Self-portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

NYC-based artist Holden Matarazzo has perfected a “love-’em-or-hate-’em” machismo. [Guess which side I’m on?] Thought-provoking [and sometimes just-plain-provoking], he is always good conversation. Today he shares his thoughts on the creative process, skyscrapers, and talking trees.

Interview by Anita Stubenrauch, photography by Anita Stubenrauch and Holden Matarazzo

Introduce us to Holden Matarazzo. Who are you?
How is a person supposed to answer this? Who am I? I think many people spend a good portion of their lives trying to determine who they are. Do people change? Does that make the possibility of answering this question akin to a dog chasing its tail?

I am a person that currently has longish dark hair and poor eyesight and hearing. I am also occasionally combative.

What kind of artist are you?
I am the kind that paints pictures. I sometimes make drawings and occasionally I just decide that what I was thinking about at any given moment was really, really terrific art regardless of the fact that no other person beside myself will experience it because I neglected to fashion any kind of object that might communicate said thought.

What kind do you aspire to be?
I had aspirations once. Then I drink ah glass ah wahm salty wahta…

Better? Perhaps technically? Though not really. I’ll look at things I did when I was fifteen and decide they’re better than any of my recent output. The next day I’ll think I was utterly wrong. I suppose that reflects the power of mood and an understanding that one can never really be positive in any determination without being incorrect.

Primarily I just want to stay alive long enough to make some of the work I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Work I can’t afford to make or can’t begin due to other limitations. So I think that’s it. I aspire to be the kind of artist that is not dead.

Would you say you have a gift? If so, what is it?
Not any more so than anyone else does. Perhaps I’ve worked a bit harder at this particular thing. Lately I’ve considered I may have been better wired to receive information from my Pineal gland. Perhaps low-dose DMT release is responsible for some ideas. The crafting and “thinking-out” part is just work, same as a plumber plumbing. The idea that artists are terribly “gifted” is probably a misconception. It’s mostly just dumb, mechanical work. Ideas are instantaneous and effortless. Plugging away at something until you make a mistake that warrants further reflection and, upon consideration, merits further refinement isn’t a “gift” any more so than Penzias and Wilson cleaning bird shit off of a radio antenna.*

Why paint?
I don’t understand the question. Are you meaning to use the word “paint” as a verb? Or is it you’re questioning my choice of painting as opposed to sculpture or self-mutilation?

If the former, I can only ask why do anything.

If the latter, I have no idea. I enjoy the challenge perhaps.

What inspires you?

How do you know when to stop working on a piece and just let it be?
I don’t. I think it’s a big problem of mine. I have paintings I’ve been working on for years that I know were perfectly fine after the initial ten minutes of work. I ruined them by refusing to stop and now I continue on a Sisyphean jaunt clobbering away at them.

Normally I work very quickly, very intuitively. The vast majority of my paintings have taken less than an hour. The series of five paintings I’m currently working on, part of the plan from the outset was to work on them very slowly, methodically. I’ve been at them for almost a year. I wanted to see if I could discipline myself in this way. I also wanted to see if it would be worth it, the outcome. So far I don’t think it is, and I’ve considered abandoning them. It’s difficult to toss aside a year’s worth of production though. Then I realize that given enough resources I can output more in a week than most people can in ten years and I don’t feel so bad. Of course, I’m impoverished so this is impossible. So I make a cup of coffee and sit around and think for a little while. Then I go to the bathroom and consider how foolish I look with a beard and how I should shave it but I made a promise to myself to only shave once it’s more than seventy degrees outside and I can’t recall when, how, or why I made that decision but I did and I’m sticking to it.

I know you’re awfully fond of where you live. Can you describe your neighborhood for us?
I live on the cusp of Dyker Heights in what used to be a predominantly Italian neighborhood. It’s rapidly turning Chinese. There is still the occasional Nana sweeping her stoop and, thankfully, plenty of places to get cheap Italian goods such as Pocket Coffee and all manner of pork products. It’s a sort of good-old-fashioned Brooklyn community. It’s also comparatively cheap as far as rent goes.

And does living in NY inform your work?
I can’t say it doesn’t. I know I don’t think about trees as much as I should. I do think about Architecture. How the Greeks seemed to appreciate the sky as an envelope while we seem to try and fuck it as much as possible. Then again people have been trying to fuck the sky with, say, Obelisks for quite some time. Trees try to fuck the sky but I think maybe they deserve to so it doesn’t really bother me.

What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve done in pursuit of art?
I famously took a one-way flight to Reggio di Calabria with a hundred euros in my pocket and zero fluency in Italian. It was a bit of a shock when I couldn’t find anyone at the airport that spoke any English. Walking out of the airport and down that first foreign street with no idea where I was or where I was going or even why was predictably stunning. Still, I managed to survive a year in Calabria and Rome, then Dublin. Most of that time was spent sleeping on the beach or on benches. I wasn’t going to miss out on learning from some of the greatest work the Western world has to offer just because I’m poor. Experiencing the Bronzi di Riace was, alone, worth any indignity I had to suffer.

Besides painting/drawing, what other forms of expression do you pursue?
Yelling, sometimes. Generally when inebriated. I have also been known to use exclamation marks.

As a man of many passions, how do you prioritize?
Frequent and vigorous masturbation.

Most of your work is priced very reasonably, but you have one piece, a self-portrait, for sale on Etsy for $2,000,000 – and I love this – you say “If you purchase this painting it will allow me to live and work full-time on painting for the rest of my life. You will have given a person the opportunity of a lifetime.” Any interest? And what has been your experience with Etsy overall?
There are a couple reasons for that listing. First, it’s frankly true, the money properly invested would sustain me. I live a pretty spartan life and am quite happy with it. My sister just got her degree in finance so I would just give it to her and say “Figure out how to give me X amount for the rest of my life”. I also despise the idea of selling work. I’d prefer if I could give it away, and I mostly do. I despise money, really. I don’t care for the art market and grad students making someone else’s paintings for their show at Gagosian and all that nonsense. I get it, and it’s fine, it’s just not what I want to do. I cling to this naive, earnest approach to painting and “being an artist” and craftsmanship and integrity and all of that nonsense.

Second, it’s something like a loss-leader. By being so outrageously priced it draws attention and, ideally, entices people to look at my other work. This gimmick has worked a bit as that self-portrait has ten times as many views as any of the other pieces.

The response has been rather what I expected. Not too many people have looked at the work, but then again I haven’t done anything to market it. The work I put up on Etsy is mostly from a portfolio I found while cleaning out the kitchen closet. I was looking through it and thought some of it was pretty good so I figured I should do something with it. I had heard of Etsy through Reddit, so I put it all up there to see what would happen. I thought it best to price everything cheaply so if someone liked my work it wouldn’t be out of reach. As I mentioned I don’t really care for money and don’t need a lot of it. If I really wanted a car or a house or a plasma television I would go get a job. Then I would be a person with a job that sometimes does some painting. I would also have money and I would start to think about what can I do with that money and how much money do I have and if I get this thing how much money will I have left for that other thing I want to get and should I try to get more money for that other thing. I would think about that thing I just got and how nice it is and I would admire it and use it and think about the other things I could get to go with that thing and how much better that thing would be if I had this other thing but how much money was it I had left.

I don’t have these thoughts so I think about other things. Like tree fucking. Speaking of trees, did you know they communicate chemically with each other? Say one tree is getting attacked by an aggressive group of beetles. That tree will release a chemical that, in effect, tells nearby trees to start generating a defensive chemical that will slow the growth of the infesting parasites. Neat, huh? Talking, fucking trees!

Would you describe yourself as a nerd? Why/why not?
No, the term “nerd” implies more mathematical prowess than I have. I would consider myself more of a “dork.” A late-blooming dork. Why? See my response to the aspirations question. I think it may be considered dorky these days to plagiarize old Marx brothers lines in print. Though, “dork” implies a bit of weakness, and that isn’t me. Can I be a “nork?”

I did spend a very long time trying to be cool. With a fair deal of success I think. I’ve managed to fuck a great many people, often poorly. So I probably have a bit of residual cool about me. I also fuck better than I used to. Do nerds fuck well? Carrie Fisher said they do. She should know.

And, finally, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I don’t. I never think about the “future” beyond, say, buying groceries. Existence is too interesting for such thinking, too chaotic and surprising.

To see to more of Holden’s art, and to buy some for yourself, check out his website.

[*Editor’s note: “After thoroughly checking their equipment, removing some pigeons nesting in the antenna and cleaning out the accumulated droppings, the noise remained. Both concluded that this noise was coming from outside our own galaxy—although they were not aware of any radio source that would account for it.” – Source: Wikipedia]

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