Helen Holmes for Observer - 14 April 2019
On Saturday morning in Dallas, artist Tony Matelli gave a talk at the Nasher Sculpture Center about his decades-long career, during which he and his team of assistants have created sculptural works that are mesmerizing in their realism. Some of his most effective pieces take the form of weeds, playfully sprouting up from the floor of gallery spaces.
A few years ago, one of Matelli’s seminude Sleepwalker sculptures ignited a firestorm of controversy when it was installed on the grounds of Wellesley college. Some students started a petition to have it removed, calling the work “a source of apprehension, fear and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault.”
Matelli addressed the uproar in a conversation with Observer, and also discussed his new “Garden” sculpture series, on display this month at The Joule hotel in downtown Dallas.
Observer: What are your overall impressions of this year’s Dallas Art Fair?
Matelli: I was at the fair maybe two or three years ago, and I was super impressed, which is why I was so excited to come back for this one. What I like about it is that it’s so small. I have a lot of experience going to a bunch of different fairs, and unfortunately something like Miami is just so hectic and and so frenetic. You end up waiting in lines at parties. There’s a lot of competition for this party or that party, which dinner you’re going to, who’s doing this ,who’s doing that. It’s mayhem, and I hate it. I absolutely hate it. And you never get to hang out with the people you want to hang out with.
The experience of Dallas is totally the opposite—it’s super manageable. Everyone goes to the same party. Everyone stays in the same hotel. You can wake up and have breakfast and run into people you would otherwise not. And for that reason I really love it, and I actually think it’s more productive for someone like me.
I thought what you said at your talk about your Stray Dog sculptures in Chicago was interesting.
Well, the first one was in New York through the public art fund. But they didn’t have enough money for me to do three of them, which was always the original plan. So then about a year later, I was given the opportunity to do that piece again in Belgium. In that case I was able to make three of them. And it was really successful and a very cool project.
Speaking about the dog sculptures, you said you really didn’t like the corporately mandated public art you’d seen. How do you feel about something like the Dallas Art Fair, which is collaborative and intimate and manageable, like you said, but also, you know, sponsored by Bank of America?
Let me be more clear about what I meant. My objection to that sort of thing is not an objection to corporations at all, although there’s plenty to be said about that. It’s an objection to the fact that a work of art can be co-opted as a symbol of a corporation, where it has nothing to do with the intent of the work—nothing to do with the artist at all, other than the fact that they bought it and put it out front. It becomes a kind of hood ornament for that corporate building.
You see the Robert Indiana piece outside the bank and it’s that, you know? You see the Mark di Suvero outside a particular bank—it’s almost always banks or insurance companies. It’s their corporate emblem. But I wanted to make sure that no corporation in their right mind would choose to have [the dog statues] as their corporate emblem. It would be too pathetic. If they bought it and put it in their collection or in their employee park or something like that, I’d have no problem with that. I just didn’t want it to be debased to the level of it being a symbol for the institution.
I like what you said about wanting to create sculptures that evoke empathy. A lot of people at Wellesley College had a negative reaction to your Sleepwalkerstatue, while people actually pet your dog sculptures. How do you feel about your dog sculptures evoking more empathy than your sculptures of humans?
Well, I think humans are funny that way. I think in general humans have more empathy for dogs than they do for people. I see it almost every day in New York in the way people behave with other people versus the way they behave with dogs. Dogs are literal empathy magnets. That’s essentially the reason they exist, so they’re uniquely suited for that. Because they don’t have anything to get in the way of empathy—they don’t have egos in the way that we understand them. That’s why dogs are so successful in receiving our affection.