Craftsmanship is a podcast created by artist Harriet Salmon that discusses technical skill in the contemporary artworld told through the oral history of fabricators.
Episode 01 - Matt Quinn: Playing in Elvis’s Band
Hosted and produced by Harriet Salmon
Interview with Matt Quinn - February 21st, 2019
60 billion dollars in annual sales. With scholars and institutions meticulously documenting the intentions of artists, who is recording the stories of these crafts people?
This podcast will document fabricator’s experiences to shine a light on the amazing
breadth of talent in the field and to capture this particular moment in the art world. I’m interested in conversations about hierarchies within craft versus concepts, questions of intellectual property, trends of de-skilling in the art world, wealth disparity, and the conflict felt by many fabricators between working in art production and being artists in their own right.
I’m talking today with Matt Quinn, an artist and fabricator living and working in Brooklyn. Matt has a BFA from the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts and an MFA in sculpture from Pratt. Specializing in mold making casting, he’s worked for artists such as Paul McCarthy, Richard Jackson, Rachel Harrison, Matthew Day Jackson and Carol Bove. I met Matt in 2007 at KP Projects, a mold-making and fabrication studio owned by Konstantine Bojanov based in Greenpoint Brooklyn. We worked together for many years and have remained friends since. He currently is a studio manager and fabricator for the artists Will Ryman.
Harriet Salmon: Hi Matt. What do you tell family members you do when they don't have any understanding of fabrication?
Matt Quinn: I explained to them that (it’s like) I’m in Elvis's Band. Like if I were to describe it to one of my uncles or aunts at Thanksgiving I would say it's more like being a studio musician, like being a multi-instrumentalist. What I would say was; Elvis comes in with like a four chord song on an acoustic guitar and we're sitting there with his album in front of us. And I could say on this track I played rhythm guitar… on this track I did backing vocals, the last three songs I did the string arrangements and I also am a recording technician. And then their next question is invariably; well, do you get credit?
HS: And what do you say to that?
MQ: I say “no I go to a lot of parties.” I think at least in my current situation, it's one of the things I'm lucky for, is that I get introduced as a human being at those parties. I think that's a pitfall of working as an assistant…
HS: that some artists don't introduce you?
MQ: Yes. That there's an expectation that you or I would remain in the shadow, as if it's some kind of dirty secret. It's something that a boss with less confidence maybe (would do). Whereas (in) my current situation I could say I'm actively grateful for the fact that I am introduced as an artist.
HS: Something that I think is super interesting is that what fabricators do gives them front row seats a view of the art world that not many people have. And on top of that for the most part most fabricators have MFA is are trained in art or abstract thinking/discussion so they're incredibly perceptive, interested in talking about the meaning of doing things, and stuck in the middle… of a playpen.
MQ: Yes. It's romper room. But I also think that being able to speak in different registers helps, and I also think that I've had to come to terms with how much of what I do and how I think has to be hidden all the time… I think you have a very good idea of how round of a character I am. But I think it’s like (the) five guys in a room with an elephant they're all blind and they're all touching a different part of it describing something else. Like you had five different people to talk about who I was, I think a lot of people would be shocked.
HS: Can you talk a little bit about becoming a fabricator and how it felt to start a KP projects in 2007 as a young artist having just moved to New York?
MQ: Yeah, I think that that whole thing was really overwhelming and that's probably the… last time I ever responded to an ad on Craigslist for a job. I quickly realized that the pool of people that I was competing with was pretty large and that the odds of me getting that job were probably smaller than me getting into grad school in the first place.
HS: I remember working at KP Projects and that job posting was put on craigslist. It asked for artists who are technically savvy who had experience with mold making. I think if I remember it mentioned the word fabrication but it was pretty vague (although) it was a decently paying position. We got an overwhelming response to it.
MQ: Yeah, when I showed up I was fairly shocked. I know I keep repeating overwhelmed but I think that the free fall that you experience leaving graduate school (was difficult). I woke up one day and I was like “Oh my God I live in New York” and none of this was safe or easy or fun really but you make it that way by by force. And so what I can say though was that when I walked in the first person I met was Georgi Pavlov and Nick Gillis…
HS: You still work with Nick?
MQ: Yep. He’s around, Nick and I had a very good friends. Georgi lives in Bulgaria again… I'd love to talk about that guy because he’s probably had more of an influence on how I got to where I am now than I realized at the time.
MQ: In all kinds of ways. There's some magic moments that he just happened to be there for where he rescued my ass or pulled me out of a lineup and said “no, this is gonna happen.” I didn't know that at the time and I even now question whether or not he did, but there's a lot of things that I have now because Georgi literally handed them to me.
To describe Georgi is funny because he looks like a like a Boris Vallejo bad guy or a Ralph Bakshi elf warrior dude with a top knot… you know, gruff, barely spoke. Handmade tattoos. He and his buddies used to steal car batteries out of abandoned Bulgarian vehicles that they could melt down the lead to make spikes to put on their leather jackets. So he greets me with a cigarette hanging out his mouth he's like, “May I have a look?” Because I'm standing with my portfolio the day I showed up.
HS: I remember he used to flip up his respirator to smoke (cigarettes)…
MQ: Yeah… so he shows up and I'm sort of terrified because I was like, “well I'm about to get a real job.”
“look I don't think this is going to work” or “you need to trust me" or “is there another way…?” I think (what I have now) is more of a professional relationship that I didn't think I was going to be able to develop. It's an adult relationship.HS: What about this role is satisfying to you both personally and professionally? Being a fabricator, what what kind of things stand out as being rewarding?
MQ: There is something about this place; knowing that we play in the big leagues, knowing that there is no other level… Having gone to the armory shows in 2009 or 2010 and being like “I've dropped nearly all of this stuff on the floor at some point” and feeling like even if my mom doesn't care, I know that at least I'm involved in something where there is no other thing or there is no other level. I mean, at least I’ve my head on the roof…
HS: I remember a wonderful moment at the Richard Prince retrospective at the Guggenheim when we worked on his white tire planter that was in the lobby of the museum. Very sweetly he invited the whole studio to the opening and going into the opening and seeing the piece in the Guggenheim lobby and knowing that two weeks before I had been sitting inside the piece with my coffee on the edge of that, drilling out the air bubbles with a Dremel and filling them with a syringe… the physical familiarity with the object that was now so rarified, it was like a deeply rewarding secret. I felt like I know that objects with my body and in a way that felt good.
MQ: And that's addictive I'm sure, it sends some chemical signal of happiness through my brain.
HS: It's like the ultimate inside joke, on a visceral level…
MQ: Yeah. Maybe that has something to do with it, being like a complete insider.
Like when Mark Schubert and I were inside the Nara sculpture that was on Park Avenue with angle grinders cutting steel apart in the space the size of a refrigerator. It was two 6 foot guys crawling through the dirt the day after hurricane Irene…
HS: Which sculpture was it?
MQ: The Yoshitomo Nara sculpture, the big, white ghosts that were up in front of the Asia Society. But at a certain point the armature for the head as it got lowered on, as I watched it blot out the sun as it came down, and didn't fit. So then it's me and Mark inside with a battery powered angle grinder, cutting apart the steel with the sparks and the fucking fiberglass that was in there and really it just us hanging on that box. I think about the crazy things that I do and then thinking about that insider stuff and then seeing pictures of that on the news or friends of mine going, “I was in a cab the other day and watching the thing when New York 1 and I'm sure it's you run around the (Will Ryman) flower sculptures out there.” Those little sustaining moments I think get me from piece to piece.
HS: I've heard a lot of fabricators say when they're working on their own practice that it's hard not to become your own fabricator.
MQ: Yeah, I realized I was my own fabricator probably after two or three months (at KB Projects). I thought I could just him my sketchbook to anybody that works here and I would get the same artwork back…
HS: Do you think it's the same artwork? Or do you think even in fabrication there's a (series of) tiny decisions that are made when you're fabricating something? And there's a personality that translates?
MQ: There's a personality it translates. If you handed me and five other fabricators, one mold and had us cast it, you could cut that mold open and I could tell you who did it.
HS: I feel like I could tell from people's mold keys.
MQ: Oh yeah, definitely! if I were to look at the mold I could tell you who made the mold for sure, but I mean who made the cast. For all outward appearances if something's sitting at the Armory Show, I wouldn't be able to tell you one way or the other which one of us did it. But I would be able to tell you from a technique point of view, if you cut it in half and looked inside.
HS: From the layers of the cast?
MQ: Just the general attitude towards the materials that went into it. That's a unique fingerprint I think that everybody has for better for worse.
HS: How do you feel that fits into kind of the core interaction of fabrication? Do you think that makes some people better fabricators? Do you think that makes artists nervous? How do you think that kind of plays into the bigger (questions)?
MQ: I think it makes every artist nervous and rightfully so. I think that from the point of view of being an artist I would be terrified to hand my work off to somebody else as well. I have a feeling that no matter what I do in the future I'll be taking care of just about all of it.
HS: This might sound like a dumb question but why do you think artists do it then? I mean it would make me nervous too… In your experience when you're meeting with an artist or working closely with one, is it just logistics that they're doing it for?
MQ: I wonder if it's a negotiation or a some sort of calculus about how much bandwidth you're willing to give away to learning how to do something new. It's already hard enough to be an established artist and maintain a kind of relationship with the galleries, your market, your ideas. It's a leap but it might be a necessary one because at certain point, especially your family, there really is only a certain amount of time to devote to new things. And if you're trying to make new work all the time, you invariably have to be able to delegate authority over how it gets done. I think that learning new stuff is its kind of a luxury for artists are busting their ass just trying to hold their position in the art world.That is something that I have to be cognizant of and have a respect for.
HS: You mentioned a really great quote by Matthew Day Jackson when we were talking the other night about having to make something new.
MQ: Oh that's what my favorite quotes ever… and I have to give Matt credit for it. (I can’t) count the pearls of wisdom that just fall out of his mouth. But one of them was about teenage vampires and contemporary art in the market needing to be a teenage vampire. Meaning that it needs to be fresh, it needs to be beautiful and it has to be edgy and it still needs to last forever and never change. And therein lies way more than one paradox.
HS: How do you view each new project when it comes in?
MQ: Every single project that I have done, (I view) as an opportunity to learn something new which is how I haven't gotten burned out.
HS: At this point that new things that you're learning are (things like) project management because you're even subcontracting to another fabricator in Denver.
MQ: Correct, training other professionals is a new experience for me. But even still the.
It’s a kind of a combination of things I know how to do in my sleep that are almost relaxing because they're predictable and at the same time taking those and constantly going one step further. If the project requires that it's something that I know by rote in a way then the way to keep that interesting is to do it better, do it faster, do it slicker.
HS: Like what are the things that are autopilot for you?
MQ: Making a box mold of a relief. So the questions about that is how quickly can we make the boxes? How universal can we make the boxes? Can we reuse them?
HS: It’s like an efficiency game in your head.
MQ: Yeah, exactly. At a certain point you're like how quickly can we calculate how much rubber we're gonna need and how close can we get it right to the top of this box? And is that worth a high five and if so let's make coffee. Let's do it. And if that saves us three hours great. And if not, well we tried and it's still gonna work. I mean, I know how this is supposed to go and maybe you’ve saved like, a dollar twenty five but it's still…
HS: So even when there aren't problems to solve, you’re like creating challenges like that?
MQ: Yes. And that but I think that that's a global phenomena in my life. I think that that's how I live in the world.
HS: I mean I think that what artists do.
MQ: And if it's not as an artist then I'll just go free climbing a mountain or whatever. But it's the idea of living outside your comfort zone. I heard an idea once that people who solve higher level math or theoretical equations actually get a dopamine shot when they balanced an equation. That they literally are hard wired to enjoy doing higher level math in the way that we eat chocolate or have sex or gamble. Right. So the math is literally cocaine? But if you hand me a mold and I cast it and I open it up and de-mold a perfect positive… it's like fucking Christmas. That to me is what is an addictive thing. And I come back to do that. And I can endure hours and hours and hours of labor that are essentially plodding into the
darkness. With the idea that if I do it right, and I use what I know and I follow my own advice, that the payoff will be a product like opening a gift.I can't expect that anybody else that would do this job would feel that way but I happened to and I capitalize on that.
HS: …I’ve been thinking with the discussion around this podcast about fabrication over the last 20 years and what digital fabrication has done to the field but also just what the digital world in general has done to work life. And I think from my experience there's something really interesting about focus when you're fabricating because you're not hooked into a computer (unless you happen to be a digital fabricator). But, the skills required to learn in a way where you're plodding along in the dark until you have that one moment where you open the gift and it's perfect. It requires a kind of focus that I don't find in very many other work environments, personally.
MQ: Mm hmm. Yeah and I didn't know that I had that. That wasn't something I could have said as a kid. I also found out that I don't panic. If you have two hundred gallons of rubber that's leaking out the top of the scaffold somewhere you should call me because I am the person that you want to help you.
I don't lose my nerve in those cases. But I did't know that I had that until it came up repeatedly. Or you’re in the middle of the sidewalk at 2 a.m. trying not to strip a thread on Park Avenue in the snow with four tractor trailers worth of stuff and a forty thousand dollar road closure permit and everyone standing around me like “Matt, what do we do next…!?” (And I’m saying) “hear the crosswalk beep for people who are blind and imagine that that's the heart rate monitor of you remaining calm in a hospital.”
HS: Is this the flowers install for Will?
MQ: Yeah. That kind of moment taught me. Something I didn't know about myself and by by doing that repeatedly over the last 10 years, it sort of picks up steam. I don't know, is that brain chemistry? That's something to get addicted too. There has to be some incentive that is internal. That causes you to want to do things in the right way. And that's an existential question, why would you do anything right given that everything is complete nonsense? Complain about the art world, you can complain about the world. Why would I want to bring a kid into this world. Anything is why why why why why… But but the truth is you do things right for the sake of doing things right.
HS: Also I think the contemporary art world and fabrication situation per the last 20 years
requires/demands the most unforgiving, teenage vampire ever. Not only do you have to demanded of yourself but you have to be OK with a professional situation that does't have relaxed deadlines. If you try to solve this problem or this thing never being made before and it doesn't work then you're doing switch shifts all night making it into something that can be there on the floor of the museum for the opening. There is a demanding, rigid situation and it goes both ways, the perfection.
MQ: But I also have a respect for not only how things are made well but that even if I think that on any given day the art world is complete bullshit and that whatever collector that's getting something is picking up for the wrong reason. What I do know is that if I’m making something that's worth the cost of a brand new Range Rover that I should make it look like a brand new Range Rover. I don't think whether or not I think that anyone's intentions are real or even the concept of the work is lousy. The money is real. And I also know that it's a business and that if I'm going to remain employed I need to be an asset to someone. And that that means that I need to take the work seriously.
HS: I am trying to ask every fabricator that I speak to in these interviews the same question. And I know it's a little bit simple but I'm hoping that it gives them a real window into the range of skill that fabricators have. So what is your favorite tool?
MQ: Angle grinder, with a shingle standard flap wheel on it. You get a lot more done with that than anything else. I'm imagining that paired with some short strand Bondo.
HS: It's subtractive… additive.
MQ: Yeah, pair those two things. Strength and flexibility in the additive process. But in the end, short strand Bondo can actually function like a bunch of different materials. And the angle grinder slightly dulled. And a small one. The little Metabo one or the little Boche one. Far more flexible than you give it credit for it especially good because I have decent wrists so I can use that one handed. On a desert island that would be what I'd pick. Spirit animals: otter or monkey depending on how you order the totem, they switch places.
But does that answer your question?
HS: I think we're done!
Thank you so much Matt for chatting with me for the craftsmanship podcast. And thank you to your dog Ricky Soccer Ball who sat somewhat quietly throughout the interview.
A final credit to Breuss Arrizabalaga Quintet for supplying our theme song called Mount Fiji and please check in at www.craftsmanshippodcast.com for future episodes.
HS: Do you see yourself being a fabricator for a long time? That’s a hard question because of course everyone would not do their day job if their own work came to fruition and provided financial security. But do you feel trapped by the skills that you have because you don't feel like there's many other places you can take them? Or do you enjoy this role?
MQ: I have at times felt trapped by the skill set. However, I’ve worked really hard to make sure that I put myself in a position where I can enjoy what I do. And through some kind of luck and through quite a bit of painful sacrifices or odd moves or just circumstance, found myself lucky to have a situation where I have the best of all those worlds. I still have to work really hard but I don't get mad and that if I am frustrated, I do have some kind of agency to do to push it back and say
Welcome to craftsmanship, a podcast discussing technical skill and the contemporary art world told through the oral history of fabricators. My name is Harriet Salmon. I independently produced this series as a free resource and as a record of the last 20 years of fabricators experiences.
Who are fabricators? A fabricator someone hired to assist in the production of an artwork. Unlike the traditional artists apprentice relationship that could contain an element of mentorship, a fabricator provides a technical skill to an artist as a paid service. Fabricators can be found in foundries, dark rooms, wood shops, and laboratories in roles ranging from Master Print Maker to studio assistant. They’re part of an unseen mechanism of the contemporary art world and their skills produce objects essential to the global art economy. - a market currently estimated to generate over