We sat down with contemporary artist Matt Jukes to discuss his Aurora series, his experimentations with sculpture, and the importance of the viewer in the creative process.
AR: Where do you take your inspiration from? What/who are your biggest influences?
Matt: Inspiration comes from everywhere. All of my work is autobiographical; a lot of it comes from my memory and basically how bad my memory is. I have a fascination with how memory is malleable; you're all that memory actually is. I quite like the idea of conjuring up these moments but then realising that those moments aren't actually real. This kind of fascinating idea that whenever you remember something you're not remembering that time like it's some kind of great database inside your brain, you're just remembering the last time which you would actually remember that. So, you’re always overlaying context which builds up over time. I find that really interesting.
When I first discovered this it sent me off into some kind of existentialist crisis! I then turned that around the other way and thought: “OK, I can use this as an opportunity to be able to make these memories what I want them to be?”. So much of my work is about trying to be able to capture those feelings. Capture those emotions, capture all of those memories and put them down onto the page or onto the canvas.
I suppose so much of my inspiration comes from wilfully trying to misremember things!
AR: How do your ideas develop? Do you have a little artist black book that you carry around that you record ideas in? Or is it a more spontaneous abstract process?
Matt: I've actually only started keeping a notebook since lockdown started, so up until recently I was very much process driven. I would have much more of a conversation with the work rather than trying to dictate what the work was trying to do. With each mark I'd make I would sit back and consider what my next mark was going to be.
My process is built on a lot of serendipity. That's a really important part of what I'm doing, because I'm very interested in being able to take control away from me as an artist and put it into the actual process.
A long time ago I used to do lots and lots of sketches and plans that led me down a bit of an obsessive rabbit hole. There was one piece that I worked on every day for eight years. Just doing it over and over and over and over and over again until I got it right, so I went a little bit crazy. A little bit insane. But that kind of broke me and made me realise that I need to focus more on having this conversation with the work rather than trying to shout at this work and say “you have to be what I envisaged a year ago.”
AR: What is the lasting impression you want to leave on the viewers of your work? How do you want them to connect with your paintings?
Matt: There is no doubt that my work doesn't exist without the audience. Once I’ve put emotion onto the page, what I really want is for somebody to stand in front of my work and layer their own meaning on the top of it. I love hearing all of these stories and this becomes another layer of meaning. I want to show that even though we see the world in different ways, we're all brought together by the same emotion. It was about looking back.
AR: Speaking of emotions, then I'd love to talk about your Feelscape project.
Matt: It’s one of those things that I’ve been thinking about for a very, very long time, so it’s been fantastic to bring it into fruition. At the heart of Feelscape is everything I've been talking about before, which is about being able to put the emotions down onto the page. What I'm doing here is literally turning the camera around onto the viewer themselves. So, what I want to be able to do here is to be able to get the viewer to conjure up their own future, by being able to use those emotions to create their own landscape.
AR: How did the pandemic affect this project?
Matt: This project was about looking back. During the pandemic, time changed. It was no longer a straightforward linear idea any more. It sped up. It slowed down. The pandemic moved incredibly quickly and slowly at the same time. Due to the neuroplasticity of your brain, it needs constant stimulation to be able to build up different memories. If you’re doing the same thing over and over again, you don’t remember any of these things. What I wanted to do as we came out of lockdown was to help people look forward and to get away from the constant mundane chatter inside their heads like what they’re having for lunch or when they’re going to clean the bathroom! To get people to pause for a second and think about where they want to be in a year’s time, and to use their emotions they can conjure up thinking about that time.
I had a fantastic chat with Professor Catherine Loveday who is a progressive neuroscientist from Westminster University, and all her work is about how the brain kind of deals with love with unlike memories and emotions. So much of that chat kind of got fed into all of this work, and the key thing which she said about this is that it is an important tool that is able to help people's mental health. This work really makes you hold up a mirror to yourself.
During the summer I did a show where I had people go into a white box and generate their own Feelscape, to be able to have a moment with their emotions and their future. When people came out of that box and we saw their Feelscape, everybody was desperate to be able to tell me a story about what they were thinking, about where they wanted to be, where they wanted to go, and everything they thought of whilst in the white box. There was a couple who came in and they both did it and tipped the scale almost to 100% joyful. Once they came out, they told me they were getting married, and this was their wedding present to each other.
AR: It must be so rewarding for you to actually see the results of your art in real time.
Matt: Yeah, yeah, exactly. On the other side of it, there was a guy who came out who was pretty much 100% saddened and worried and when she came out, she told me she had just been diagnosed with cancer. It was a real gamut of emotion. I didn’t truly realise the value of the work until actually doing it. This project is a tool to be able to open up the discussion about how you feel about the future, because let's face it, at this time there's a whole lot of uncertainty. The artwork is a constant daily reminder of where you’re going to get to eventually.
AR: How does the algorithm work? How do you assign colours to facial reactions?
Matt: OK, so this is where I'm very much standing on the shoulders of giants. There are four parts to this. So, first there is the factual facial landmark recognition. This basically takes 148 points of the visitor's face and maps out all of the different measurements between the parts of the face. This is then fed into a sentiment tracker consisting of millions of photographs of people. The AI then works out how happy or sad the person is depending on their facial reaction. What this then gives me is a series of numbers that I use to assign to the seven emotions. Because no one is either 100% sad or 100% happy, I mix these different emotions together and assign a colour to each of them. Because each of the moods have different percentages, I mix the colours together to be able to create a unique colourway for that particular person at that particular time.
AR: Can you tell us a bit more about your experimentations with outdoor sculpture?
Matt: What I wanted to do here was to be able to create a piece for winter in the north of Wales. I wanted to capture that special light that is usually quite cold, and I wanted to be able to bring that to life and capture the warmth in that environment and build a sunny glow.
This is by far the biggest thing I've done and it definitely has had the most amount of structural engineering. It is 5 panels which are spaced about 80 centimetres apart. These panels are all transparent and they have a series of colours on them that mix together as you look through each panel. You’re able to create a lovely sunrise or sunset no matter where you are looking at it from.
I find it exciting how I’m able to create something which demands you to interact with it. That's the whole reason why this sculpture was placed in the park, so that you can walk through it and take pictures through it as well. In a way, I definitely feel as if all my work is sculptural, albeit flat on a canvas, what I am doing is building up layers over the top of each other. What sculpture enables you to do is give an immersive experience, and I think that's what I'm really interested in. How do I create an experience for the viewer which you're able to connect with? I really want people to engage and play with my art.
AR: Can you tell us more about your Aurora series? Is this the first time you’ve experimented with foil vinyl? How do these differ from your other works?
Matt: The Aurora series is all about changing the viewers’ perception by the way they interact with the piece. As they walk past these, the artwork is going to shift and change and move as they look. I think that all my works are like windows into a fantastical world, so how do I bring these worlds to life? How do I make them more immersive? How do I surround and wrap the viewer with this work so that they can have a deeper, stronger emotional connection to it? I’ve been building on this idea of: “how do I make a still painting move? How do I make something which someone can easily hang come to life?” So what that does is it gives you a million different ways of viewing this work, and each one just a little bit different.
The Aurora series basically came out of the sculpture work I have done. One, because I wanted to be able to create something that moved, and two, because I was looking at the use of vinyl material in my sculpture project. Vinyl is a really interesting challenge as it changes colour dramatically.
AR: Obviously the pandemic-induced lockdowns disrupted the routine of everyone as well as artists obviously. So how did your routine alter? And what does a typical day look like for you now?
Matt: How did the pandemic change things? I was unable to get into the printer studio because that's a communal shared space. A lot of people went small during the pandemic. On the other hand, I went big. The works have just gotten bigger and bigger and bigger, and now I'm currently working on a series of seven by two metre pieces which are just epic. It's a whole other way of working when you can't hold either end of your work and when you can't physically move it around yourself. It becomes a different way of working and a different way of thinking about everything.
And a lot more paint. So much paint. The Aurora work is a lot more translucent because I wanted to capture shifting and change. What I've done is I've put on a handful of very light thin layers over the top. I think the heaviest one has around ten layers, which allows the vinyl underneath to shine through.
AR: How do you see your art developing in the future?
Matt: That's a question which I've been pondering a lot lately, because lockdown has pushed my practice wider. I want to keep on chasing these ideas and how I'm able to make those ideas shift and change and move. I am very much enjoying working on these large-scale art pieces. I'm very much excited about being able to create experiences for people. I'm not going to be curtailed by the printing press. This whole pandemic has shown me that there are other ways for me to express my ideas, so I don't know exactly what's going to come next.
I've got a myriad of things I want to try! In the same way in which the work with my Aurora series got me excited, I want to pursue this underlying principle of “how do I create an experience and artwork which comes to life as the viewer experiences it?” That's going to be at the heart of my work going into the future.
AR: If you could give one tip to any new art collector, someone starting their art collection, what would it be?
Matt: Definitely buy the things you love, but don't wait, because you will always forget the piece you missed out on. Don't wait because you know you're not going to regret buying the piece. You're only going to regret the pieces you didn't buy.
To discover more of Matt's work and his Aurora collection, make sure to check out his Art Republic collection page.