Self-described as “data-ism”, the work of the French artist Matthieu Bourel is shaped by the core principles of photomontage and collage. He masterly combines traditional cut-and-paste collage techniques with digital editing, digital animation, and even sound design to create a body of work that blurs the borders between illustration, graphic design and art installation. For Bourel, creating these images is a way of responding to the visual overload that is constantly bombarding us.
Matthieu, it wouldn’t do justice to label you as a collage artist. Your body of work blurs the line between illustration, graphic design and even art installation. How would you describe yourself? And how did your career in art start?
Thank you for that. As I was feeling trapped in a style in the music scene before, there was no way to sit back and work within a specific genre with images today. I try to not feel the pressure that I have to be a collagist, this or that. ‘What you’re supposed to do’ and ‘what people expect you to do’ are cages. I like new fields, new directions; I don’t want to be chained to one thing.
Clearly an autodidact, which doesn’t mean a self-made man. I’m made from everything that surrounds and inspires me: movies I’ve watched, the pictures I’ve seen and the music I’ve listened to. Like a soundtrack of my own life and a global cure against boredom. To enjoy things from others and to give this energy back, like an interface.
Where did it all start though? You were more into music before and then art came, if I’m not mistaken.
My first common dream was to make a record. Once this was done in my twenties – and after a few of them –, I could just die or start another circle, elsewhere, where I could express things differently and experiment a new territory with a fresh approach and pure joy. To make images became more and more essential to me, and I can’t stop making them since. Collage as a way of life. Cut and paste. To use samples in music, to mix different periods of time in films, colours and forms in painting, to use my own identity and personal influences as material to work with, to search for new ways.
It was a hazardous beginning in illustration; I was struggling in my life transition from music ten years ago when the indie music market fell down. I always worked a lot by necessity with the clear need to share with others, as I still do, but I was also really lucky that some people were able to see my work and gave me a chance to express myself in main publications. Self-promotion is really important. You got to go to the other because they won’t come to you. It took me two years to get that with just a premeditated tiny hope that my images could speak to some people. Publish or perish.
“I avoid watching too much what others do so as to keep my entire freedom”, you once said. Do you find it hard to be your true self when surrounded by the art of other creatives? Where do you find the inspiration to create?
I avoid especially watching the people whose work are too close to my field. Everything else is warmly welcome. I’m very curious about artists who surprise me or touch me with their work, and I then like to read interviews or quotes from them. I guess it’s a back-to-back questions/answers among artists. I try to ask questions with my work, and I get sometimes answers from the work or the words of others. Once in my brain, it translates into new feelings, new forms, new colours, even new concepts to play with.
My first rule is not to copy anyone and be myself. Second is to work every day. I need to train my eyes and feed my soul. I see so many images of all kinds in my daily research that I don’t even know which influence prevails in my work. All of them together, probably. Inputs help to change and progress – the benefit of the Internet. That wasn’t possible in my childhood, I could just get what was around me. Now, we have access to everything.
Your works in collage create characters and scenes that we’ve never seen before. You masterly compose an evocative but unknown image that somehow feels familiar. How do you pick your starting point picture? And how do you know an art piece is finished?
“An evocative but unknown image that somehow feels familiar.” How beautiful is this? I’m honoured (smiles). I don’t really know. I work mostly by instinct and let myself go to digest the mood and feelings, good or bad. It can start from a word, a sentence, a painting, a colour. Anything. Listening to music in the background can modify the whole atmosphere and the direction I take. It comes sometimes with a clear intent, or by total coincidence with all these combinations acting together. A permanent evolution state, a synthesis of everything just integrated.
I usually know when it’s finished just when I naturally stop working on it. Sometimes it’s quick, like a flash, and I publish it online right after; sometimes, it stays in the drawer for months or years before I find the key to finish it. In my atelier, I have a different setup on each corner. One for painting, machines for music, computer desk, and a large cutting board for collage in the middle, with images all around. Like a laboratory, where each activity bounces into the other.
The main part of your body of work consists of a surreal manipulation of vintage photographs. Where does this interest for portraits or paintings from the past time come from?
Sadness, joy, past, present, success and downfall, death. To give an image a second story. A photo from the past carries more emotions than a contemporary one. It’s not just the person or scene portrayed but all the landscape that arises from it. A period of time or a thousand. We can then all be concerned. With a father fond of cinema, these kind of images were always part of my childhood, as these kind of classic movies.
You describe your work as “data-ism”. Why did you choose this name? And how does it relate to the meaning of your oeuvre?
Assimilation of all the information that surrounds us. How to deal with it and how to take possession and interest in it without staying contemplative or just a victim of the propaganda – commercial or politic. Day after day, the good, the bad, everything that plays the roles of inputs. Inputs every day keep the doctors away.
The New Yorker, Esquire, Vice, The New York Times, etc. We have seen your compositions on numerous publications. How important is freedom for you when conceiving and projecting a commissioned work? Are there any specific topics you wouldn’t like to touch with your creations?
I guess the benefit of having established my own style before being commissioned made the difference. People call me for my vision and my personal approach; they don’t ask me to illustrate their own vision. I go in many different directions and try not to get stuck in one style. I had an episode between my music activities and image, when I was a sound designer, when I didn’t have this benefit and it was horrible. When someone asks you to do something that you don’t agree with or hate, it’s just a torture – somehow, to be asked to be someone else, to think like someone else. I can’t make someone else’s vision but my own, so it became obvious that I had to stay independent and do my own things as I see them.
I love the freedom of working alone without any direction, to let it go just by instinct. The compromise in commissioned work can be struggling, but with the collaboration of the great art directors I work with, I can make images I would have never made alone, and sometimes, I get to find solutions that give me new keys, open new doors, to develop later for my personal work. It’s a good combo for not resting on your laurels.
The power of images and their combinations is what you are interested in. At the beginning of your career, you were practically producing all your work manually. However, “the traditional collage is not what I’m searching for anymore”, you previously stated. I personally find myself hypnotized by your animated illustrations. How meaningful do you think has been shifting towards a more digital approach in your artistic career?
Now in my early forties, I’m really careful about fashion or trends. I started doing collage at my parents’ when I was around sixteen combined with my music production. This medium used to be really intimate – from rare books I found around, and I’m speaking of just a few. Even in the first decade of the Internet, not many collage artists were in the spotlight. It was from Instagram that everybody started to do collage as a tool to get a life and likes. Most copying others, for fun and practice, so it started to look all the same – with National Geographic vintage pictures, galaxies and planets, killing any surprise.
I, of course, don’t speak here about the passionate and creative people. I follow some that are really good and inspire me daily. But it’s not common. Although I have nothing against this. It was the same for electronic music and so many other things. But it was time for me to switch up again, especially vintage collage, when so many collage artists would do expensive collage workshops for new collage artists replicating primitive collage artists and pretending it was something new. I need to be quite alone in my field to create my own and to feel free, but I would strongly suggest anyone to do collage with his own books if you want to know more about yourself. It’s better than therapy.
How do you keep that analogue feel even when using digital techniques?
Analogue was an early principle for me; I don’t make a difference anymore with digital these days. If you watch how digital painters work today on a graphic tablet – with brushes, colours, etc. –, there is no real difference with ‘usual’ painters. Max Ernst and early collage artists were using what they had on their hands, and I’m quite sure that they wouldn’t have used vintage magazines if they had been born today. If you have something to say, whatever the way, say it and say it loud.
Concerning animation, I worked as a film editor in Paris for a while in my twenties, and the way I do it is very similar to the primitive animated cinema. Frame by frame, kinetic. And also, because of the limitation of the file size on the Internet years ago. You had to get what you wanted and a good flow to illustrate an idea with three, six, twelve or twenty-four frames per second, not more.
In this digital era, when everything goes so fast and people switch from one thing to another every second, a simple animated gif can make you stop for a few minutes. A pause in the rush to stop and think. The way I use digital is somehow the same, cut and paste like scissors and glue. But when I have to work in the rush of twelve hours for a New York Times commission, for example, the digital is way more comfortable for concept and image research. Especially the ‘undo’ option.
The removal of facial features or the absence of the head. Your oeuvre exudes a disturbing feel of lacking identity. What reaction do you want to have on the viewer?
All these figures from the past are very familiar to me and the way you see things as a child is very unconscious. I guess this work on identity is linked to this. Life and death. A lack of identity to express them all, and that the viewer can identify himself with their own background and personal history.
Your influences widely range from Dadaism to Magritte, Dalí, Pollock or Braque. Contemporary speaking, what are the artists you think are making similarly outstanding moves and you’d like to be compared to?
The link between my influences probably is the constant research/experimentation, variety of work and personal freedom. Most of these heroes always refused to be conformed, driven, educated, or part of a dogma. Dadaism was this free. These people created their own techniques to express their own selves.
The more I discover myself, the more it links me spiritually to the work of others and their personality. I didn’t really understand Bacon, Pollock, Picasso, Basquiat, or Deleuze in my teenage years. However, they now deeply speak to me. Also, because I went somehow to meet them by reading their personal biographies, interviews and testimonies. I found out where they excelled and where they failed, their doubts and deep convictions. I learned more with the people I admired than with teachers, except for a few exceptions. Teachers are often people who didn’t make it. I don’t speak here about success but personal achievement. For me, it’s all about curiosity and to educate your eye, but also your soul.
And to wrap things up, what would you say has been your major career highlight? And is there anything challenging you’d like to pursue in the near future?
I try not to care too much. I was so honoured with the collaboration with Jun Takahashi and Undercover two years ago. When someone from the world of high-end fashion comes to you with ‘We don’t make clothes, we make noise’, the meeting was obvious. Another one is the cover artwork for one of my music heroes, Venetian Snares, who I had the chance to meet years ago and whose music I have been listening for years. Also, every time I work for The New York Times or the New Yorker, or for people who supported me from the early days. I’m quite a faithful person in all ways. I don’t need too many new contacts, as I want to continue to work with them and to have enough free time for me and my little family.
I just hope to keep on evolving from circle to circle and acquire new values while getting older for the longest possible. Evolve or die, they say. I’m really into painting since my son’s birth. I keep it as a private garden, but after eight years, it might be a next step to show up with – or not. A cure against boredom, still.