Goo: An Interview with Matthew Harris

Artist Matthew Harris speaks to gallerist Steven Stewart about his first solo exhibition with FUTURES as part of the SPRING1883 art fair.

Date 20 August 2021 Interview Steven Stewart Imagery Supplied

Matthew Harris, Goo. Installation view, FUTURES, Melbourne, August 2021.

Steven Stewart: What are you wearing? I’m sure nothing short of at least 3k worth of designer fashion.

Matthew Harris: Every day is a runway. I know how to get the bargains and almost everything is second hand. But this is a new jumper I haven’t taken off since it got here. It’s by Kaylene Whiskey for Wah Wah. Clothes are a form of communication. What are you wearing?

COS. Always. Basic Bitch Couture. I’ve no imagination…

COS is H&M, so what you’re communicating is, “I hate myself and the entire world.”

Exactly.

Though your show Hell at Neon Parc was one of the first exhibitions I saw after foolishing moving to Melbourne for love in 2018, I really know you from Gertrude Contemporary before FUTURES. The series of shaped paintings that we are exhibiting as part of your current exhibition at FUTURES, Goo, unfolded slowly. I inquired about them more times than you probably would have liked, asking WTF they were about, until they suddenly emerged from the studio womb. They’re almost like sculptures of paintings, accumulating layer upon layer of paint with your own hair. Ironically, serendipitously, thankfully, they are now in my custody. Why are they so odd? Why did you remove the image? Where did you hide the jokes?! 

The ‘joke paintings’ are never all that funny to me. Just a veneer of funny, wallpapering over the cracks. All I’m ever after is an emotional intensity through simple means like in works by Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly for example. Agnes’s lines and geometry kept her craziness at bay and they somehow manage to radiate pure joy in some cases, using almost nothing at all. She made me cry in the middle of Art Basel. Ellsworth’s weird shapes and rainbow spectrums are kinda ‘painting jokes’ too but totally hardcore. I’m very heterophobic and Goo does away with straightness completely. They’re fluid, a little fucked up, beautiful.

The paintings in the exhibition are only abstract in the sense they’re not clearly representational but they’re far from minimal. They’re full of secrets—removed, obscured, redacted, lost to time, and mostly none of your business.

Why did you cry when we installed the show?

Wait, I thought I was the one conducting this interview? It’s a glaring question—I find it hard to distil the essence of my feelings that day. I suspended a massive possum skin and pink synthetic fur love heart [Big Love], made by someone I love, in collaboration with someone they love, all while intimately working with people that all love each other for really lovely reasons in a very intimate space. It has a powerful vibe and it’s a monumental sculpture. Good art can sometimes have this effect on human beings.

And as you know, I’ve a weird relationship to this particular work. I kind of have trouble touching it. For whatever reason I sometimes have trouble touching a lot of things and people I love. Go figure. So there I was, asked to conduct the difficult task of installing: touching, presenting, understanding, explaining, protecting, gazing and then filtering all these things through my own experience of this psychically powerful object in a new gallery that’s been nearly impossible to open during an insane time. Stepping off the ladder and running this all through my brain in the same room with everyone was simply overwhelming. When a series of outcomes betrays your expectation in such a dramatic way, your body does its own thing. I’m also a crier.

Cry baby. When you first saw it all stuffed and sewn up you backed into the corner of the room and stayed there for quite a while just staring, which is good because you’re the exact demographic it’s meant to upset.

Big Love was made in collaboration with your mother using traditional techniques from your shared Indigenous heritage. Please tell us more.

The love is for Mob only. My great-grandmother was a forced domestic servant just around the corner from FUTURES in Collingwood. No matter how much milk you add to tea it’s still tea, and it’s our job to keep all these stories alive. I’m a Dingo in a Corgi costume. My aunty and cousin actually breed champion Corgis, fully aware of the irony. Gotta profit off the Queen somehow I guess.

Anyway, what probably looks like roadkill to you is a sculpture about love made together with my mum. The possum skins are from Aotearoa where they’re an introduced environmental disaster. Here they can be cheeky pests but mostly just cute friends. Before British people invaded, possum skin cloaks were very important to Kooris in the south-eastern part of the country. They’ve had a resurgence in the last few decades as people relearn old ways. Since I was born the whole family has called me Possum. I guess I’m a cheeky pest.

To me, your work has always seemed to be like playing a shell game with vulgarity, painting values and cartoonishness. Do I have it all wrong?

No, art could never be as vulgar as real life is. Solid colour with outline details seems like the simplest way to get the message across and can be read by most people. It’s much older than cartoons. Cave paintings were the first emojis. 

I often equate your work to grindhouse cinema. Subversive and accessible, at times containing a sexiness that rubs against porno for the sake of cheap provocation. Its sometimes even dumb. I bring up the analogy because we recently discussed John Waters’ brilliant oeuvre, which I know means a lot to us both, even though you winced a bit. Talk to me like I’m a Golden Retriever and clearly enunciate your relationship to the way camp and bad taste interfaces with the way you think a painting should matter.

Pretty sure I lost my virginity with the movie Saw playing in the background. It wasn’t a turn-on or anything but I guess one thing leads to another when huddled together in the dark. All people ever wanna talk about is camp, taste and popular culture (which basically means American culture). I’m more interested in unpopular culture. I did try to WAP on Tiktok but it’s so fucking fast. ‘Bad taste’ depends who you ask. Straight white breeders living their best lives like the world isn’t on fire seems pretty ‘bad taste’ to me. I have impeccable taste.

Matthew Harris, Big Love, 2021, possum skins, synthetic fur, stuffing, 125 x 90 x 50 mm irregular.

Matthew Harris, Honey Flower, 2021, acrylic and hair on linen and shaped wood panel, 900 x 600 mm irregular.

Matthew Harris, Devil Devil, 2021, acrylic and hair on linen and shaped wood panel, 900 x 600 mm irregular.

Matthew Harris, Rotting Flesh, 2021, acrylic and hair on linen and shaped wood panel, 900 x 600 mm irregular.

Matthew Harris, Worm Food, 2021, acrylic and hair on linen and shaped wood panel, 900 x 600 mm irregular.

Matthew Harris, Today, 2021, acrylic and hair on linen and shaped wood panel, 900 x 600 mm irregular.

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