Disc of Life


Since the mid-1980’s, Matthew Weinstein’s work has consistently meditated on the terrifying and absurd experience of death. The artist’s drawings and paintings from the mid 1990’s feature skeletons seem to come to life, walk upright and interact with humans, alongside hovering art historical faces crying tears of blood. For a 2006 work, The Triumph of Painting, Weinstein cast skeletons in bronze, playing Frisbee.

Weinstein’s digitally animated video Chariots Of The Gods (2009) stars a fighting fish swimming in an empty restaurant interior based Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Weinstein deploys a type of naturalism recognizable as belonging to the idiom of the cartoon, particularly anime and more traditional forms of Japanese art such as Hokusai. The Pixar visual language is put to uncanny ends: The late Natasha Richardson provided the voiceover, speaking in a non-linear narrative. Subsequent paintings and sculptures are fabricated from the videos and based on the 3D digital visualizations. Richardson’s death during production of the work provides one of its eeriest themes; it is an irrational fact of the work.

Looking at the first draft of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age f Mechanical Reproduction” Rosalind Krauss discusses the theorist’s “recourse to Mickey Mouse revolved around the effects of collective
laughter, which he saw as the antidote to the deadening of individual experience to the assaults of modern technology.” With the skeleton his chosen metaphor, Weinstein says, “underneath our emotive exteriors, we are grinning like fools,” staring death in the face, through a screen.

NOAH BECKER: In your work you pick up certain tropes, which are like avatars and which one follows from piece to piece.

MATTHEW WEINSTEIN: Well, I began using skeletons in my work in 1994. It was certainly a less popular symbol then than it is now, as it has become part of the fashion and pop cultural vernacular. I started looking at etchings of bones taken from 19th Century anatomy books, for the first research phases of the skeleton sculpture, around the time of an exhibition I did at Sonnabend in the mid-1990’s, which had paper cut-outs of skulls mixed into gestural abstraction and pools of varnish dotted with pins. These were my early mixed media paintings on paper. The work was very different from what I do now, but the skeletons have remained.

BECKER: Were you working with metaphors?

WEINSTEIN: The skeleton is the beautiful fact of us—our architecture and proof that underneath our emotive exteriors, we are grinning like fools. The skeletons in The Triumph Of Painting are playing Frisbee (picturedleft). The Frisbee popped up in my work when I was making bronze sculptures in Kathmandu. I had one with me and I had them cast in shiny polished bronze, which gave the final object a sacred look. That is how these two undead skeletons diving for this sacred Frisbee came to me‹diving for the prize, even in death.

BECKER: On first glance, the Frisbee suggests ideas of youthful, perhaps utopian, nostalgia. It’s also a signifier of trademarked recreation, and was introduced to markets in the 1960s.

WEINSTEIN: Those are ways to view it, but it’s also about the religion of sport, of competition. The Frisbee is a memorial to American myths of progress and myths of aliens alike. I really like the Mexican artist Posada, and was reminded of one of his Vanitas images of skeletons having fun, working at tasks, fighting, planning, etc. This piece took about two years to make, because we cast every bone in bronze and then had to figure out how to put them back together into a fully articulated puppet with a hanging system. I have installed it in four different configurations.

BECKER: When did you first encounter the work of Posada?

WEINSTEIN: I was a kid, and the tone of his work never left me. I love pushing content to the maudlin or tragic, making a joke of it and then pulling the joke out. It confuses a complete emotional story. My work picks up at random places and ends in random places, like a day does or an hour or a thought. I am trying to describe how my mind works. My father died last year, which was a terrible thing for me. But there was this way that my mind looked for something positive in it, looked for a joke, and then it caved in and started this whole process over again. It was constantly breaking down under the heaviness of reality and restructuring itself with fantasies of lightness. As long as we are in flux, we are alive, and vice versa.

BECKER: Previously, you used the juggler, which would seem to have a similar type of levity and mythical gravitas.

WEINSTEIN: I used the image of the juggler when I was very young, before I completely understood why it was important. I don’t use the image now because it’s what I do all day long.

BECKER: Do you think of these images as fixed in terms of their political importance?

WEINSTEIN: My paintings at one time had a grand guignol quality, which I think is subtly evident in my animated cabarets and in certain paintings. Mortality was a heightened issue for those of us who became sexually active at the onset of the spread of HIV in New York. I had made a proposal that the gay flag be changed from the rainbow, which is awful, to the pirate flag, which I thought was more heroic. Nobody listened but I still think it’s a good idea. The swan song of the skeletons came in a song in my animated cabaret, Siam (2009). In it, two fully articulated virtual bronze skeletons sing a song I wrote and that was composed by Balkan Beat Box, called “Keep On Smiling.” Of course, skeletons can do nothing but smile. They have no choice. The song was about one’s insignificance in the face of the desire for capital and our need to cannibalize each other. Of course, what’s left after that? Just bones.

BECKER: The Frisbee has occurred in a number of your works previously and with different effect. How has it changed as a trope?

WEINSTEIN: I did a solo exhibition at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich in 2005, for which I made a gigantic sand mandala in the form of the Frisbee logo. It took a week to complete and was swept up and tossed out after two weeks. People came to visit and watch it being made. The piece was a monument to one of the inventors of the Frisbee, a man named Ed Hedrick, who was cremated and had his ashes mixed into plastic and made into a series of Frisbees. As a person who spent much of his life throwing a Frisbee, he mentioned an eternity spent stuck on the roof of a house retrieving it after a bad throw. His choice of cremation suggested to me the idealistic, even spiritual nature of the Frisbee and led me, in essence, to the skeleton project. I also have an edition of the bronze Frisbees, which I love because in their non-use they become objects of contemplation like mandalas, or halos.