Iowa-born, LA-based artist Matthias Merkel Hess has a talent to turn ordinary objects into beautiful artifacts. His milk crates and laundry hampers have just been presented in a group show, Material, at Salon 94 Freemans in New York, curated by the fashion designer Duro Olowu. Merkel Hess, who has a background in journalism and worked in the newspaper business for 15 years, is also one of the selected artists of the Venice Beach Biennial, July 13-15, 2012, an experimental off-shoot being staged in conjunction with the Hammer’s next Biennial exhibition, Made in LA, kicking off on June 2, 2012.
Simone Kussatz: You’re an artist who works with different materials. You draw, take photographs, do pottery and ceramics and a bit of conceptional art. What kind of artist do you consider yourself to be, or like to be referred to as being?
Merkel Hess: I'm an artist and a potter. I don't like the word ceramicist, because it ends in "cyst." Since finishing my MFA in 2010, I've mainly worked in clay or in ink or watercolor on paper. I've done other things in the past and won't rule anything out for the future, but those two areas have been a particular focus.
Kussatz: You sometimes address controversial topics, such as the death penalty in your earlier work Artist Direct (2006). Is that something that you feel passionate about?
Merkel Hess: Oh no! You were looking deep, deep deep into the recesses of my website. There should be a warning label that says: "student work ahead." The piece you asked about involved me taking images of inmates executed by the State of California and printing them on commemorative-style plates that I had made at the Wal-Mart photo center. It was one of my first works that incorporated some other subject matter into a pottery form, and I made it for a class project. I've left it on my website to show the development of my work and ideas. That said, I think the death penalty is a barbaric practice that should be outlawed.
Kussatz: In your works Backyard Dinner (2006) and Community Supported Artists (2012), you put the stress on community. Why do you think a community is important?
Merkel Hess: We all live within and respond to a community of people around us and around the world. To imagine that you can live without other people is absurd.
Kussatz: When I think about your works Futility Ltd. advertisements (2009), Futility Ltd, catalog and Merkel font (2009), I find quite a bit of humor in it. What is your relationship to the business side of the art world and marketing in general?
Merkel Hess: I try to be clear with my desires and intentions, and I enjoy coming up with different brands and marketing schemes for my work. Sometimes, I make these schemes the subject matter of my work. In general, though, that's probably the wrong way to make art.
Kussatz: Another project of yours that I found to be witty is One Merkel Ruler(2009). If Merkel wasn’t your name I would think you were referring to Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and taking the measure of her politics. Can you please say a bit more about it?
Merkel Hess: One Merkel is the length of my right arm, my most important pottery tool. It also refers to how we often handle ceramic objects "arms length in" and pick them up and turn them over. Finally, it's also the official measurement of an arm-length self portrait. To date, I've given away about 500 One Merkel rulers, so it's also been a bit of a marketing project. People tell me it's often the only convenient straight-edge in their house.
Kussatz: In a podcast interview with Michael Shaw you said that your Devils Tower LA (2010) at La Cienega Projects is inspired by Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) In which way does it relate to the film?
Merkel Hess: The project was about Close Encounters and the obsessive traits that the main character, Roy Neary, share with what it takes to bring an artistic vision to life. I was also trying to make a spectacle, such as a touring King Tut show, which comes with the spectacular objects, advertising campaign and gift shop. The third part of the show was putting fired, glazed objects in a gift shop, which is a place you can always find ceramics in the art world. Finally, on a practical level, I was trying to recoup some of the costs of the projects. Las Cienegas Projects was an artist-run space, so they provided me the space and time, and nothing else.
Kussatz: In 2010 you were an artist-in-residence at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica and worked on a project called Fine Art 626-394-3963. And once again you toyed around with the advertising aspect of the art world. It seems a bit unromantic, but do you view the making of art more like a business?
Merkel Hess: My mother is an artist. When I was growing up, I realized that the work she was making in her studio, in a good year, would turn into things like a new bike for me. This formed my early impressions of art making as a job and a career. I think it takes romantic ideas to commit to a career in the arts, but eventually, realistic and pragmatic concerns must be combined with these romantic notions in order to make substantive work.
Kussatz: In 2011, last year, you had a beautiful show at ACME (Los Angeles Museum of Ceramic Arts). What makes you want to turn buckets, trash cans, milk crates into beautiful art works?
Merkel Hess: The buckets began by looking around at the vessels and objects that make up a ceramic studio. I'm always concerned with keeping clean, functional five gallon buckets around for holding glazes and other things. So I decided to just make these objects in clay. After adding the milk crates to the mix, I began to look at other every day kind of forms, such as laundry hampers and gas cans. I've found that I'm particularly attracted to vintage gas cans and almost anything designed by Rubbermaid, at least before computer-aided design came in and allowed all these scalloped, more free-form kind of shapes that are also ruining so much of current architecture. I really hate the new "design" tweaks on the Brute trash can. Rubbermaid is messing with a classic!
Kussatz: Some artists don’t receive any formal training. You studied art at Pasadena City College, California State University, Long Beach and received your MFA at UCLA. What are your thoughts about the world of academia in the pursuit of becoming an artist?
Merkel Hess: I am a product of the museo-educational complex that forms much of the art world in Los Angeles. On a macro level, I do worry about art become increasingly academic. But on an individual level, I needed the community, support and information. I also enjoy working in an academic setting and hope to one day teach. My experience at these institutions was tremendously valuable to me and gave me an entry point to working professionally as an artist.
Kussatz: When I wrote about you last, you had an exhibit Wet Paint (2010) at Steve Turner Gallery in Mid-Wilshire. Since then you had quite a bit of media coverage. Your work has been reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Angeleno, LA Weekly. Since you were a journalist yourself, how does it feel to be on the other side of the media now?
Merkel Hess: I'm always honored when someone wants to write about my work. I've also found that it's easier to answer questions than it is to ask them.
Kussatz: Yet, it seems that you haven’t given up completely on journalism. First of all, you use language as one of your tools in the making of art. And second you also run an art magazine.
Merkel Hess: It's a modest little artist magazine about art and the natural world called Mammut. I co-edit it with Roman Jaster. We've done five issues in the past few years. The magazine is available as a PDF online or for print via lulu.com. It's so easy to publish these days, either online or through print-on-demand services. I think everyone should have their own magazine.
Kussatz: From what I’ve heard from other emerging artists, it is not easy to get your work shown in a gallery or museum, yet you’ve become quite successful within a short time. What do you think the L.A. art scene appreciates most about you?
Merkel Hess: I think people really like ceramic buckets.
Kussatz: And what are we going to see from you at the Venice Beach Biennial?
Merkel Hess: I'm going to have a booth on the Boardwalk, selling objects from my new line, Merkel Craft Art & Novelties. Ceramic sunglasses and watercolor beach towels will be involved in some way.
Simone Kussatz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has written numerous articles in the field of the arts for international and national magazines published in Germany, the US and UK, China, Iceland, and Switzerland. Kussatz was born in Asperg, Germany. She holds a Master's degree in American Studies, journalism and psychology and received her education from Santa Monica College, UCLA and the Free University of Berlin. In 2004, she produced and hosted three TV-shows under the title "Metamorphosis", where she conducted interviews with Jewish artists in regard to the Holocaust. Kussatz has also worked in theater in the position of stage supervisor and manager in the plays “Talley’s Folly” and “The Immigrant.” She has taught English as a Second Language and served at Xiamen University in China, as well as EC Language Center in London.view all articles from this author