Matt Neff and J. Louise Makary are alumni of the RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residence) program, an art residency based at a facility in Northeast Philadelphia that recycles construction and industrial materials. The two met in February at Neff’s studio to talk about the work they made at the site and to reflect on the life and career of Terry Adkins, who advised them when they were graduate students at Penn and whose close mentorship brought eventual changes to Neff’s philosophy toward materials. Trained as a painter and established as a printmaker, Neff now engages in an object-based process that reflects a desire to allow materials to assert their purpose within a piece without manipulation or force on his part. His is a practice of intuition, patience, and improvisation in the studio. Makary is a filmmaker whose work employs improvisation, dance, and movement in an exploration of control and letting go, and is especially responsive to location.
J. Louise Makary: You mentioned to me that your process changed around the time you started working at RAIR. Could you tell me about the disassembling and repurposing strategies you use, and how an object might be used in several different pieces?
Matt Neff: In the past few years I started moving away from printmaking exclusively and began printing on objects. I was getting into the zone of reusing things, collecting, and archiving. My residency at RAIR was in 2014, the first year of their program. I would get to RAIR early in the morning to be in the yard during working hours, before I would go to work. At first, I made things quickly in the yard; this was followed by a long process of working with materials in the studio. There weren’t walls to work off in their studio space, which is oriented more toward making sculpture, so I adapted to that by using the floor predominantly and pulling in objects. Some days I would make 10 to 15 pieces, set them up in orchestrations, and photograph them. At the end of the day I would disassemble them and put all the materials away, and start again the next time.
JLM: RAIR is sited at Revolution Recovery, an industrial/commercial recycling plant. This isn’t a bottles-and-cans facility—the materials are from construction sites, building demolitions, and estate clean-outs, and there’s an unpredictability to the materials coming through. Did that lead you to working quickly and intuitively, as a response to the chaos and speed of the environment?
MN: Yes. For the most part, as I accumulated materials I would incorporate them as soon as possible, and I would try not to manipulate them much. It was a matter of waiting for relationships to take shape, waiting for the right time to pull materials in. This was an approach I learned from studying with and assisting Terry Adkins at Penn. Some of the objects that I’ve been using and incorporating in various pieces, I got from Terry—some he gave me over the years, and some I got when he died. I just keep recycling them in and out of works. For years Terry had been a huge influence on me, because I was making work for him and with him in those years. I think it seeped in—his way. I watched him care for the objects he would acquire.
JLM: How would you characterize his way of working?
MN: His approach was to defy the medium or what was expected of the medium—he’d talk about “composing sculpture” and “sculpting sound.” He had a very elegant way of bringing objects with different histories together to make a comment on history or rewrite history, often underrepresented history. It was poetic, and it was slow.
JLM: How would Terry “care” for objects? Would he cultivate a relationship with an object before it became a part of the work?
MN: It’s more that he was specific about relationships that are created among materials. He’d accumulate things and tuck them away in countless places, just waiting for a time to use them. We’re still finding things he hid! These things would be lying around—overlooked, unnoticed—in his office, my office, or the print shop. But when he pulled them into a piece, it was magic.
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