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Interview with Francesca di Mattio

Francesca Di Mattio has been showing new ceramic works beside her paintings in a display titled ‘Vertical Arrangements’ in London within ‘Painting from Zabludowicz Collection’, a group show with Albert Oehlen and Matthew Chambers. A resident of New York and represented by Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London and Salon 94 in New York, Francesca is a graduate of Cooper Union and Columbia University. Flash Art spoke with Francesca as she was preparing the work for the public.

Joshua White: Why have you placed flowers in the ceramic sculpture, Totem?

Francesca Di Mattio: It’s really a sculpture inspired by vase structure, form and histories. To house the flowers makes a lot of sense but without flowers totally works too. All of these ceramic pieces in the show have the ability to be candlesticks and candelabra too in different configurations. ‘Totem’ is really heavy and takes five guys to lift. It’s made of three pieces, which are lifted onto each other for the exhibition. Clay is weird. These are hand-built slabs an inch and a half thick. It involved lots of different techniques being used to produce these effects.

JW: I heard that you had to teach yourself and learn from scratch?

FD: Yes, I had to learn how to make work in clay. I had a great teacher. I taught myself to some extent, but Kurt Weiser, my father-in-law and a ceramicist taught me. He’s really famous in his field in the craft world. He also taught for years, so I had to go out there to study with him in Arizona. I would ask him how do you do that? I learned a lifetime’s ceramics in a month, which was a unique experience. We stayed up until 3 in the morning and sometimes we accidentally broke things.

JW: Your paintings have a dizzying quality of stacked elements incorporating architecture and domestic objects. What are the formal or thematic effects are you trying to achieve?

FD: I am looking for something that is not static so everything is interrupted or interfered with, which creates sense of movement. In finishing one object you’re interrupted and it turns into something else. I don’t want something to stay still. These paintings are really stacked. I think of them as sculptures within in a space to some extent.

JW: What’s your starting point?

FD: To begin, I produce a schematic idea of a space and start building something. Initially I have insane amounts of images that I sift through before starting a work and at that point it’s quite freeing. I’m looking at things formally and I search for difference. You’re starting with three points pulling in different directions and then from there I react to it, but it’s not a mapped out thing initially. It’s Important to get right in there. Each painting learns from the one before.

JW: I read in a previous interview with Amy Sillman that you don’t want to make a picture static. How do you create the right balance and tension within a picture?

FD: I don’t want it to be completely dizzying. Parts happen simultaneously not fifty things at once. Paint used to describe a face is also pulled to describe a house. You get stuck in fused moments so that in new paintings a couple of descriptions are happening at the same time. It’s a tension between being overwhelming and being able to have a slippage, which is something uncomfortable. Flowers may wilt but are not dead.

JW: What are the developments in your new work like the painting ‘Damask’ (2012) on show in the exhibition?

FD: There’s a strong linear quality articulated in the rope described in ‘Damask’. I was thinking about stitching things together like the undulation that happens in sewing, weaving, crocheting and crafts. Through the interlocking drawings of different things, abstractions are made in between so the space is where the lines intersect.

JW: You appear to have a consistent interest in ‘craft’. What draws you to that?

FD: As I get older, the more I have the desire to bridge gaps. I make things and find ways of bring them together. I want to make a candelabra next. I make a lot of things and I do a lot of sewing. It’s not a big leap. There’s a direct relationship between ceramics and paintings. I find it frustrating that there are a thread of adjectives that follow these crafts like ‘small’, ‘girlish’, ‘hippyish’ things. I take the same modes of making but over scale them with a tougher hand.

JW: Why do you quote art and design history such as making references to Delft pottery and ‘chinoisserie’?

FD: It’s about the history of the material whether it’s painting or ceramics. Ceramics are quite hybrid and specific. I’m most interested in different languages and histories but also the various ways of handling materials.

JW: So it’s hybridity of style and material that interests you and the breakdown of those boundaries and histories?

FD: I want them to be non-hierarchical in a kind of dissolve through juxtaposition and proximity of this difference. In some pieces, I used china paint a historically revered gilding technique but also what grandmas do on plates. I’m interested in really expensive antiques and a grandma’s taste in plates, a huge range from tacky to nice. There’s a shift through proximity from something beautiful to something disgusting.

JW: So one of the ceramic works can tip quickly from the respectable to the vulgar?

FD: Yes, there’s a tablecloth in the painting ‘Damask’ that has does a similar thing because it’s looks like both a baroque floral pattern and a cheap tablecloth at the same time.

JW: So there’s an enquiry in your work about traditional notions of fine art and class iconography while at the same time there’s a dialogue around what’s undervalued and disregarded?

FD: Through that instability I’m making it less fixed, so notions of high class or vulgarity are questioned.

JW: That has that been a challenge for other ceramicists working in clay. In the craft tradition there’s been a distinction made between craft and fine art, those who make pots and those who paint. You seem to be interested in that cultural gap.

FD: I suppose it depends on the pot. So I can’t defend all of them. In terms of the whole craft argument, the gap is more about taste than craft. You can make anything if it’s good out of anything, but I was in part drawn to ceramics for that cloud above it. I was drawn to it for that ambiguity, that it’s separated out more than any medium. Working with ceramics demanded this craft approach and that’s fascinating to me.

JW: You can see that confusion in the way museums distinguish between ‘fine art’ and ‘craft’.

FD: For ‘Totem’ it’s all porcelain and it doesn’t naturally want to behave in this way on such a scale. You wouldn’t choose this kind of clay to make big slabs from. There also all these fingerprint marks in it and it shows crude handling, behaving more like stoneware with grit in it. I was thinking about the Expressionist potter, Voulkos, when I made it and giving it lots of surface decoration and making it out of porcelain with an almost grotesque pattern and feminine overlay. The figurine would be the kitsch element, but based on an 18th century piece while also looking as if you could find it in a gift shop.

JW: How does your work sit in this curated show? What do you learn from participating in this exhibition alongside other artists with a curator in a public exhibition? Does it put your work in a new light?

FD: It’s probably too early to ask. I only put in the flowers yesterday. But there’s an interesting connection to the other artists in terms of language such as the shifts in Matthew Chambers’ paintings from piece to piece and how they are installed. Albert Oehlen leaves mushy fingerprints over a taped-off ‘fade’ in a painting and the space between those gestures and the digital printing too with the expressionist hand over the top. I become more involved in the hanging and arrangement of my work, which is probably related to growing confidence and age.

JW: What you do want to do next? You mentioned making a candelabra out of clay.

FD: I want to make a large, hanging, low chandelier that would comprise clay and metal. It would cover a lot of different references in terms of candlesticks. I want to do my own thing now having digested different style histories. It would possess crude protruding extruding clay and produce lot of different handling techniques.

JW: There’s a balance in your work between collapse and something evolving, asserting form and volume. There’s so much dialogue and quotation, such as the patterned surfaces. Your interest seems to lie with pushing the possibilities of technique and materials.

FD: Some of this is just piling on the glaze in the ceramic sculptures, as if in the process of learning. It’s harder rendering effects this way. Technically being out of control is actually hard to achieve. The quantities are shocking. The sculptures appear haphazard as if a student had made them but it takes a lot of piling on and I mixed all the crackling glaze myself. You still have to have know the direction you’re taking.

JW: For all it’s mashed together and jagged appearance, there’s a completion in ‘Totem’ that feels whole.

FD: You could intervene and break Totem after firing but ‘brokenness’ is different from my rugged handling of the material. The finished work is not meant to look ‘archaeological’. It’s really important to me that through all this fracturing that it comes back together to being whole again. Like the paintings, I don’t want to create a dizzying, empty space. I want to build a ‘wholeness’ at the end of the process. Formal connections in the work are what interests me, for example, how the grid in ‘Diptych’ (2008) resembling a ship’s mast relates to the grid of a chair, the inside of an umbrella or holes within a ladder, so that everything has a structural similarity. ‘Diptych’ moves from panel to panel and some of it gets lost. I look at everything as a source. I started with the fade from dark grey to light in house paint that was really a reductive landscape, moving from a Richter-like palette knife effect to oil. I rip up lots of books and have piles of images in my studio. The ‘schlocky’ figures in that painting are from an art history book.

JW: Were you ever conscious of failing when you were making ‘Totem’?

FD: This piece was meant to fail. My father-in-law said there was too much happening to complete it, but I said I was fine making it by myself. I was working in a school environment and not my studio so the works felt vulnerable. It was weird and I didn’t have full control so some work was destroyed and I couldn’t accept it. ‘Totem’ was designed to make up for it. I worked for two weeks on my own when the school was closed over Christmas and it was really depressing. The process is slow and the clay is fragile before firing. Instinctively, I had a better sense of weight and space than I had expected having only painted before.

JW: It’s an example of how you learn by falling back on your own resources and pushing through. I see you are giving a talk to accompany the exhibition. Is it important to find a ‘language’ to discuss your work?

FD: No, I really don’t think it is necessary but I’m happy to do it. It can be interesting, but the work stands on its own.

JW: Where is your practice moving now? You’ve developed a particular language in your paintings and sculptural ceramics. There’s a nice articulation now across media of shared interests and themes. Can you see what you’ll be doing in future?

FD: I will be working for a show at the Blaffer Museum in Houston opening next winter so I want to make paintings and sculpture using new materials like acqua resin, so I will aim to produce greater height in the ceramic sculptures without the weight and fragility because clay can make them super-heavy. There’s no way to fire them in New York and they are very expensive to make. That’s one of the reasons I went out to Arizona to use a special kiln. I need to work in sections. From working with ceramic glazing, the surfaces of my paintings are becoming more articulated. There’s a lot more variety. Having used cake decorating extruder tips for the ceramics, I’m now using them to make paintings.

by Joshua White