Monday, January 23, 2012

The Museum Home of Matthew Onan


I met Matthew Onan this past fall at the opening of Stagecoach, a new gallery in downtown Duluth. In the usual manner I asked what kind of art he liked to do and he mentioned a few things and we exchanged contact information. In his first email to me he stated, “I don’t think I mentioned that my biggest/favorite/most complex piece of artwork is my house.”

The first weekend in January I took the tour, and it made an impression on me. I've often heard and used the expression, "A place for everything and everything in its place," but I'd not actually seen it so applied to a living space. I felt challenged to do a more thorough job of organizing my own life.

What follows is an email exchange between myself and a young artist whose life, to a great extent, is art.

Ennyman: Your whole house is a work of art. How did this happen?
Matthew O: I enjoy beauty, as does every person, but more than the average person I need it as much as possible… visible all around me. Thus, ever since I was young, I would place things that I liked, that looked good and nice to me, on my walls, dresser space, etc., and arrange them so that they were “at their best.” By that I mean that their overall position within the context of the entire room, their near and distant neighbors/juxtapositions, all maximized the inherent beauty of the object. The object then was for ALL the objects, pictures on the wall, etc, to achieve their highest possibility.

Likewise, I always felt for and strove to achieve the highest possibility for the room itself. This was almost always done with objects, pictures, etc., that I had at hand, collected through the years. This process was repeated in approximately ten different rooms/apartments/studios in my post-high school years. Coming to live in this house then, I applied the same techniques, a process which took roughly three years. Not until the finishing touches were taking place did I start to think of it as art. Now I do, and quite strongly. It remains as static as possible, meaning that I keep things very neat, and while it is (naturally) still a functional space, I try to minimize the variance of those things that must come-and-go, change; for example, mail, dishes, kleenex boxes that become empty… for each of these contingencies I have a fixed method, or response. I view the house as a single piece of art… like a Dali painting that one can enter and move around, three-dimensionally. That metaphor does not fully work, but in ways it does. (I say Dali because he composes with things that are by definition unrelated, and random, but via his juxtapositions and overall composition, everything “works.”)

E: Your home repeats a red yellow green blue motif. What is the significance of these colors for you?
MO: The planet is green and blue, with a red core and yellow firmament. That’s one way to put it. It’s more of a feeling though, a feeling that the four colors evoke… they all like each other and are happy in each other’s presence. Most simply, they look good, and right, and balanced together. Green and blue especially… I guess because they are the “umbrella colors” to life.

E: You’ve designed each room so that it has a “best vantage point.” Do you have a favorite vantage point for the whole of your home?
MO: I did have you sit at that chair for it had a “best vantage point” aspect to it, though that was more an exception than the rule. I should have perhaps said a “better vantage point.” The set of rocks on the shelf going down to the basement, and the driftwood on the shelf in the laundry rooms are the two pure examples of a “best” vantage point (that I can think of now). Otherwise it is more an aggregate of vantage points. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect to describe. Take a statue for example. There are an infinite number of vantage points. The sculptor himself saw the work from this multitude of angles (there is a way to reconcile “infinite” to a human capacity, i.e. the sculptor’s seeing all the vantage points but this is not the place.) but no one else has, or will, or is even able to. Living in this house, this space, has given me a similar experience, in that I have had a very wide array of vantage points, and time to take everything in, and finely tune things in their arrangement and juxtapositions. Like a sculptor I feel that the finished product is still accessible to others minds’, but, necessarily, the full effect can only be felt by me. This is distressing in ways, but the distress fades when I realize that this is how it is for everyone, for all creations, experiences, etc…. the idiosyncrasity of life in general.

As I mentioned to you also, I hope one day for a post-bachelor student to do their thesis on this house/space/piece. I would allow them to live here, by him- or herself… and really soak things in… engage and study. This would make me very happy; for there to be someone who can, with time, begin to really “get” the place. This is not to say that someone like yourself, or the kind Ann Klefstad, (both being talented, insightful artists) don’t “get” some of the things I’ve done, or strove to get across, but there is this necessary element of time that I would like someone to delve into. In summary, the best vantage point is an aggregate of vantage points… not only directly, but also between the rooms and floors there are themes and connections… from obvious to intricate, but even the obvious need to steep into a person, due to the overall complexity. Lots of thought and fine-tuning went into this place, and being that it can only be seen one wall, or room at a time, (and these from so many vantage points!), it necessarily takes a longer, more patient process than most works of art. This seems, or may seem, to imply this has an edge on other forms of art, which is not my intent, or true. Rather, it is just different. Being so large, even a relatively simple, two-dimensional picture may be looked over too quickly, as there are so many surrounding distractions, even in a given room.

To the original question, which I hope I didn’t stray too far from, if I had to pick one vantage point it would definitely be that chair in the living room. From there areas of four rooms (one being an entryway) are visible. Also, as I mentioned to you, it is where I spend the most time, thus it has become perhaps the most (via largely the subconscious) finely tuned, i.e. reached its highest potential, insofar as it is a single vantage point; for again, the highest potential comes from the slow engagement of as many vantage points as possible.

E: You also “make art”… not just design your living space. What are you currently working on?
MO: I just finished a collage in homage to Paul Gauguin, using only images of his paintings. My aim was for something that he would like. There is lots of energy, or a sense of controlled chaos, with his vibrant color being very apparent. The scale of size is very large, which is something necessary to begin to try to portray a life like his. And his self portraits dominate if not in size, then in quantity, which is something he would approve in, or even insist on, if say he were to have commissioned this. In other words, he had quite the ego! I’m also doing some landscapes with wax and paint. They’re not large. Perhaps 5” x 7” on average.

E: What music do you listen to while painting, drawing or making your collages?
MO: I’ll put the iTunes on shuffle, when I do have music going. It’s probably a 50-50 split between having music on and silence. I like it all though, from female opera and heavy, heavy metal on one side of the spectrum, to acoustic and slower indie on the other side, with my favorite band ever, Modest Mouse, and orchestras being good examples of not so much the middle ground as spectrum spanners.

E: In closing I would suggest that it has been a while since someone made such an impact on me in so deep a way as Matthew and our time in his museum home. The very patient manner in which he shared his space with me, the very deliberate manner in which he orders his life has caused me to think more seriously about the almost reckless pace of my own life, with its debris everywhere. There's an almost worshipful attitude to and respect for the space, each room becoming a form of sanctuary. For this reason I wanted to share it here.

Thank you, Matt.

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