Matt Evald Johnson, Myth and Predicaments

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Matt Evald Johnson. Medusa (detail). Steel sculpture. All photos courtesy Wood Library and Museum.

By Olivia J. Kiers

Easthampton, MA sculptor Matt Evald Johnson’s current exhibition, Myth and Predicaments: Carved in Steel at the Wood Library and Museum in South Windsor, CT, places an array of steel, figural sculptures in a book-filled environment, a highly fitting juxtaposition for Johnson, who draws inspiration from folklore and literature. Art New England discusses myth and process with the artist.

Art New England: Having traveled a lot, studying in Houston, TX and in New York City, what brought you to Easthampton, MA?

Matt Evald Johnson: After finishing graduate school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY in 1991, I hung about the New York City area for years, continuing to work in several different studios. At a certain point, I started to wish to do larger, outdoor projects. I decided to move to New England to get more space for me and my family outside of the hustle and bustle of the city.

ANE: Your show at the Wood Library and Museum is titled Myth and Predicaments: Carved in Steel. What role does myth play in your work?

MEJ: The myths are really places where I like to begin. I’m a literary enthusiast and I like to use those references for my figurative sculpture… I like to begin often from folklore, myth, religion, history or art history… Starting there helps me to make decisions about how the figures should look.

ANE: When did you first start working in this mode?

MEJ: I’ve been doing that and variations of it for 15 years or so.

ANE: How does being an artist in the modern era influence this myth-based work?

MEJ: Actually, the modern era still has just as much to do with the possibilities of composition and the figure as myth ever did… It’s endlessly current, the idea that sculptors should utilize the figure and perhaps even the scene and the landscape to evoke psychological and emotional significance.

ANE: Is it important for you to convey a specific story through these sculptures?

MEJ: No. The story is just a place where I begin… For me, there’s a difference between subject—this thing that gets you to make initial decisions about composition and how things need to look—and content of the final piece. As the sculpture develops, it will change and become its own, unique thing that may or may not resonate with the original narrative… I don’t necessarily use the formal aspects of sculpture to try to tell a story.

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Matt Evald Johnson. Faith Leapers. Steel sculpture.

ANE: This body of work involves a process you refer to as “carving” steel with a torch. When did you first start approaching the material in this way?

MEJ: I started exploring this reductive process of carving steel with a torch about five or six years ago. It’s been ongoing, but I am always executing several different bodies of work at once, too… I do large-scale abstractions and large-scale figurative pieces that aren’t carved. With carving steel, I’m definitely trying to find how far I can take it.

ANE: What are the particular benefits of this approach?

MEJ: The good thing about it is that… while it’s a reductive process, with steel as a medium you can put material back on, which you cannot do with stone or wood. With steel you have more freedom, especially for figurative sculpture. Gesture is of extreme importance, and if that arm I’m making is not in exactly the right place to say what I want to say with it, it’s a luxury to be able to chop it off and move it easily. Steel is malleable. Actually, it’s probably related more to clay than to stone or wood.

ANE: Do you look at other artists’ work for inspiration?

MEJ: My interests change… I wouldn’t say that I have single heroes, but the whole breadth of art history has certainly driven me. Right now, as of this minute, I’ve been studying Naum Gabo, a Russian Constructivist who had some fine philosophies and manifestos regarding how three-dimensional space could be dealt with.

ANE: What is next for you?

MEJ: The medium is probably going to stay where it is. Even though I work with other materials in a tangential fashion, steel is where I choose to challenge myself. The changes that occur… might be changes that are huge for me but not necessarily big for people looking from the outside. You can get excited about tweaks of the process that are not necessarily visually apparent.

I would like to thank the Wood Library and Museum for bringing attention to my work, and I am looking forward to perhaps working on some projects with them in general. They’ve expressed some interest in installing a permanent outdoor sculpture situation there… Any time there’s a new permanent place for art to pop up out in the world, that’s a good thing.

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Myth and Predicaments: Carved in Steel is on view through October 31 at the Wood Library and Museum in South Windsor, CT. See the website for hours and details.


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