Interview: Matthew Cronin
The Paradoxical Coincidence of Emergence, 2022, 40 x 50 Inches
1) Could you introduce yourself? Where did you study art, and when did you start to see yourself as an artist?
Certainly! Well, I’m Matthew Cronin and I am an artist living and working in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I come from a working-class family in northeast Massachusetts near the New Hampshire boarder. Since all of the men in the family had entered the labor force immediately after high school, you can only imagine the mixed reactions when I went on to formally study photography at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Despite the initial (and justified) skepticism, they have been incredibly supportive of my pursuits. Anyway, after my undergrad I spent time developing my personal practice while working as a studio assistant (an education in its own right). In 2017 I enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin’s Studio Art Program. It was an amazing experience and completely transformed my approach to picture-making.
I love the second part of this question. I don’t know if I can pinpoint the moment that I truly saw myself as an artist, but for as long as I can remember I have felt an urge to express myself creatively. I mean, I have vivid memories from early childhood of trying to draw and feeling frustrated that my doodles didn’t match what was in my head.
I think the best answer I could give is that I have always felt that I was artist, but it took about twenty-five years to accept it.
Dwelling #8, 2019, 60 x 75 Inches
2) Why do you rely on composite images to examine your interests? What kind of potentials do composite images have in terms of highlighting or examining the unseen history or the hidden truths?
So, I approach my art through my background as a photographer. What initially attracted me to the medium the way a picture’s interpretation comes from what is and isn’t shown. Photographs, by their very nature are a kind of composite- from the way they’re made; the optics of a camera superimpose the outside world over sensor or piece of film, to the way they’re interpreted; a viewer superimposing their own associations over what’s depicted, even viewing multiple images in a sequence changes the reading. Either way, it’s the product of what is and isn’t visible. However, when you start combining several pictures into a single image you can get something that is greater than the individual parts.
I think of my process as “archeological”. I’m digging through visual material to find what is beneath the surface. When I work with composites, montage, or multiple exposure, it is a way for me discover what is literally and metaphorically held in an image. I am fascinated by the way they become encoded with ideology; something that is particularly evident in commercial or commissioned photography; which was the conceptual impulse behind my Dwelling project.
The potential of composites, and what attracts me to them, is possibility that it can shift the way a viewer engages with world at large. I am not setting out to change people’s opinions on a given topic. Rather, I am hoping that they leave my work with a desire to consider to their preconceived ideals more deeply. Hopefully, they will realize that simple things are the product of deeply complex associations, histories, and unrecognized biases and moving forward will consciously question the world around them.
3) For your "Trinity/Primer" series, what drew you to the Trinity atomic bomb test sites? Are the photographic composites consisting of close-ups or shot from an aerial drone, or traditional shots of the landscape? Is Anselm Kiefer an influence in terms of the haunting imagery and the dense formation of structures? What is the concept of hauntology, and how does that idea drive this body of work?
There were a few things that drew me to the test site. It’s a combination of a grad school- induced creative crisis, making one interesting photograph, and a personal connection to the use of the bombs.
The idea for project came about suddenly while photographing in New Mexico. It was the start of my second semester at UT and felt like I hadn’t made any good work since beginning my MFA. My approach to picture-making was rapidly changing and I was struggling to resolve my works in progress.
Anyway, I was photographing on this hillside in Santa Fe and in the distance, there was the Los Alamos Laboratory, the research facility where much of the work on atomic bombs was conducted. At this point I was already experimenting with multiple exposure and montage, so I decided to use that approach while photographing the view with the lab set deep in the landscape. When I developed the film and saw the image it all hit me at once- there’s a project here.
It was a strong image, but what got me excited about the work was the way it resembled some photographs my great uncle made of Nagasaki immediately after the U.S. bombed the city. He was photographer for the military during World War II and was tasked with documenting the aftermath of the bombing. I never met him, but my uncle has an archive of those images. I remember first seeing them when I was ten or so and they were haunting, tragic, and totally sublime. They really stuck with me. So, when I made the picture Primer, I just sort of knew what to do.
Trinity/Primer is really important to me from a creative standpoint. It marks a major shift in my process. I was making my own images with a camera, shooting landscapes and whatnot. I’d make traditional photographs, in-camera multiple exposures, layer negatives on one another during the scanning process, and make composites with the computer. I would even print my pictures, make collages, and photograph those. I was treating my photos as found material and experimenting with techniques that would complicate the picture.
In terms of influence, Kiefer was definitely one. Being from Massachusetts, I’ve spent a lot of time at MassMoca where he has a huge installation. I was also looking a lot of other German artists like the Gerhard Richter and the Dusseldorf Photographers (mainly Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Struth). The way these artists visually and conceptually grapple with time, trauma, and history has hugely influential. I took a lot from those artists, and many others.
As I worked on these pictures, I was also doing a lot of reading. Specifically, about history’s relationship to the present. This how I came across Hauntology. This a really simplistic explanation of the concept, but in effect, it refers to a temporal disjunction where the past haunts over the present. Like a ghost, it never fully materializes, but its presence is felt. Jacques Derrida introduced the idea in his book Specters of Marx, but I was interested in Mark Fisher’s exploration of it. For him, hauntology was about how the failed promises and idealism of the past permeate the present, serving as a reminder a future that never arrived.
In Trinity/Primer, I was interested in the failure of the Atomic Age. Part of the justification for nuclear research was how the technology could be used to create a utopia, but ultimately resulted in the death of millions. I wanted to explore how the that legacy haunts the Trinity landscape through the use of ghostly multiple exposures.
New Technic #7, 2022 50 x 45.6 Inches
4) For your "Technics" series, what are you trying to discover by conceiving nonfunctional, fictional machines? Where would these machines belong? Are you trying to humanize and restore the respect for and dignity of the machines by negating them a utilitarian purpose? But wouldn't that simultaneously make them less effective "machines" or not machines at all? Who are some of the artists who inspired or influenced you in the making of this body of work?
In this series I am interested in the ideas surrounding labor and production; concealing my own work through meticulous composites; revealing what was concealed by the original photographer before reproduction; as well as my own relationship to it.
Technics started as a way for me to think about my experience as a worker in a leather factory. I would work with machines that were one hundred years old and, in retrospect, felt very sculptural. Even though I would work with the equipment, I had no idea how they worked. This disconnection from the tools used in production has only become more complex and complicated, which I explore through the nonfunction machines I create.
I am not sure where the fictional machines belong. I often think of them as relics of the future, memorialized in a hypothetical museum. I don’t know if I am trying to humanize the machine or restore respect as much as I am attempting to visualize a kind of technology that I am unable to comprehend. Technics is in an interesting place for me. I am still researching and making new works that are conceptually evolving. It is still very much in progress.
Since I am still working on the project, I am constantly looking at artists who engage with similar themes, concepts, and subjects. Similar to Trinity/Primer, I am looking at a lot of the photographers from the Dusseldorf School. I also look at the social documentary photographers from the early 20th century.
Distance//Direction, 2022, 50 x 40 Inches
5) For your "The Unbearable Closure of Being" series, I see a close similarity in terms of the concept and appearance to Sabrina Puppin's works concerning the perception of reality and abstraction. What does abstraction mean to you? What do your abstract images say about our existence and reality, as well as our understanding of them?
Puppin’s work is a great connection! Their work has actually been brought during a few studio visits!
To me abstraction is about the growing distance between one’s knowledge, experience, or understanding and a particular source; and I think that is what my use of abstraction investigates. With The Unbearable Closure of Being I am interested in exploring the ways desire, fantasy, and intimacy are changing and being commodified digitally.
Dwelling #19, 2021 60 x 75 Inches
6) For your "Dwelling" series, is Cubism an important counter influence that allows you to collage multiple elements into a single perspective (as opposed to a single element seen in multiple perspectives like a Cubist painting)? What the images seem to suggest is that there is a single perspective or viewpoint emerging from multiple subjects, like a consensus, rather than there being multiple perspectives involving a single subject.
Cubism and the work of the post-impressionists is absolutely an important counter influence. It is actually something that I reference throughout the series, not just in my process, but through actual objects in the picture. For example, in Dwelling #8, there are two framed illustrations appearing in the center of the image. They are reproductions of recognizable imagery from the Parisian magazine La Mode illustree. The one displayed in the left frame is Color Plate 19 from the May 7th, 1871 issue and was actually appropriated by Paul Cézanne in his 1871 painting The Promenade. Not only am I referencing a particular artist, but also connecting my practice to a tradition of appropriating commercial / popular imagery.
New Technic #1, 2020 50 x 40 Inches
7) So, in your work, the use of composite imagery brings in layers and elements of inconsistent logic, hybridity, illusion, and novelty. Is this a postmodern take on reality and truth, as poststructuralism finds that the placement and use of elements in language appear arbitrary and composited? Or is that kind of thinking and analogy not related to your work?
That is certainly the lens that I am filtering my work through. I don’t know necessarily set out to explore things in that way. I tend to make things first and then see what the work has to say. As I being to better understand the art, those findings inform subsequent pieces. Having said that, postmodern thought and poststructuralism have certainly become central to my own understanding of things.
Primer, 2018 80 x 100 Inches
8) Following this line of thought, do you think there is a greater form of truth that is universal, or is reality a messy fragment of competing interpretations and distortions? Or are the two ideas or models about truth the two sides of the same coin?
I don’t think there is a universal truth. Even if there is, who gets to declare themselves the arbiter of it? I think what people define as “universal truth” is ultimately a messy composite of competing perceptions of reality. However, I don’t think that should stop anyone from attempting to understand the nature of truth and reality. Maybe acknowledging how slippery terms like truth and reality are will give individuals greater insight? Who knows? All I can try do to grapple with the idea is to recognize that so much about life is subjective…..
9) Who are the mentors and peers who heavily impacted you in terms of your direction and trajectory as an artist?
I have been beyond fortunate to have had some incredible and generous mentors throughout my career. I was lucky enough to work as an assistant to Abelardo Morell for four years. It was amazing to work so closely with such an amazing artist. I learned a lot from him. Not just about art, but practical things too. For example, how to maintain a studio, how to develop long term projects, and how to maintain relationships with galleries or collectors. I still reach out to him for advice and find his work to be a huge inspiration.
I would also point to my faculty and advisors throughout undergrad and grad school. Teresa Hubbard, Sarah Canright, and Troy Brauntuch where instrumental to me finding my footing and pushing my work as a student at UT Austin. I’d also like to acknowledge the impact that David Hillard, Barbara Bosworth, Anna Collette, along with the entire MassArt faculty had on the development of my work at such a critical stage in my practice. Honestly, everyone who I have crossed paths with have influenced my trajectory and I wish I could thank them all!
10) What are your plans and dreams as an artist? Where do you see yourself going in the next five years?
My plans are really to keep working and making art. My dream is to have a sustainable and fulfilling career making the type of work that I want to make. I just want to live and make- and make enough money to cover my expenses.
In the next five years I see myself working towards that goal. I would like to establish more consistent relationships with galleries. So hopefully by then I will have found the right match!
In terms of my practice, I continue to see myself exploring the limits of the photographic image while indulging as many curiosities as possible. All I can hope is that the results are interesting!