Dialogue: Matt Antoniak

We talk with Newcastle-based artist Matt Antoniak about Spiderman, mark-making and balancing an artistic practice with the demands of co-running a gallery space.

ANNE: You’re from Nottingham originally. How did you come to be in Newcastle, and what made you stay?

Matt Antoniak: I was born in Nottingham, and studied a Foundation course there, as I was undecided on whether to pursue art or graphic design and illustration. Having decided on art, I came to university in Newcastle in 2011 and have stayed in the North East since.  

After university, I knew I wanted to continue to practice as an artist, and staying in Newcastle seemed to be the best way for me to make that happen. The city afforded me time making in the studio, which I knew would be vital, and wouldn’t be the case in other places — although times have changed now, making that more difficult for recent graduates.  

The main reason was my peer group, though. I had made friends and peers on the course and so many stayed in the region initially.  There is strength in numbers, and whilst I was naïve about a lot of things after university, I intrinsically sensed that having a group around you after graduating was important.  

ANNE: One of the things that’s exciting about your work is its hermeticism — it’s animated by an invisible logic. You’ve worked with huge canvases and wall drawings, but your work often returns to a recurring motif on a modest scale: a roughly head-shaped oval in which faces, or parts of faces sometimes appear but at other times acts as a container for trompe l’oeil-like representations of different materials or objects. Where did this framework originate in the context of your practice over the years, and why and how has it become a seam that you return to?

MA: The shape you are referring to is a simple rendering of Spiderman I found. This features as the framework for a number of recent paintings on wooden panels, shaped to frame the Spiderman image. Found drawings, doodles and markings on scrap pieces of paper have been jumping-off points for much of my previous work. Originally many of these came from the art shop I worked in for a number of years. I’m not sure of the exact provenance of it, but the Spiderman paintings come from one of these drawings. 

It is a seam I return to because of the juxtaposition between the idiosyncratic and the universal. In these drawings, all found in different locations, on different days, in different places, tropes began to appear. Eyes, hearts, letters, slogans amongst them.  

The Spiderman image seemed to me to exemplify this dichotomy: a motif so well known as to be widely read, but also so idiosyncratic in its wonky depiction by the maker. The drawing is reductive, slimming down the image into a handful of waspish lines that toy with the boundary of recognition. 

I was drawn to the shaped panels, as we’re all used to reading rectangular paintings in certain ways. The rectangle has borders and hard edges, whereas there was none of this to play off against with the amorphous shaped panel. Its unusual form makes the reading trickier, and rewards slower and closer looking.  

ANNE: Thinking about those materials, they’re poor materials, aren’t they, invariably detritus — doodles, tests, leftovers; fast and throwaway marks, or simply everyday objects. If it’s fair to say one concern of your work is with mark-making, it’s not a simple relationship but one of appropriation, reproduction, re-presentation. Could you say something about where these marks come from, and what your relationship is to them?

MA: Everyone is obsessed with their legacy and what is left behind: their imprint on the world.  People become particularly interested in the things they can control in order to preserve and influence this legacy. There are hundreds of ways people have done this — from curated social media profiles to songs, paintings, cave paintings, graffiti. Mark-making has always seemed the easiest and most immediate of these. 

We place great value on mark-making because of this, but the historic idea of the expansive, important, individualist artistic gesture became something that didn’t sit easily with me. I thought there was more at stake than that, and that in some cases it had become a lazy shortcut for making artworks. That’s where some of my  interest in these salvaged drawings came from initially. These were marks made by people who weren’t artists, but who still felt the need to express.  

I found it interesting to study a stranger’s unique hand in detail, turning a fleeting moment into a period of acute attention and concentration through the process of painting. It sort of turned art making and that interest in mark-making inside out a little bit — no longer focusing on your own imprint, but that of others. You are monumentalising the overlooked, and in the process relinquishing a little artistic control. It makes the interpretation of the work more ambiguous as well through being a step removed from the initial creator. Again, I’m not interested in being didactic with the paintings. This was something that I enjoyed and freed me up to play with formal concerns in the paintings.  

With regard to the other materials that have begun to feature into the works, these tend to be gathered through a process of incidental accumulation over time. There is no deliberate action in choosing those materials — they gradually make their way into my immediate surroundings, and worm their way into my consciousness. They’re seemingly insignificant objects that contain a subtle intimacy and offer an unfiltered portrait of their maker. 

ANNE: There’s a real tension between the representation of these objects, which is superbly detailed and leaves little room for interpretation, and the marks, feint grids, maybe-eye-shapes and so on which hover at the edge of representation. What is it about this contrast that appeals to you; that compels you to return to it?

MA: I enjoy that juxtaposition and the slippage between the styles of painting. By overlaying detailed elements and leaving other parts underpainted, it provides a tension as well as disrupting the painting’s reading. The overlaid elements both provide more detail, whilst obfuscating and concealing at the same time. Extrapolating that out to the broader world, those ideas appeal to me — the possibility of easily providing more information, but the outcome being less clear and more nuanced.  

ANNE: You’ve exhibited widely across the UK and elsewhere, and recently had a solo show at Piccalilli in London. How do you find it, being based in the North East, navigating opportunities elsewhere? What’s good about being here — and are there gaps, or anything you’d find it useful to have more of?

MA: Newcastle is a great place to be based as an artist for so many reasons.  There is space here, there is a supportive community of talented artists, and it is a place where you can start conversations and make something happen quickly.  

Of course, the gaze of the art world in the UK is so heavily skewed towards London. You can understand why this is, but I don’t think it’s either healthy or sustainable. Artists are being priced out of the capital, and I feel that that gaze is starting to turn outwards. But you still find so many people – galleries, collectors, writers – don’t look outside the M25, which I find is both a shame, and a bit lazy. So things like studio visits, which can be of such importance to develop more of an understanding of an artist’s practice, can be a little harder to instigate.  

In terms of gaps, myself and my peers started putting on shows because we thought there was a lack of space for early career artists to exhibit, and I still think that is something that can be increased.  

ANNE: Staying with that subject, you’re also one half of Slugtown, a gallery in Newcastle which started life in a house but now has its own space. It’d be nice to have a separate chat about Slugtown, but here it’d be interesting to know how you find it juggling your roles as curator and artist. They’re linked, of course, but one is about you and the other is about others. Do you find that they complement each other – and does your work as Slugtown help your practice in some way?

MA: Firstly, I feel very lucky to be on both sides of the fence regarding art production, working as both an artist and a curator. Making in the studio can be a lonely process for artists, and I have days where I question the point of what I am doing. I think that process of questioning happens to everyone in every sector at some point in their life, but (in my experience) perhaps more regularly for creatives. 

Since opening the gallery, and being on the other side of the process – working in the space of display once work is made – I get to see first hand on a daily basis the importance of it all. The impact it has on people from all walks, the joy it brings, the new avenues of thinking, the moments of reflection, and everything else in between. It reaffirms to me that creating is fundamental to the human experience, and that exhibitions still have great power and relevance, so when I still have those days of questioning myself, I try to remember that.  

These feelings have definitely contributed to my thoughts on my own practice in recent years. We want the gallery to be a useful resource, and also want every visitor to leave with a positive experience and feeling welcomed. We try and do this through talking to everyone who comes in, and offering up as much as we can, and being as transparent as possible.  

This idea of being more generous has fed into my practice as an artist. Even if it is something as simple as the way I communicate about my work; being able to communicate what I do to someone who is outside of the industry. Coincidentally, or maybe subconsciously, this has coincided with providing more visual information in the works, as well as sharing more about myself in the works. Incorporating the accumulation of things around me that contribute to the paintings, and providing more for the viewer to chew on.  

ANNE: What’s next for you?

MA: I’m looking forward to getting a bit more time in the studio, after a busy past year getting our feet under the table with the gallery, and a few shows. I’ll get stuck into some bids and proposals for my own practice, and have a few exhibitions lined up over the next year to work towards. 

At Slugtown we are lucky to have been awarded funding to support us over the next year, so I will be continuing to work and programme exhibitions and events there too.  

ANNE: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us, Matt, and good luck for the next year in and outside of the gallery!

About the contributor

Matt Antoniak (b.1991, Nottingham) lives and works in Newcastle upon Tyne. Recent exhibitions include Scrapings, Piccalilli, London; Photocopies II, Recent Activity, Birmingham; and Sticker Book, 36 Gallery, Newcastle. He has also exhibited at OHSH Projects and Southwark Park Galleries, London; Shrine, New York; and Workplace Foundation, Gateshead. Antoniak has been artist in residence at Bradford College of Art, and The Royal Drawing School at Dumfries House. His work is held in The Prince’s Trust Collection and private collections nationally. He is also the co-director of Slugtown, a not-for-profit gallery in Newcastle, working with early career artists.

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