Marietta Kontogianni Interviews Matt Lambert

Matt Lambert

The first time I saw Matt Lamberts’ work was on the Athens Jewelry Week 2018 Facebook promo post, announcing that Matt would be the invited artist of this year’s event.  The question that came then to my mind was: “What this work has to do with jewelry?” A few days later, I was asked by Anticlastics to interview Matt.

To prepare the questions for the interview wasn’t an easy task. Matt Lambert’s work wasn’t familiar to me, so I had to do a lot of research on the artist and the oeuvre, only to discover how powerful this work is and how many different perceptions of this art can be, as it offers the viewers a window from which to see things, to see the world around them in a totally new way, and to attribute their own meaning to this art.

I must admit that in the beginning I was very confused, and a lot of thoughts crossed my mind for a couple of days trying to decode Matt’s work. For me it was like solving a puzzle, a game that I love since I was a child, because it intrigues my mind. Exactly like Matt’s work does! And then one day, I woke up, I took some photos of Matt’s work that had stuck in my mind the previous night, I put them in order, in the order that I chose based on my own perception and …voila!  Once the icons of the puzzle were fitted together, everything made sense. Now is your turn. Join me in this mind game through my interview and discover Matt Lambert’s intriguing world of adorned nude bodies and queer identities, “which pushes the preconceptions and possibilities of jewelry and adornment as traditionally understood, opening up a variety of conversations“.

You are a multidisciplinary artist invited by AJW 218. Could you please introduce yourself and describe your work to the Greeks and generally those who aren’t familiar with your art?

I am a nomadic maker based in Detroit. I have what you could call a unique constellation of academic training in psychology, art history, cultural studies as well as multiple artistic mediums. I also have apprenticeship-based training in leatherworking and semi-antique rug restoration. This has set me up to have a broader interest in gender construction, body adornment and body politics/representation. I largely approach these things through a process of research that is then sieved through personal narrative. I am interested in pushing the preconceptions and possibilities of jewelry and adornment as traditionally understood. Adornment has the ability to blur the fields of design, craft, fashion, and art—and through inhabiting queer and/or liminal spaces adornment has great strength.

As far as I know this is the first time you will show your work in Greece. To my eyes your work is not a digestible one. How do you believe the Greek audience will react? How viewers of your work usually react?

I am more curious as to why you don’t find my work digestible? Often my work has the ability to be glossed over as something beautiful, but there is also the option to sit and pick it apart from many different angles. I don’t want to force someone to choose, it is up to them to meet me half way to both learn new things. There really isn’t a typical reaction, the thing that is important is that it is causing a reaction. I would never want to make things that don’t evoke some kind of response. Even a negative response is still making someone feel something.

On the promo poster of AJW one can see one of your works which is about a naked person who looks forward and seems ready to start a race, wearing a headpiece that covers the face and the head down to the neck.
What this work is about, and what has to do with jewelry?

AJW approached me to be featured as they were interested in my multidisciplinary practice. I use jewelry as a home, a starting point to make all of my work. My work deals a lot with sport and body movement. That image is part of a practice I developed while in residency at IASPIS in Stockholm Sweden through Instagram of quick selfie images playing with these sport poses. It is AJW that found a connection through that particular image which is what happens with my work. Different people find different connection with it and can extrapolate their own narratives. This exercise has also caused an interesting situation where viewers are not sure what is the actual work. This digital platform is helping me to question what can be considered work and further blur lines of definitions. I can post an image of myself in an installation while an institution can hang the same work the same way or change it slightly and you are left to wonder where I actually am in all of this. It further shifts ideas of linear time and geography.

Why do you show your work only on male bodies? Are these men close to you (friends, family) or unknown models?

There is a big assumption that those models identify as males or use those pronouns. Gender is not just through physical appearance, I tend to work with masculinity, but it is not the imagined male-female binary that interests me. I avoid using gender pronouns unless the person informs me of their preferred pronoun I also avoid using them on myself as well. I have used bodies that have a female identified form at times, but I find it a bit difficult at this time to put work on anyone’s body but my own. I also do not use professional models, anyone you see in an image is someone who is close to me in my personal life. I usually do not assign them work I let them pick things they want to put on and we just have fun. We usually have food and music playing and have a conversation about experiences that pull the emotions you see out. Those that have posed before, know/how this works, and it’s quite enjoyable to see them look at things for the first time and say “this one is mine”. We can then talk about why they connect with it and pull that out in the images we make.

The bodies showing your work are always naked. What role does nudity play in your work? Is your intention to show the vulnerable or the sexual side of the naked body, or both?

Nudity aside from my work on a body allows for the questioning of what the work is. Is it fashion, performance, design, earlier images with clothes look more like ads for the denim jeans they are wearing. By removing most of the objects from the images a different conversation is had that becomes more complex through simplification. My work does have a discussion of vulnerability, but it is something that has evolved organically by being myself vulnerable while making this work.

What attracts you to a specific human body to work with? Does the body need to be always fit and healthy to inspire you or you chose this kind of bodies because you put in question the hyper masculine prototype?  

Even the concept of visibly looking “healthy” is a construct that implies that there is a visual representation of healthy. The body that I work with is my own. The only time I use another body is when they are familiar with my work and have some sort of presence in my personal life. I used professional models once and everything was just off and felt forced. This image making is a lot of trial and error and learning from it. So, when I say I don’t do something it is very possible I did it at one time, but I have learned from that experience and can only build upon it.

Why do you choose to decorate only the upper part of the body, the neck with statement necklaces and mainly the face with masks and the forehead with decorative extra large and bold headpieces?

My photographic work deals a lot with the history of portraiture, so it seems only logical for me to work with mostly the upper body. I do also make more garment like objects as well and now more recently objects that can support or cover the entire body. I am also of the thought that once I fully understand why, I return to make or work with something that it is time to progress and look at other forms and material.

In this new work you cover the face and the body with rugs with bold colors. Would you like to tell me more about this work? Why do you choose rugs and generally home décor elements like upholstery fringes and swags (garlands) to decorate the body? Is there any connection with the notion that the body is the home where we live in?

My work always has an engagement with the decorative arts. I am very interested in when there was such a thing as a world room or rooms where men had their portraits taken to show off all the things that had stolen or “purchased”. Rugs become especially interesting as I learned to repair them learning about patterns, what is valued and their history as a form of currency as well as their function as a fetishized object. It’s the same things as a still life, look how much money I have and how these things are loosing life by just sitting here. But what happens if I queer the room, what if the rug becomes a sports jersey or a mirror-tile becomes a chest plate. How can these archives be shifted and queered to cause us to re-examine what has been presented. By talking about this ephemerality of the still life, it also pulls in the ephemerality of beauty, the body, and youth. There are always facets I begin to see over time, which is why reconfiguring objects as I show them is so important.

The rugs I have used are deemed “unrepairable” and thus their creators intent is no longer allowed to function. I also make it a strict point to only use rugs that are produced for a western market, there is a history of changing what once was religious forms often used in prayer rugs to appease western buyers. This is a fascinating thing for me as it kept the industries alive in small villages and cities, but was also some form of self-appropriation reconfiguring of signs and symbols out of necessity. There is also this idea of taking the soft decorative elements of the interior and in a way placing them on a body as an exterior. It begins to play with space, the positioning of the body and also gender norms as most of these materials are labelled feminine and being put into masculine scenarios.

I want to emphasize on the masks. Most of your masks are decorated with embroidery or upholstery fringes in a way that they cover the whole face and don’t allow the wearer to see, though generally masks have two holes for the eyes. What is your intention in hiding the wearer’s face expressions from the viewer and the sight from the wearer, having in mind that the eyes are the mirror of the soul, as the old saying goes? 

Even a mask with eye holes hides expression. Masks allow for a discussion of interior and exterior. What is internalized and what we choose to show or perform to the exterior. A thread that is found in my work is the protection of the body. By covering the face, it is giving space for that body to exist with some form of anonymity. Anonymity being something rare these days as we are constantly plugged into systems of social media and technology with the gaze of the viewer constantly on us.

Does this mask also stand for the mask society put on us since the day we are born to determine the role each one of us should play through our lives according to the social norms?

If that is what you feel my work does, then I am happy that is your connection you make with it.

Purity. Photographer: Petr Kurečka.

In therapy, the mask is an image of the self. Does the wearer of the mask better learn the true nature of himself?

I cannot possibly control what a wearer feels or does in my work. This is something that draws me to adornment. You can control everything about the making, but once it is released to someone else you have absolutely no control over how it is worn, felt or perceived. A lot of the “work” is in the interaction so sometimes you are just free falling. This notion has allowed me to show not only as a jeweler or craftsperson, but also as a designer, a sculptor, a fashion designer and most recently someone called me a “masker”. I am more interested in blurring the lines of delineation than participating in them

How do you feel wearing a mask?

There are moments when I just know something is working. When I put on the work and can feel it take on its own life and change my own perceptions. Listening to this gut reaction has served me well. At the end of the day I can try and cram all of the research into my objects, but that doesn’t mean it will be felt. I think different masks do different things for me, but it definitely affects a level of power.

I read in KLIMT02 in this excerpt about your work: In his practice, the artist employs the vernacular of masculine sport, specifically those sports that have set formalities for the re-enactment of violence, such as found in fencing
Most of the masks you create are actually fencing masks. Why do you choose this type of mask in your practice?  Why are you so interested in fencing?

Fencing is interesting as is any sport that has a set of rules for how the body should move in space and for its methodology for performing violence. I tend to research sports and war methodology that has a history in white western colonizing societies.

Untitled. Mask4masc, Performance of Violence. Photographer: Alyson Williams.

There is a work of yours called Performance of violence which is about a naked person who’s standing still wearing a fencing mask and covering the genitalia with both hands….

The masks title is “untitled” the grouping of fencing masks was titled “performance of violence.” I do not ever show genitalia in my work as I am not interested in having a conversation about it.

…Fencing is about self-defence. What the wearer of your mask is defending against and how, though the wearer doesn’t hold any sword, but uses the hands to cover the genitalia? 

Fencing is a formal set of guidelines of how to kill someone and avoid being killed when you really boil it down. But it is strange as there are rules and I am not sure there are many situations when two people are fighting in real life that the formal rules are going to remain. Many of these sports were aristocratic expressions of masculinity because largely you wouldn’t find a lot of bourgeois or upper-class bodies in actual fighting situations. Fencing is a current interest of mine as it has been used as a form of propaganda to pretend that certain styles have always existed to eradicate the knowledge of another. So, by removing the weapon there is a sense of vulnerability in this image, while the mask signals the need for protection.

Also, in the statement about your Fun and Games exhibition at The Sculpture Center it is written: We are a culture desensitized to, and even entertained by, violence at a time when sensitivity may be what we need the most. It’s just as the old adage goes in its entirety: It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt… then it’s sport.
Sports are about fair play. But your work is not about the fair play, but about the violence and the aggression. So how sports are related to your work?

In sport and in older forms of warfare, violence was also attempted to be fair. But you are right a lot of times even with fair intentions, things can become one sided. I do not make weapons for assaulting I make tools for protection. The words from The Sculpture Centre are not my own, it is what was written through a discussion by the institution. I am more apt to have others write on my work as I enjoy the perspectives even if they contradict sometimes. I have never been a fan of using my own writing on a wall to explain myself or the work. I see it as a viewpoint, but never as an answer.

What is your crucial struggle and what is your way of defending yourself?

My struggle is to maintain the conviction to my own self and to not let the thought of an economic market or the idea I need to fit into a specific size display case influence the way I work. I protect myself from this by having some pretty amazing people around to support me when I need it and by developing methods of self care.

The Joust. Photographer: Danya Ensing.

Your exhibition at Atta Gallery (29.11.2017-08.01.2018) was called A(r) morAmor (the Spanish word for love) and Armor. Is love the mince, the armor, to defend against violence, against everyday struggles?  But in the same time, isn’t this a utopia?

The title A(r)mor is a play on the idea of protection not only physical but also emotional. I use the physicality of armor as a visual starting point, but through images and choices through material and detail can begin to unpack how emotions can also have a dialogue in protection.
My first solo exhibition at Platina in Stockholm was called Chimera which is a mythical creature, an anomaly of two sets of genetics in one form and something fantastical. So there has always been a thread of utopia in my work. If we cannot have utopia in making, then where can we have it? This is a large reason why I left working in a research lab; I am not interested in just showing what is found but also the different possibilities from what already exists. This is where ideas of queering archives are really interesting. This method allows me to return to my own history of work and reconfigure it to discover new meanings. Sometimes I become reacquainted with the same piece in many ways depending on its context.

Your headpieces are aggressive and powerful, decorated with antlers or big jaws transforming the wearer into an animal. And there is a work of yours called The Joust, where two naked people wearing similar headpieces with antlers are fighting. The harsh reality is that we live in a cruel world. Are we actually animals in a constant fight with ourselves and with the others? 

If we are not animals what are we?

Installation Image (as Installed at IASPIS Stockholm). Photographer: Matt Lambert.

How do the necklaces that apparently constitute a body of work of their own, compliment the masks or the headpieces and vice versa? What are the interconnections in your work? Are these necklaces the trophies of the victor of the “animals” fight?

I do not think in series. I am building rooms and the objects I make operate as stand ins for things. Series also implies a linear timeline which is a thought that I do not prescribe to. My work comes from queer perspective which distorts linearity much as many indigenous cultures have always lived. Some of the necklaces are trophies, some of them are mounts and chains. My exhibition last year at Gallery Loupe showed Laurels, but your question implies that there is a winner in a fight. I’m not so sure anyone is better for participating, the idea of a winner and a looser is simply a control mechanism that plays into a binary system. When I approach an exhibition, I am making something new to add but I am also using work from very different points of my life to create a new thought or a new room.

Pickaxe #8. Photographer: Matt Lambert.

On your PickAxe series of leather necklaces there is a specific design, a consistent pattern made by crosses that are put the one close to the other forming a kind of flower in between them. The whole design seems like pixels. What do these symbols represent?

That pattern comes from sacred geometry and has found its ways into many circumstances, including architecture across many regions of the world. I am interested when and how things are defined as being appropriated and can this be done willingly or is it only done through force or violence. This pattern also can become the mirror and the wall for the rooms I previously mentioned. The name PickAxe comes from a poem by Rumi that talks about sitting in a rented room and mending the same garment over and over and if we dug through the floor boards, we would find shining gem stones. It is about taking time for reflection and to be an understanding witness. To look at ourselves and others with consideration.

Here is the statement that accompanied the work at Platina and Loupe:

The material of mirror is investigated by its use in the decorative arts as an element found in a room to alter the feeing of space and as a confrontational device. Physically wearing a mirror confronts others who approach and questions who the work is meant for. The mirror works as armor to deflect and distract from the one who is wearing it, but presenting the confronted with their own image. Simultaneously the mirror also draws attention to the physical wearer as an object of bling and its fractal projection of light onto those who surround the wearer. The interaction of physical wearer, and observer turned forced participant creates an additional layer of work where there is the potential for the viewer to also become the “wearer”.

RAW #18. Photographer: Kelsey von Wormer.

And there is another series of necklaces called Raw made of laser cut leather that look like heavy chains. I believe that they might actually be very light. What this contradiction heavy-light is about?

The main issues I find when showing in a jewelry context besides the narrow definition of what we consider to be jewelry is that my work and many others needs to be touched or worn to be fully understood and to fully unpack its function or abilities. This type of work is interesting to me as it terrorizes the Western institution because it can never be completely shown without it being touched which becomes a conservator’s nightmare. So how do you ever show the complete piece when a large component is the interaction as wearer with the object. RAW is a good example of this as it is quite deceiving as it looks extremely heavy or bulky, but is actually quite comfortable and as your body heat interacts with it the work conforms to you sometimes to the point you forget it is there. It is about learning and discovering through experience. None of this can be understood, however without wearing it. Or maybe I should say that I am yet to find a way to fully experience the work when the work is the act of wearing or interacting with an object. Stay tuned on that one in the future.

Your necklaces are made of leather. Why do you choose to work with leather? Which are the qualities of the leather that inspire you? Is leather for you a connotation of the human skin and the naked body?

I apprenticed for 5 years as a leatherworker it is a material I have developed a complex relationship with. I like using leather as it is a very unforgiving material. Once you make a mark on it, it will always remember it. There is no way to sand, patch or repair a mistake. You are then faced to deal with your actions or to completely restart. This is very much like human interactions, when you make a mistake you either take ownership and try and work through it or you step away. Leather also works well with my concepts as it requires oil to be maintained so as you wear my work you are also maintaining it and your own oils will change the colors making it a part of you and even more unique.

Through your work you question the traditional boundaries of jewelry, and you further challenge what jewelry is. Please give me your definition of jewelry.

Between years at Cranbrook working on a Master in Metalsmithing I was Christoph Zellweger’s* assistant in Zurich Switzerland. One of the biggest things I learned from him was that when certain things are made they tell you they need to be on a body and that you can call the things you make jewelry once you say it is so. I feel if you look at the constellation of who I have studied under and worked for my work seems like a natural progression of the things I have learned from such strong makers. I think it is less interesting to define jewelry and see what fits and prefer to look at things and make things and then decide if it is jewelry. Building a definition as I build my practice forces me to remain open and attentive.

(* internationally renowned Swiss artist and professor)

Rostrum loaned to the performance Skirtpower. Courtesy of Platina Gallery. Photographer: Chrisander Brun.
Choreographer: Carl Olof Berg for Danskompani Spinn.

You collaborate with multi-media artists of a vast array of disciplines such as photographers, performers, choreographers, writers. Why do you compliment your work with works from other artistic fields since it is so powerful enough to stand by itself? 

I think the bigger question is why not? I learn so much from collaborating. With dancers, choreographers, technically based makers. It places my work in a new arena to see how people perceive my work and to explore the functionalities of my work while still being present to observe and interact. It seems like some may become frustrated with my work as it does not ask or answer a single question. Although I find this way of working relevant it does not interest my own practice. Life is complex and so my work also reflects this. There are many layers of strata so that each time you return to it you may find another angle to look at things. Also, this method of collaboration has a practical side economically; there is very little support financially for large jewelry work at this time, so by working with other artists in other fields my work is put in other contexts which allow me to find support within those contexts. Working as an independent maker has had that advantage that I am not tied to one institution or situation where I have to explain my work and how it fits into a field. It allows me a lot more freedom to push things. The downside is I have less support to fall back on if I need it.

To what extent do you believe that your art of adorning (and art generally speaking) can contribute to positive change regarding the issues put in question by the artists and their works?

It can give you space… space to contemplate, to consider and to feel. The gift of time has become increasingly more precious. Wearable work has the unique power to create this space, even in the few moments you have between other things such as a train commute or waiting for the doctor to see you, even seeing someone else and how their adornment works, has the ability to evoke a thought or response. You look back on an image wearing something and you can remember what it felt like, how it made you feel, adornment likes to linger. This is a real power in adornment. It marks us even long after it is not in contact with us.

What is the work you are going to show in AJW2018?

As I am currently a resident with PRAKSIS’s 9th ResidencyAdornment and Gender developed with artist, writer and curator Ben Lignel, in collaboration with Norwegian Craft and engaging with the research Namita Wiggers and Ben Lignel have been doing in Oslo Norway, I am not able to be present to do an impulsive installation responding to the space which is currently my method of working. So, we have decided to show a selection of works and images in a more traditional or formal manner as an introduction to my work. This will then evolve into a more immersive installation during AJW 2019 when I can be present to have a dialogue with attendees. This is also quite effective for me as it plays with ideas of time and location and shows how the reconfiguration or repositioning of objects can change their meanings.

About Matt Lambert

Matt Lambert, Invited Artist at Athens Jewelry Week 2018 pushes the preconceptions and possibilities of jewelry and adornment as traditionally understood. Adornment has the ability to blur the fields of design, craft, fashion, and art-and through inhabiting, queer and/or liminal spaces adornment has great strength. Lambert believes that this aspect has yet to be fully explored as a terroristic act towards Westernized institutions.
Based in Detroit, Lambert holds an MFA in metalsmithing from Cranbrook Academy of Art with addition to specific university training in craft skills, such as metalsmithing, ceramic, and fiber. Through apprenticeships Lambert has also studied semi-antique rug restoration and leather working. Lambert holds academic training in art history, psychology/human sexuality, and cultural studies from Wayne State University in Detroit MI.
Lambert’s work has been collected internationally and shown at venues including: Swedish Center for Architecture and Design (Stockholm, Sweden); Kunstnerforbundet (Oslo, Norway); the Craft Council of British Columbia Gallery (Vancouver, Canada); Handwerkskammer für München und Oberbayern (Munich, Germany); the Walker Arts Center (Minneapolis, Minnesota) and the Queer Culture Center (San Francisco, California). In 2017-2018 Lambert was the first international artist based in jewelry/metalsmithing to be invited as a resident at IASPIS the Swedish Arts Grants Committee’s program for visual artists and designers in Stockholm, Sweden.

Instagram: @detroit__boy

About Marietta Kontogianni

Marietta Kontogianni is a Greek journalist based in Athens, founder of JEWELRYbox Magazine on Facebook. She has been working as a journalist for more than 20 years collaborating with newspapers, magazines and TV channels.
Meanwhile, she has been creating fashion beaded jewelry herself.
When the newspaper she was working for since 1995 bankrupted, she decided to found the bilingual (Greek-English) FB JEWELRYbox Magazine to keep on working as a journalist, to network with the people involved in the jewelry world and to express her passion for jewelry.
Up to now, she has been interviewing the prominent and emerging Greek and international artists who show their work in Athens and abroad.
Furthermore, her JEWELRYbox Magazine has been a media sponsor of both Greek jewelry platforms: A Jewel Made in Greece and Athens Jewelry Week.
Her future plan is to have a website built to promote the Greek jewelry history.

e-mail:[email protected]
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