Artist of the Week: Matthias Merkel Hess

Matthias Merkel Hess lives and works in Los Angeles.  He received his MFA from UCLA in 2010 and has exhibited in New York, Texas and throughout California.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.  For the last few years, I’ve been making a lot of “bucketry” pieces under the name Matthias Merkel Hess. These are plastic vessels made out of glazed ceramic, such as milk crates, trash cans, gas cans and 5 gallon buckets. I’ve also done a few different projects that are ink and watercolor on paper, and I hope to do more of that in the future. Watercolor is a process I really enjoy. I also make functional pottery under the name MerkelWare, which is by Matt Merkel-Hess.  I’m also always playing with language, branding and the commodification of my work, but the root of everything I do is about looking at the world and then going into the studio and making something by hand.

How did your interest in art begin?  I was always interested in making art, but it wasn’t until my early 20s that I had the confidence to pursue it as a career. This is also when I discovered the pottery wheel, which became an addiction. Now it’s more than 10 years later, and I feel like I’m just starting to
figure out what I want to say and do as an artist and potter.

What are some current projects you are working on? I’m preparing for a three-person ceramics show at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Overland Park, Kansas, which will be with William O’Brien and Arlene Shechet and opens in late May. My contribution will be a sort of “Bucketry II,” which builds off my 2011 solo show “Bucketry” at ACME here in Los Angeles. For the Nerman show, I’m adding more of my ouevreday vessels, including a Roughneck Storage Tub, Igloo Playmate coolers and more gas cans. This July, I’m going to be in the Venice Boardwalk Biennial in Venice, Calif. It’s a three-day event curated by Ali Subotnick that’s going to be a mix of artists and performers from the contemporary art world mixed with the regular vendors and performers at the boardwalk. I’m making a collection of things such as Case Study Home incense burners, ceramic sunglasses, watercolor-on-paper beach towels and maybe some sort of pipe form.  It’s going to be under the brand “Merkel Craft Art & Novelties.”

What kinds of things are influencing your work?  My goal is always to make work that speaks to a contemporary art audience, but that might also appeal to a more casual viewer of art (and not just some average joe, but someone who has the interest to visit a gallery or museum). I use puns, one-liners and humor to get someone to stop and take a look, and hopefully there’s something else there to think about. For example, with the Merkel Craft Art & Novelties, I’m looking specifically at the Treasure Craft Pottery, which was a Los Angeles-based company that made a lot of tourist knick-knacks from the late 1940s until the mid 1990s. I’m combining that with the “fair ware” type of pieces that George Ohr made and sold in the late 1800s at the World’s Fair and other large events. I’m also interested in all the merchandise produced by artists ranging from Thomas Kinkade to Takashi Murakami. So I’m trying to make things that are worth looking at, collecting and hopefully also of interest as a commentary on how artists make and sell work.

How long have you lived in Los Angeles and what brought you there?  I moved to the Los Angeles area in the fall of 2002. I followed my girlfriend (now my wife) who got into grad school here. Los Angeles was the last place I wanted to move; it seemed like it was all traffic and superficiality. But once I got here, I immediately loved it. You can be and do anything you want here. I grew up in Iowa, so I do miss the seasons, although LA is great when it rains. I’ve heard thunder only a few times out here, and I really miss those crazy, mid-summer moments in Iowa where the sky turns almost green, the birds go silent, and about 20 minutes later it just starts going insane with lightening, thunder and thick rainfall.

How has living in Los Angeles affected your art practice?  I discovered pottery about a year and half before moving here, and feel lucky that I moved to a city that is so supportive and rich with ceramic history. Almost every community college has a ceramics program, and many of the universities do too. UCLA is rare as a top MFA program that also has a ceramics department. So that was my entry point to the art world, and then grad school was a launching pad where I had the time and space to experiment with a lot of things, talk to people about art and try to figure things out.

If you could go anywhere in the world where would you go and why?  There are a lot of places I want to go, mostly for the food. I want to go to Munich and drink beer and eat pretzels; I want to go to Lima, Peru and eat ceviche; I want to just walk across the border to Tijuana and eat tacos. Landscape-wise, there are some formative places from my childhood that I’d like to return to, including canoeing and camping in the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota; the Rochester Cemetery in Cedar County, Iowa, which is a rare example of the Oak Savannah that used to be found all over Iowa combined with old gravestones; and anywhere in New Mexico where the plains meet the Sangre de Christo mountains.

Favorite music?  I’m addicted to having music on in the studio. I use Spotify to find new music, but it’s great because I also like listening to complete albums. As I write this, I’m listening to a “Shostakovich plays Shostakovich” album on Spotify, and the band Fun has been a guilty pleasure for the last week or so, even though I’ll probably hate them in about a month. I’ve also recently listened to the new Grimes album a few times.  In the last six months, the album I’ve listened to most is “Actor-Caster” by the Generationals. An all-time favorite music collection would start with “Thunder Road” by Bonnie Prince Billie and Tortoise, “Icky Thump” by the White Stripes, “Four Sticks” by Led Zeppelin, “This is How We Walk on the Moon” by Arthur Rusell, “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie, “Everyday” by Buddy Holly, and just about anything that involves Dr. Dre.

What do you do when you’re not working on art?  I have a 1-year-old son, so now I’m basically always making art or being a dad. If I have the time, one of my favorite things to do is to bake bread. Last year, while I was a stay-at-home dad for about 8 months, I used “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” by Peter Reinhart to really learn how to bake. I combined some of Reinhart’s techniques with a no-knead recipe for an easy, foolproof loaf that I just make over and over. In a way, baking bread is not that much different from making and firing something ceramic.

What are your plans for the next year?  I’ve got a backlog of plans and ideas, so I’m always excited about opportunities to exhibit work. Probably most of the ideas are really bad—raisin sculptures? Self-portrait bread loaves? Moldy-drywall installations? But I usually don’t know if something is good or bad until it leaves the studio.