Written by: Adam Lehrer
Silicon Valley-raised, New York-based artist Matthew Tierney is an information nerd. When I spoke with the artist at his recent exhibition at Bryant Toth Fine Arts, our conversation jettisoned from topic to topic, with Tierney thoughtfully ruminating on each subject that came up. A conversation discussing his San Francisco upbringing moves from San Francisco’s lack of an art structure, to Sarah Lucas’s recent museum survey in San Francisco, to Sarah Lucas’s cultural importance in comparison with her fellow Young British Artist peers, to other YBA’s that have stood the test of time, to Tierney’s love of under-appreciated YBA, poet and musician Billy Childish. Moving through subjects with ease and clarity, Tierney looks at the entirety of culture through a credible, informed and open-minded viewpoint.
Adam LehrerTierney’s cultural outlook is undeniably contemporary, viewing the world through a decidedly Duchampian mindset that makes no delineation between high and low culture. He appreciates Supreme as much as high end designers like Raf Simons, listens to electronic music with the same understanding that he does opera, and watches as many pop corn films as he does Truffaut movies. That outlook is filtered into his paintings.
“The separation of culture, the fact that fashion, music, performance and art is separated, is ludicrous,” he says. “Go back to Plato. There is no separation between mediums. Fashion, philosophy, art: these things are all connected. They just want to commoditize all these separate mediums, so corporations dictate that creative people stay in their lanes. The fact that people want to commoditize my work is great, but there’s no way I’m going to allow for a disintegration between the culture that I create."
Tierney’s Bryan Toth show, Empires Fall/The Dance Goes on, was the artist’s first solo exhibition. Remarkably, however, Tierney has already cultivated an influential group of collectors and has seen his paintings placed alongside 20th century masters like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol.
Tierney has earned the support of important mentors. The iconic British curator Norman Rosenthal, who is widely regarded for his support of various neo-expressionists in the 1980s (Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente and Anselm Kiefer) and the Young British Artist’s in the 1990s, took an early interest in Tierney’s work. Rosenthal then introduced Tierney to none other than David Hockney who also champions Tierney’s work and has given him notes and feedback. Hockney latched onto the concept of time in Tierney’s paintings. Hockney, among others, have noted Tierney’s ability to stretch his perspective capturing something wider and more open, as opposed to being frozen within a singular moment. "He really pushed me to take time, extend time, make it cyclical and explode it,” says Tierney. “That was my whole idea with these paintings was to do away with linear perspective.”
The majority of the paintings in the show, or The Dancer series, employ a Mattisean color palette and renders form recalling both the commercial imagery of Warhol’s vision of pop (especially when considering the fashion and glamorous element in the paintings) and Francis Bacon’s incomprehensible surrealist shapes. The subjects are female dancers captured during a moment that suggests something far more infinite than the poses allude to.
Tierney, unlike many young artists, embraces the history of modern art, and discerns how that language can be reinterpreted and shattered for a contemporary digital world. I asked Tierney if he thought his respect for his forebears had anything to do with the appreciations he’s earned from icons like Hockney or Rosenthal. Tierney thought there was something to that assertion, but that there was something deeper at play. “I’ve just had these opportunities to be in the room with someone like Hockney, and I’ve felt blessed to be in those rooms and took that time to learn,” says Tierney. “Maybe it is connected to art history somehow, but I think it’s more an openness to ideas and to learning.”
Tierney grew up drawing, and has never stopped drawing. He thinks about drawing as a language, and wants to keep building upon that language and uses it to guide his notions of form and beauty. But instead of studying painting or the fine arts, Tierney actually went to UCLA film school. But he soon felt out of place and turned his focus to painting.
While respectful of his teachers, it was quickly noted that Tierney’s passions lied slightly outside the traditions of a film education. Amazingly, the Dean of his program was remarkably understanding of Tierney’s needs and allowed him to take a quarter off of school and focus on the creations of Tierney’s choosing. “I was painting all the time, making music, making my own short films,” says Tierney. “So what he thought was best for me was to produce a body of work and present it to faculty after every quarter. That’s what I was graded on. It could be a show about painting. About music. Something that relates to sciences or mathematics. As long as I created a body of work he’d pass me.”
At the end of the quarter, while his classmates were presenting pieces of writing, short films, and plays, Tierney presented a cross-platform multimedia art experience. He put 250 paintings that he had recently made along a wall, and on the opposite wall projected a video. He had composed 30 minutes of music that accompanied the video stream for 29 minutes. For the last minute of music, the lights were switched back on and the audience was instructed to face the paintings for one solitary minute. When the music was done, the room faded to black. “They all thought I was crazy,” he says with a bemused smirk.
Man Ray, the iconic surrealist photographer and artist, was asked by press constantly whether he’d ever give up painting because at a certain point he was making a much more sizable income from his photographic pursuits. Ray would shoot down these questions, reinforcing his belief that artists being forced to “stay in their lane” was a bourgeoise notion handed from the elite class to the working class that was used to control artists by still making them choice a vocation. Tierney subscribes to this belief 100 percent. While mastering his painting, he has also continued making music and designing sets for operas and plays. He is particularly passionate about a project he’s working on with his friend and opera composer Harley Adams. Adams is headed towards India on a Fulbright scholarship to study the Thugee tribe. The Thugees were both activists and bandits, halting the spread of colonialization with violent means. The American gang culture nomenclature “Thug Life” is believed to be influenced by these gangs. Projects like these are testament to Tierney’s restless spirit and insatiable thirst for knowledge and new ideas.
In an essay, Adams has said that Tierney’s work acts as “an archive of human and digital processes.” Though it’s hard to read into the statement devoid of context, it feels accurate. Though Tierney is playing with concepts inherent to our digitized world, his work is much better experienced in-person. The vastness of the moments depicted in his dancer paintings don’t necessarily translate through a screen. It’s art to look at directly from the human eye to the canvas, without the buffer of the computer and all the existential baggage that gets tacked onto the digital experience. He’s an artist that doesn’t exist in a vacuum and he doesn’t claim to. He acknowledges the history that came before him and defines what the culture is to him now. That’s all an artist needs to do. “If we hit all those cornerstones of 20th century art, we’re appropriating all the mediums and embracing what our culture is now,” he says.