analysis to be – ironically – contaminated with a necessary but very small amount of quartz. In both art and alchemy, raw materials serve both to constrain the work and make it possible.

With its initial gathering and refinement of materials, the process behind my work has a degree of relationship to that of alchemy. And, just as physical manipulation of materials was critical for the practicing alchemist, a central activity of my work involves the physical act of repeatedly selecting, exchanging, and moving about images in relation to each other until they coalesce into a more or less unified and meaningful whole. Because the work is at the mercy of the images available in the archive, arrangements and ideas may have to be compromised, reconsidered, or discarded because nothing can be found that works in a particular spot. Or that an image that works conceptually may have unsuitable form or colors. A photograph may on the whole seem perfect, but a small initially unnoticed detail may shift its significance in unintended or unwanted directions. The images are here not passive but have their own significant say, at times over-riding my intentions in the final composition. While I accept and value this loss of absolute control, it also suggests that the sort of intentional perfection available to Seurat may be beyond reach in such work, however much labor and imagination might be brought to bear.

It may be, however, precisely the painting’s capacity for achieved perfection that make it less like alchemy. Through their careful laboratory experimentation, practicing alchemists produced many interesting results, but we now know that the now outmoded theories and procedures that defined the discipline could not possibly allow achievement of the ultimate goal of the transmutation of base materials into gold. For me, an inevitability of imperfection and failure emphasizes the priority of the process over any intended goal, making it result in simply a “work” rather than an elusive Great Work. A catch phrase used in several of my pieces states baldly and without discouragement: “It doesn’t work.”

The Elements

Derived from images gather during six months of artists’ residencies in Venice, The Elements plays off the alchemical tradition of expressing ideas, here associated with Venice itself, as visual emblems. The alchemist / puppeteer guides
the movement of matter up through the hierarchical sequence earth, water, air, and fire while at the center stands a projective image of the mud, perhaps the most essential material of a city humanly engineered out of an unlikely collection of mud flats. This mud might be seen, perhaps, as the quintessence, a formless prime matter capable of being shaped into any form, perhaps through the alchemist’s interventions, a metaphorically golden city. At the sides are allegorical figures, perhaps representing the world and the book of the world and its ideal balanced order of justice and harmony. As is typical of my work, this description is not derived from a pre-established conceptual program but, rather, is my own interpretation of an ad hoc construction put together by a process of manipulating available images.