Mateo Gutiérrez is a Brooklyn NY based contemporary artist working in themes relating to empire, colonialism, consumption, identity, violence and media. He is a foreign born national who lived in several countries before moving to the United States at the age of sixteen. Mateo shut down his studio in 2010 and destroyed all of his work in disgust with the state of the world. He began working again in 2018 after tracing his family origins through Spain, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Puerto Rico. He earned his BA in philosophy from UC Berkeley, and his MFA in painting from UT Austin.
I explore the lies of empire, in particular the American empire and I do that specifically through the context of trauma that is cached within and expressed through the body, transferred down generation to generation. I am looking for the underlying subconscious forces that live behind the narratives we conjure to prop up and buffer our social constructs and contracts. I am seeking the underlying brutality and violence that afflict the participants in modern day extreme capitalism and globalism. I am focused on the physical gestures and the bodily shapes that we express, the ones that are similar and yet come from different circumstances. I am interested in how arms, legs, torsos, hand gestures and facial expressions are similarly positioned, all of these shapes and forms expressing the emotional truth of the contemporary human condition. I sample my images from mass media like a hip-hop musician plucks sounds from the sources around them, images that inundate our everyday lives. I juxtapose these images so that we may see what lies behind them. I am focusing on these moments as a way to think about and understand, purely emotionally, who we are and what we endure at our own hands, like a future historian looking backwards at his own time, attempting no moral judgement, but simply to feel things as they are.
THE MATERIALS I USE
As a support I use tear-away stabilizer which traditionally functions as a backing for embroidery. I am bringing the back to the front, showing that which supports, that which lies behind. The tear-away stabilizer functions as a symbol of the lives and people directly affected by the "cost" of empire, lives themselves "discarded", "torn-away" and marginalized. I am seeking the reality behind the narrative. I sew the tear-away stabilizer together in pieces, showing those threads on the front instead of hiding them on the back; I expose the thread as symbolic sutures of trauma, wounds that have failed to heal and are, as such, passed along generation to generation. I view the tear-away stabilizer as the "body" of my work, the physical, human body, the skin.
I use embroidery thread because I have watched my mother, who makes her living sewing, sew my entire life, making our things and fixing people's clothes. Sewing has been a big part of my family since my earliest memories and has a long Latino tradition in particular that as a Latino male, who was culturally trained to be machismo, flies in the face of this predisposed caricature of masculinity. I also use embroidery thread because, first, it signifies the psychological frailty of the human condition, that we are emotional creatures first and foremost and as such are deeply traumatized by the often harsh and absurd world that we create around us. Second, embroidery thread signifies the wounds that are passed through the ages from one generation to the next, binding us to often traumatic conditions that may not even be our own, threads of both pain and joy that come to define us, our ways of doing things, how we think, how we feel, how we see the world, how we see each other, and ultimately how we come to both uncover and define ourselves.
BIO: THE STORY OF RETURNING TO MY WORK
I moved to the United States when I was sixteen as a foreign born national. That experience impacted a great deal of my perception of both myself, the society to which I was asked to become a part of and what it means to belong to a society and culture in general. I have never felt fully capable of being a part of any one culture or society as a result of this experience. Now, as an adult, I live comfortably on the outside, and this is the viewpoint of my work: I look at a predominantly American psychological and social symbolism defined by otherness, the "they", whoever they are in the dominant mythology, who are always - as the lie goes - "coming to get us", where "us" is the Anglo-white "working class" American; I look at this fear of otherness also from within the American kingdom of capitalism, where we are just as clearly pitted against each other in mortal battle. I call this underlying American aggression the "violent dream", which asks, in the end, for someone to die violently in order for another to succeed and triumph. This mythology, which is defined by scarcity and anxiety, permeates everything American and has been regurgitated throughout popular culture ad nauseam via a heroics of the underdog rising up against the oppressive entity, whomever or whatever it might be: corporate, governmental, criminal, ideological etc. As long as we feel estranged and we fight to the death to alleviate that estrangement and sense of injustice then we are "living the dream", no matter how twisted or out of context that action becomes; and, very importantly, along that "battle for justice and freedom" we must consume as many products and brands as possible that symbolize our journey. I believe that this mythology is the great farce of American society; the lie. As such, the empire marches on and the moral barometer sinks lower and lower both at home and abroad, and the mythology must grow to buffer it, to the point where we now have the entire world mindlessly gorging themselves at the superhero film trough to the tune of a whole new entity: the billion dollar film. This is the mythological architecture of the American imperialist psyche. This is what I am interested in both as an American narrative, and in particular, but not exclusively in Latin American.
My family history tells this very story; it is the very arch of Spanish Western colonialism in Latin America, both as perpetrator and victim, a mestizo trail through Latin America of blood, exploitation, fear, corruption, self-hate, machismo, lies, and secrets combined with tremendous hope, courage, loyalty, pride, conviction, and constant cultural self-reevaluation and understanding.
Yet, I would argue, that more importantly than my personal history or the history of American empire is the question of human organization itself. Is fear of "otherness" and the violence it begets the very currency of empire or perhaps, worse yet, civilization itself? Are we destined to hate, to fight, to fear, to damage ourselves both emotionally and physically in the name of "progress" and "dreams"? Who are the architects and, indeed, the true beneficiaries in these grand and absurd agreements?
These questions nagged me more than a little in 2009 specifically in reaction to the global financial crisis; they paralyzed me. Finally, in 2010, I shut down my studio and destroyed all of my work. It was a violent act and at times a regrettable one, but also the only path forward to the work that now flows from me. I was disgusted with humanity and confused by my role and place as an artist - indeed, the role of any artist in modern society. I saw - and still see, even worse so - a world ravaged by a fundamental human order of the few taking advantage of the many and divided clearly along the hateful social construct we call "race". I watched the art market tumble in perfect tandem with the financial markets in 2008. I connected the dots. The inequality and abuse of much of the world by those in power, a handful of people by comparison to the rest of us, and the ugly history of colonialism seemed to work hand-in-hand with the "financialization" of artworks. I simply could not participate in what appeared to me to be no more than the transfer of financial capital into cultural capital and back and forth again for the benefit of a class of people who were largely destroying the world. So, I stopped working. I not only stopped, I destroyed nearly ten years of work. I felt that whatever I had produced, that had come out of this "system", this "order of the day", could not be trusted, that I was equally a product of this failed order, and that the slate had to be wiped clean if I was going to find a path of artistic integrity. This moment in history was the end of capitalism for me, and in a world where artworks represented the highest achievement in the capitalist treasure trove, I knew I simply had to stop and rethink everything.
Many different factors brought me back to my work, many great books, many travels, many art works, many restless nights lying in bed thinking, many discussions, but one singular conviction, arrived at through all the paths mentioned above, paved the way forward above all others: the firm belief that despite the fact that human governance itself is always inherently flawed, this should not and, indeed, cannot ultimately reflect upon or effect the integrity and importance of the natural, human inclination to mark-make, to self-reflect, to represent itself. I came to understand the job of the artist as, therefore, belonging to tomorrow, not today, not as a currency of the present time, but as a way of gifting the present forward to inform the potential of tomorrow. I came to understand my role as one of bringing dignity to this process of making these reflections and handing them forward. Of the "paths" that guided me to my new found conviction, six in particular stand out in my memory, and while some of them may seem almost trivial, that is how life works, change speaks sometimes in whispers and corners. They are:
One, I watched this short video interview with Kerry James Marshall about mastery.
I have been a long time follower and admirer of Kerry James Marshall's work and this video helped me understand the importance of participating in the art "pantheon" from a minority and outsider perspective. I began to see my art practice less as a participation in a failed system but as an opportunity to insert a new voice, perhaps even an important voice into the discussion and to, at the highest levels, perhaps deliver that conversation to future generations for them to do whatever they choose with it: reject it, build off of it, learn from it, as the case may be. Kerry James Marshall's short discussion on mastery gave me responsibility. It said: "No, you can't simply cop-out."
Two, I watched an Instagram video post by the Reverend Al Sharpton at the height of Donald Trump's most racist episodes in his presidency. Reverend Sharpton said simply, paraphrasing: "It's not about you. It's not about your ego. You don't have to be the hero of everything. You just have to run your lap. So, run your lap. Run your lap." That was incredibly loud and powerful to me: "Run your lap". I have an image of Jimmy Carter after he fell and bruised his eye at 95, the next day, back at Habitat for Humanity hammering nails, taped to my wall with the words "Run your lap" on it. I realized, I too needed to run my lap - as an artist.
Three, While visiting family in Puerto Rico, I reviewed a massive chart that had been taped together in parts and laid out across a table. It showed my mother's family history in Puerto Rico going back generations and eventually to Spain. I realized how deeply entrenched Latino shame had been built into my family structure. As I was looking at these names: Ortiz, Rodrigues, Toro etc, I started thinking about all the men, all the machismo, all the anger. It was as if I could feel it. I thought of my own father's self-loathing, anger, frustration: Ricardo José Gutiérrez, abandoned by his father at 15, who then moved to Mexico and left my father and his mother to struggle in Oakland California, trying to maintain a pretense of normalcy amidst a largely Anglo community in which my grandfather had propped them up and then left them. I thought of my mother moving to the US from Argentina at eight years old, not speaking a word of English and her stories of being chased home from school for being "Spanish". All of this had been swept under the rug, "white washed". We did not speak Spanish as a first language in our household growing up. This was for a reason I realized. There was deep history here and great shame. Latin America and who I am, where I came from, started to come alive in a completely new light. There were questions that needed to be answered, and I knew that those answers would come through my hands, through making.
Four, two books stood out: I read War Against All Puerto Ricans by Nelson A. Denis, and I read Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano. The latter book happened late in my process but it solidified my thinking. These books lent words, gave value and credibility and guidance to what I had been thinking and feeling but could not coalesce into words. It gave me my "project" as a human, and did so not as an usurping of ideas but as a relevancy to my own life and history. It helped me find what was within that I had not allowed nor understood, that which had not been allowed in my upbringing. Having come to the US at the age of sixteen, I have always felt like an outsider. I grew up mostly in Tokyo, Japan. Arriving in the US as the "Latino kid from Japan" was extremely confusing. I remember being immediately thrust into the school play version of a popular TV show called "Happy Days" that I had never seen before. The school was predominantly Anglo-Caucasian and they were delighted to finally have an "ethnic" kid to play the role of Chachi. I had no idea what these cultural signals meant let alone how to navigate them. Having come to the U.S. at such a late age, I have never felt at home here, and Denis and Galeano allowed me to embrace this, to find strength in this, to make sense of it, to allow it to humanize me, to find my greatest sense of empathy within it, and to contextualize it within a greater family history, to find a voice greater than my story and yet somehow defined by it. Through these books I was granted permission to enter the family dungeon of transgenerational trauma that I had always suspected was there.
Five, three paintings stood out: First was Thomas Couture's Romans of the Decadence, pictured here, second was Episodes of the Conquest: The Massacre of Cholula by Félix Parra pictured two down and lastly Vietnam II by Leon Golub, pictured three down.
I visited the Musee d'Orsay and was entranced by Couture's massive painting. Couture completed the painting in 1847, measuring some 772 cm long by 472 cm high (304 x 186 in). He painted it over three years as a critique of mid-19th century French society. When I first saw the painting I was amazed at what he had done, which was to use history and history painting to portray a very strong and courageous critique of present day society at his time, as if to say "Wake up every one! We are drunk with our own decadence." I was struck by the degree to which Couture had effectively expressed the malaise of an elite echelon of citizens at the apex of its empire from a previous era and used that to critique his own culture and time. I began to understand that Romans of the Decadence speaks across the ages; it is a work of art that is begging future generations to look honestly at the flaws of any empire at any time. Couture, through his great work, is asking us to look at our own social order in our unique time, to question the nature of the "few" versus the "many" and in so doing the very concepts of both empire and nationhood. This single painting allowed me to see a role for the artist in society, despite the depravity of the time, a significant and wholly important role and purpose, which was to both awaken the present and speak to the future, to pass truth in the face of power along to whoever is next in the human story.
The second painting was Episodes of the Conquest: The Massacre of Cholula by Félix Parra, pictured here,1877, oil on canvas, 106 long by 65 high cm (42 x 25 in).
Episodes of the Conquest was a gut wrenching painting when I first encountered it, but it changed over time. It stayed just as painful, but it evolved into something where I began to see it as a way for the artist to show us exactly how psychological trauma is created and how it then will be passed through generations to come. Parra's brutal honesty is in great service to humanity, as hard as it is to look at and consider. It is a very responsible work of art. It does not show us lies. For me this painting embodies, as a precursor, as a harkening forward, the internal mestizo struggle of "Who am I?" The central soldier peers off into this future, as if to say: "What have I done?" or "Here comes hundreds of years of psychological trauma." It is as if this single work of art sets the stage for much of what became of the very people out of which I was born, out of which so many generations to this day can trace their internal conflict. I could not imagine a historical text, nor much of anything else being able to accomplish this feat so succinctly and with such piercing and yet broad emotion.
The third paintings was Vietnam II by Leon Golub, 1150 cm long by 292 high cm (453 x 114 in), 1973.
In grad school I was painting images of war on raw canvas, often tearing into them. One day during a studio visit with a visiting art critic it was pointed out that I should look at the work of Leon Golub. I had never seen his work. Golub's paintings have lived at the center of my artistic sensibility ever since, but somehow in all the years his painting Vietnam II eluded me. In the period where I stopped working this painting came back and made tremendous "sense" to me. The manner in which the canvas is torn and pulled tight made me think of human flesh, of wounds, of real pain. The chunks of missing canvas suddenly made so much sense to me as both brutal symbols of torn flesh and suffering but also as missing parts, hidden truths, the backroom lies of our American psyche, what we choose not to look at or simply can no longer see. In this painting I felt that Golub was asking us, all Americans, to truly confront and understand our inner viciousness, a cruelty we export around the world. This painting told this deep historical and psychological truth in a way that I realized nothing else could. This was the "power" of art, once again, explained to me, but in a more contemporary way. This painting had the power to shatter our mythologies, and do so not intellectually but physically, emotionally, at the level of the reptilian brain. It functioned, for me, like a mirror, showing us who we really are in a way that simply left me understanding how important, in this specific manner, art can, and should be, and it helped me begin to grasp my own aesthetic, to feel more confident in it, that the risk of tearing the canvas apart, gashing at it with a meat cleaver and using the brutally honest images of our conquest of the world, in this case the Vietnam war, were exactly the things I felt and wanted to navigate in my own work. To use the cliche: it inspired me; it helped resuscitate my artistic faith in general and in my own way of making.
And lastly, six, I encountered Rosie Lee Tompkins quilt: "Untitled" (quilted by Irene Bankhead, 1997), velvet, fabric, U.S. flags made of rayon and cotton, woven wool, batik, polyester velour, cotton muslin, rayon linen, gabardine, cotton print fabric, and cotton muslin backing. A few of her quilts were hanging in a small room in a corner of the Texas History Museum in Austin, Texas in a show titled "Quilts of the Civil Rights Era." When I walked in the room I immediately was struck by the fact that the quilts smelled of another time; their materiality, the stitching, the fabrics, the lack of perfect symmetry all combined to transport me into the kitchens of people living through the Civil Rights era, their fears, their hopes, their pains, and their struggles. My heart began pounding. I felt as if I had entered a time machine. I had a completely non-cerebral artistic experience; it was utterly visceral, animal, and left me with a sense of things that are made that live in this world between functionality and art; this new sensibility stayed with me. I didn't know it then, but these quilts had a profound impact upon me and what it would mean to make things in the future. The stitching, seeing how the different elements of the individual quilts were physically sewn together reminded me of skin, of wounds, of the decaying effects of time; most importantly, all of this dense imagery and material carried with it a very real sense that a work of art could function as a device to transport us through time to a bygone era, to hear the voices, to feel them in a way that a documentary film or photographs simply could not.
These three paintings and Rosa Lee Tompkins quilt in particular helped me understand that no matter how terrible the times are, no matter how failed the human project can be, in any given time, that art claims truth to that horror, "solidifies" it and passes it forward to the next generation in ways that historical texts cannot. Paintings and images deal in the complex language of emotions. They answer: What it "feels" like and therefore what it "felt" like. This cannot be conveyed in any other means than through art, in all its forms. This is not only a gift across the ages it is a necessity, a requirement in the face of corruption and injustice. This lesson was profoundly important for me and shifted my entire perspective on the practice of making art and what my role was and could be as an artist in the world.
I have come to understand that despite the mechanics of the times and all its many failings that ultimately art belongs to humanity. The so-called "owners" and purveyors of art today all eventually, like all of us, die. The only thing that remain are the institutions, in particular the museums, and, of course, the work itself. I began to understand the possibility of making art as an engagement between artist and future generations, not between artist and the art market of the present, and this relationship between the ages is the one that I have come to see as sacred and important. I did not have this understanding in 2008.
I am sure that taking a big chunk of time out of my career as an artist couldn't do good things for it materially, but the cost of meandering without a leap into self-understanding of the kind I challenged myself with was, in the end, far higher and it has given me my voice. I have no regrets.