Matt McCormick On His Exhibition ‘Lead Me Not Into Temptation’ at OMNI

A fading American dream...

Renowned for sweeping oil paintings of cowboys, vast American landscapes and a contemporary spin on the American West, LA-based artist Matt McCormick has subverted assumptions of modern American culture and a fading American dream against vivid desert scenes in his latest exhibition Lead Me Not Into Temptation at OMNI in London.

Through a combination of paintings, sculptures, film, photographs and installations, McCormick explores evocative symbols of American values and the wider attachments of Western consumerism and excess. Items such as a simple Pepsi can, a tractor and a long highway road are digitally manipulated and layered for a bold, surreal finish. 

McCormick’s work is imbued with subtle meanings and seemingly random phrases to elicit an interpretative, interactive experience from the viewer. He invites his audience to peer into his work and decipher their own meanings of the scenes before them. 

Speaking to Matt McCormick as he closes his exhibition at OMNI, he discusses how growing up in an artistic family helped him to forge his own path as an artist, the inspiration behind Lead Me Not Into Temptation and road-tripping to Monument Valley with his best friends in lockdown.

Matt McCormick On His Exhibition ‘Lead Me Not Into Temptation’ at OMNI
Image courtesy of Matt McCormick

Sabrina Soormally: Can you tell me about your background in art and how you first got started?

Matthew McCormick: I grew up in an art-driven family, both of my parents were working artists, so from a young age I was in my parent’s shared studio, crawling around on the floor between my mother’s dark room, the office and then my dad’s painting studio. So it was kind of something that I was always pretty engaged with and then it just was a natural part of the family dynamic you know? It was just what we did and the weekends were art classes with my parents and that kind of thing. And then as I entered school it was just what I tended to be drawn to, I considered myself “the art kid” so from a young age that was the set-up, and then as I got older it was one of those things in grade school when they try to get you to figure out your future – I knew I wanted to work in the arts but it was figuring out how I was going to work in the arts. I went through a couple of different iterations of that and then I ended up where I am today, which was a hodge-podge of all of my interests and it’s become an ever-evolving thing for me.

SS: How did your parents’ work influence you? Do you think that your parent’s artistic style rubbed off on you? Or did you, from an early age, forge your own path and your own vision of what you wanted to do?

MM: When I was younger I was definitely one of those kids who was trying to rebel against everything that they wanted to show me… it was up until a certain age I was a sponge, and then at around high school and that period, it became a period when I was trying to rebel against everything that they were showing me, so then I was picking my own music and creating my own identity. And that stuff still kind of forms who I am today, but as I got older I  started bringing back a lot of the stuff they had tried to show me or exposed me to at a young age. So I rebelled against it for a while, but it did come back around. Now my father and I specifically have a very close relationship when it comes to discussing art and talking about it on a consistent basis. We were actually just over in London in October on a trip just to come here and view art and experience it together. That was a nice circle of life in that sense!

SS: You’ve worked in a lot of different mediums, which medium would you say defines your career the best?

MM: For a long time I’ve always said that oil painting is where I felt the most in my element, but the reality is that I’ve always really jumped around in different mediums. For me the piece really did take on the medium, and you know as of late I’ve always said that as a creative it’s more about creating work and a look and feel to your output, regardless of what it is if I print on a t-shirt, or I make a film, or I draw an illustration, or whatever it is… no matter what it is, the goal is that it will be recognisable as mine regardless of the medium. So I’m constantly trying to further push that and determine what that looks like and how that comes out to the viewer. As of late, I’ve been really into using printing techniques and ink-jet printers with painting, which is something that I’ve done for years but I’ve really turned the gas on so to speak – especially with this show I’ve really implored a lot of those techniques. This show covers all the bases when it comes to different mediums, there’s everything from sculpture to paintings to drawings, it’s all in there, the whole kitchen sink.

Matt McCormick On His Exhibition ‘Lead Me Not Into Temptation’ at OMNI
Image courtesy of Matt McCormick

SS: Where do you normally draw inspiration from? Or is it a mixed bag?

MM: It comes from what could start as an autobiographical narrative, and using everything that’s around me. But I’m from the generation that was born before the internet, but was also very much raised on the internet and access to images – we already had a lot of images that we were exposed to but it really ramped up as soon as things like Google Image, blogs and the way the internet has really exposed us. Before you had to go to places like the newsstand and the library, for printed visuals and now it’s in your pocket at all times. And so I draw a lot from that, I work from a lot of found imagery because if I have an idea of an image in my head, it’s very easy and quick to just go straight to the internet to fill the gap … I’ve pictured an image in my head and now I can just go and find it, much easier than maybe going out and recreating and photographing myself. And I like the connection between my generation’s use of images and constant exposure to images and connecting the art to that, so it’s been instrumental in how I make work at this point. 

I’m not sure if I really answered where the inspiration comes from, but I’m finding inspiration from this autobiographical narrative, but specifically for this show, it connects to what we as a nation in America and also the world at large are experiencing, and how the histories of these cultures and my personal experiences fit into that and drawing a connection between such things. 

SS: What can you tell me about your creative process and how close your final piece usually come to your initial idea?

MM: You know, I usually have the pieces pretty much completely mapped out … well that’s not 100% true! Some of them are completely mapped out before I even touch the canvas because I’m a product of the c computer generation and whatnot. I was put into Photoshop classes when I was 13 years old and I have a pretty good ability to create the work digitally before it even touches the canvas, even if it’s a loose gestural painting I can kind of map it out, which is an interesting new way of doing things. But there’s definitely work that I’ve built slowly and I start them but a lot of times will make a decision on the computer before I even take it to the canvas as a way to avoid having to start from the beginning. I can take a photograph of it, bring it to the computer, add the colour, and add a loose idea of what it’s going to be like before I actually put it on canvas, which is an interesting dialogue between technology and the way I work. Because for a lot of the work I’m very concerned with making it feel timeless and classic in physical nature but how I get there uses a lot of current technology. It’s just being in the studio and sitting with your own mind in a big room or wherever, it lends itself well to really diving deep into these subjects and narratives that I’m talking about. 

SS: Accessibility is almost a privilege compared to other generations.

MM: Yes definitely, 100%.

Matt McCormick On His Exhibition ‘Lead Me Not Into Temptation’ at OMNI
Image courtesy of Matt McCormick

SS: What can you tell me about your new exhibition?

MM: So this body of work was when I initially talked to Matt from OMNI, he had presented some timeframes. They had just opened the gallery and were really excited to get going and they presented some timeframes that were very short and became much shorter when I locked in June because I initially talked about August which wasn’t going to work due to everyone’s travelling schedules so I gave myself about two and a half months to make all the work. And it was definitely a very short amount of time to make everything that I ended up making, but I actually work well under that kind of pressure. 

So I went to two series that I had never shown but have been two bodies of work that have definitely been consistent in my practice for a long time, it was one body of work that I had released a book about last year called ‘Into The Distance’, and the other touched on these paintings that I referred to as my story paintings for a long time. It was a way to fuse them together and connect them in a way that maybe hadn’t been apparent to people who follow my work before, and so I was able to bring in new elements and really connect the new work with things that are happening around me and new techniques that I’m using in my practice. 

And new ideas that I wanted to explore came into it, so it started with that autobiographical point, and themes and imagery that I’ve consistently worked with, like the Western imagery, but then really diving into the experience as a citizen of the U.S. and the trials and tribulations that we experience as a nation. Especially when you get out of the country and look back at it, it looks pretty extreme, and it’s almost a warzone of ideals all the time. I really wanted to talk about that while also showing the conflicts that occur to us on a daily level, life itself and the struggles that may exist interpersonally and within the head. Using found objects, these mundane objects like a Coke bottle or a tractor, things that first glance are regular nothing objects, but we attach a lot of experiences to and around them. It may be an object around work or a drink, for example, a drink gives us sustenance and acts as a pool to sustain and live and the idea that that is a symbol of these larger conversations that are happening. 

The way that we as a people interact with these objects, we are a nation who has to have everything all the time, and we accrue so many things and it touches on a lot of the issues around the environment and politics. It’s a way to show this visual of a country in turmoil which I seem to believe that it is but through these simple objects. 

Omni, Matt McCormick
Image courtesy of Matt McCormick

SS: What inspired you to work with these specific landscapes?

MM: So a lot of the works are from a place called Monument Valley which is on the border of Arizona and Utah. For me it’s symbolic, it’s similar to the cowboys; for me, the cowboys are a symbol of Americans across the world, even though they exist everywhere and I’m sure you can find a cowboy everywhere from Argentina to Germany. If there was a Wikipedia image of an American, it would probably be the Marlboro Man of sorts, so I tend to use that symbolism a lot for that reason. Just like a pack of Marlboros or a Coke bottle has the same effect, the image of Monument Valley is the same for me. It was used consistently in all the Western movies from the early to mid-20th Century and for me, the main three mountain plateaus out here are a very recognisable image, it is almost cartoon-like. It’s another way to keep injecting that American symbolism and to place this conversation around what that all means. But at the same time, it’s very beautiful so during the lockdown, in January of 2020 I actually took a train trip there with my two best friends from Los Angeles and documented the whole trip. We spent a night at Monument Valley and turned right back around the next day, and took the train home, but there’s a video piece in the show documenting that whole trip. I used images from the trip in some of the works, the pieces that use them I look at as almost like a screen of sorts, I was raised watching those movies and looking at Marlboro ads, and it was kind of an idealised character that I wanted to be, I thought it was the ultimate American man. For me as a child and even as a man now looking at these screens, these images of Monument Valley and places where these films were shot – the way the show is set up, you walk through these collage paintings of all these modern-day objects and the items i was just referring to, you will then step into the room, watch the movie and then go downstairs into this idealised, dreamy, imaginative space of these screen images with these cowboys peering into them, it’s a journey.

SS: You use words quite a lot in your work, especially through your Western cowboy pieces, there’s a lot of text in this exhibition too. How do words and language become a part of your work?

MM: So it’s similar to the image I was referring to earlier, music is very important to me and a lot of my friends are musicians, even more so than other artists and so I’m always listening to music. When I’m working I’ll be listening and I’ll hear a lyric or I’ll be reading something and I’ll see a phrase and I will jot it down. A lot of time I even forget where they come from and it becomes another part of this collage element that is part of my practice where I’m collaging found imagery, lyrics and phrases, and now it’s evolved into places where I’m either building images from a bunch of different images, recreating them or photoshopping them, and I’ll do the same with some of the words so it’s just a continuation of what I’m doing with images. It started as a way to add another layer to the personal narrative but also a way to allow the viewer to peer in and figure out what it might mean to them. For me, I never like to explain why I made the work or what it means, because I really want to place the words and the images together in a way that forces the viewer to figure it out for themselves and how they interact with it. 

SS; Who are some contemporary figures that you look to for inspiration at the moment?

MM: It is endless but in this show specifically, I reference Martin Kippenberger, a sculptor. I created my own version of one of his sculptures called ‘Street Lamp For Drunks’, he made a street lamp that was very curved and almost wobbly and I made an American stop sign version of it. Because I’ve been bringing a lot of printing elements into my work, I’ve been looking at artists like Wade Guyton, Robert Rauschenberg and Julia Wachtel, and really looking at these multimedia artists who were not bound by one medium. It’s why I’ve been really into Martin Kippenberger lately, he would really use everything, drawings, hotel stationery, sculptures, and furniture, and he was never limiting himself. I would be remiss to not include Richard Prince, anyone who knows my work can see plenty of inspiration from him. I’ve been really attracted to artists who don’t limit themselves to one look or feel, they work with ideas and when the idea strikes they connect with a certain media or medium and that helps dictate where the piece goes.

SS: What’s it been like working with the team at OMNI?

MM: It’s been awesome, I’ve been telling them that I normally just work by myself with my team at my studio so I’ve been in an echo chamber of sorts because I’m the leader of the team. I have my partner who I bounce ideas off for certain projects, but at the end of the day everyone is looking to me for the end-all-decision, and I’m the one leading the charge. I have had a hesitation to work with any galleries or anyone for a long time just out of necessity in the beginning but in the last few years it’s been a way to control everything, and a lot of us artists want to control a lot. I also pride myself on being able to do everything, from creating my own books, selling my own work, doing my own shows, I have my own gallery in my studio – it’s been very self-sustaining but actually, it’s been very nice coming out here and working with everyone at OMNI because I’ve learned is that they’re equally motivated and they’re very willing to support the vision and they don’t cut corners, that’s not really an experience I’ve had before. That’s been great for me, it’s been reassuring me about the other side of the business that I don’t really interact with. Generally, it’s just friends of mine that work on that side and I don’t work with them, they’re just friends. 

Matt McCormick On His Exhibition ‘Lead Me Not Into Temptation’ at OMNI
Image courtesy of Matt McCormick

Visit mattmccormick.com and OMNI at 56-57 Eastcastle Street, London, W1W 8EG

OMNI opens the CHITO & Wu Yue exhibition on Thursday, 7th July 2022.

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