“I want my work to represent universal truths”. That’s a statement many artists would claim fit their work; but would it, really? In Matthew Craven’s case, yes. The artist takes images from textbooks and history books (mainly vintage) that cover a wide range of places, time periods, and cultures. The result is an amazing amalgamation of the commonalities that, throughout history, have occurred between different societies, showing that we’re more similar to each other than what many in power want us to realise. Today, he’s launching his first book, Primer (Anthology Editions), showcasing all this.
What’s the story behind your interest in creating collages and illustrations utilizing found images from textbooks along with your own geometric patterns to create a handmade universe?
It originally started in grad school as a one-off. A friend of mine gave me a few frames for my drawings, but instead, I drew on top of the images – they were old west American pictures. This was the first time I used collage elements in my work. Then, a gallery in New York saw them and gave me a show. At the time, I remember feeling weird about it. I hadn’t come to terms with using found images as a way to represent my creativity. As I continued to explore this, I slowly developed it into the work I make today.
Do you merely juxtapose imagery from different cultures and time periods to celebrate commonalities or is there another reason?
I find formal and informal ways to mix and match cultures and time periods. Sometimes, it is based on visual similarities, and sometimes, based on random combinations. At this point, I let the process of discovering new materials dictate my entire creative process.
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What draws you to North and South American indigenous decoration?
I am not more interested in these cultures than, let’s say, Sumerian or Nordic cultures. I think people in America are more familiar with these motifs. Often, people are surprised when something they think is Navajo is actually Bulgarian folk art.
To what extent do you think it is the equilibrium of shapes that causes aesthetic attraction?
I am not sure what you are asking exactly, but a big part of finding similarities in patterns breaks down to a very simple orientation on basic shapes repeated. In different arrangements, these shapes can create extremely complex compositions.
As you’ve told me, you started drawing on framed images instead of on ‘normal’ paper. And this is still part of your practice. As I know, you still draw on old movie posters, for example. Other than adding another layer of age, is there an artistic or perhaps personal purpose behind this?
Because my work focuses on the history of handmade objects, I try to infuse aged materials as much as possible. All the collage imagery is from old textbooks. I reject the use of finding images through the Internet or reproducing and printing my material. As I figured out ways to find multiples of old books and finding old posters for my paper, it added something intangible to my work. And it is actually much cheaper than buying paper from art supply stores.
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Your fusions erase particularity, implying that patterns and perhaps histories across cultures start to reflect rather than oppose each other. In what ways do you amalgamate your pieces in order to reflect this?
This all starts with old history textbooks, sourcing patterns from carvings, textiles, etc. This is the inspiration. Then, I use my own intuition to create something new, something unique from my hands and mind.
It must feel like such an honour being shown in galleries all over the world (New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, etc.) and having your work reviewed in notable outlets including The Huffington Post or Art Critical. To what extent do you feel like you’ve ‘made it’?
I worked for a very successful artist when I lived in New York City. At first, it made me feel like I would never see that kind of success; after seeing what that lifestyle was like, I realized that showing at bigger blue-chip galleries wouldn’t make me happier. I realized how lucky I am just to be able to do what I love for a living. Being self-critical about my status in the art world is just a silly waste of time. Since then, I have felt like ‘I made it’, I couldn’t ask for anything more. My dreams have already come true.
“I want my work to represent universal truths.”
What is it that you think makes your work so notable?
Materials. I found a little niche as a collage artist.  First of all, being a collage artist is not as common as, let’s say, a painter or a sculptor, but the way I source multiples of old books and use old posters for my paper allow my work to stand out from similar artists using similar aesthetics. This blends well with my hand-drawn patterns. Everything is so analogue and handmade that people can relate to my process.
Featuring an introduction by LACMA’s curator Leslie Jones, your new book, Primer (coming out on October 2), is a new work of art that presents a ‘revised’ version of global history and a mesmerizing vernacular of new symbols and designs. It is said to be a pictorial revision of global art history based largely on similarities across time, space, and cultures – what you describe simply as “things made by man”. What more can you tell us about it?
Every image I use was originally handmade at some point in human history, whether a woven textile, a sculpted bust or a painted fresco. I honour these traditions by doing the same thing myself. Some people might think I am printing images with computer or silkscreening my large pattern work, but when you stand in front of my work, you can see every hand movement from pen marks to cut-outs that I extracted out of a history book.
While a critique of Western imperialism is implied in your process, the work also summons universal notions of humankind’s shared impulse to create. Why do you choose to remove the text or, in your words, the “Western dictation of history”?
I’ve never been able to escape the phrase ‘manifest destiny’, a term I was taught in elementary school when learning American history. When I realized that was bullshit, I started questioning everything. I remove the text for the same reason. Images do not lie. Because I use books that are forty, fifty and even sixty years old (all printed in Europe or America), the narrative cannot be trusted on face value alone. Everything that surrounds the image is too subjective for me to use in my work. I want my work to represent universal truths.
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So you feel that art speaks for itself even from an informative standpoint.
I do. I think that if you stand in front of my work, you will think for yourself, you might question where the imagery comes from and might explore humankind’s history on your own. I hope to inspire viewers to learn more about these people, places and time periods.
In addition to the book, you’re currently having an exhibition at Aysa Geisberg Gallery (New York City) until October 20. In what ways are the pieces similar or dissimilar to those featured in your book?
After compiling about eight years of work into Primer, I realised it is a good time to push my work in a slightly different direction. I never drastically change it, I merely try to slowly evolve by using different source materials, patterns, symbols and colours to keep things fresh. But since completing the book, I have been pushing myself to use more organic aesthetics, opposed to such hard-line geometric imagery. Hard to say exactly what that means, but my new show up at Asya Geisberg hints at this new direction.
Now that you’ve launched the book, what are your plans for the next months? Are you working on something else?
Finishing up some new work for the Los Angeles book launch and pop-up exhibition at Big Picture Los Angeles at the end of October.
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