Mat Tomezsko is one of three artists participating in the Juvenile in Justice exhibition, November 8 – December 12 at Crane Arts.
How do you decide on which particular social issues to tackle when you’re approaching a new series/piece?
I have always been interested and concerned about issues surrounding poverty, so I have naturally been drawn to public art commissions which allow me to explore class. My personal experience with violence in the city has also left a deep impact on myself and on my work. There Is No is the most direct example of this, in which, informed by my own experience, I explored the expression of the tumultuous and frustrated emotional reactions that come from violent loss.
In my studio practice, however, I don’t necessarily sit down and decide to make work about a particular issue. I am inspired by contemporary urban life, in all its tremendous extremes. I simply try to relay what I experience without omitting the inconvenient, mundane, or painful parts. Conversely, I also try to include the humor. I just made a text painting that says “We get real drunk and eat hot dogs,” something I overheard on the street.
How do you decide on which neighborhood to display your public art installations?
Ideally, they end up being located in the communities in which they are relevant. I’ve considered juxtaposing installations in disparate neighborhoods, but I feel that there would be too much that could be misinterpreted and lost.
What did you study at Tyler School of Art? Was there a specific course that had a strong influence in helping to shape your decision to tackle urban issues in your pieces?
I studied Painting and Poetry because, it seems, I wanted to graduate with the most impractical degree possible. My strongest influence was a professor, Larry Spaid, in whose paintings I saw for the first time how to build a mode of communication that can be manipulated to express anything in the world. Once I developed my own method, I could then do what I wanted. As I stated before, right now that entails simply recording my experience of what is it like to be here. My fascination with urbanism comes from a belief that art and life are inextricably connected, and I happen to be an urban person.
How did you get involved with the Juvenile in Justice exhibition?
There Is No started as a Mural Arts Program project called The Ninety-Four Effect which was a project based around a study that concluded that for every victim of urban homicide, there are ninety-four people directly affected. I was one of numerous artists chosen for the project, and I led workshops at the Covenant House, a shelter facility for homeless youth located in Kensington. With the input of the young people I worked with, I developed imagery and vocabulary that approximates the experience of devastation and loss. I made ninety-four paintings to represent the ninety-four people affected by one death. Each painting approaches the same subject from a different angle, so together it becomes recognizable, while remaining freshly and frustratingly elusive.
After the completion of the painting series, luck and friendship brought it to the attention of InLiquid which became interested in the project, enabling this fantastic exhibition.
Can you tell me about some of the pieces you’ll have on display?
One theme found in many of the paintings is the idea of confounding direct communication. I wanted the text paintings to seem as simple as possible, as if they want to tell you something obvious. There are some words or letters expressing something in a very familiar style like an advertisement or a poster. However, nothing about it other than the layout is clear. The concept, found in a familiar shape, slips away from comprehensibility. This, to me, serves as a metaphor for the death of a loved one. You are able to recognize that it is a fact, but you turn it in your mind for the rest of your life to wring it of any sense or meaning which can be wrung. This idea is found in the text paintings, but also in the abstract paintings. Many of the shapes are simple and repeat, but never add up.
“There Is No” is the title of the series and the words are repeated throughout the 94 paintings with different iterations. I wrote the phrase originally in reaction to the death of my friend Richard Johnson who was killed for more or less no reason on the street near where he lived in Point Breeze a couple of weeks after graduating high school in 2005. The phrase is satisfying to me because it is incomplete. It seems like it is a statement that will make sense and resolve but it ends too short. I was trying to answer the question and realized that the incomplete nature of the phrase more perfectly described the feeling than any definitive statement ever could.
How does your work relate to the issue of creative education as a means of social justice reform?
Violence in our communities is a symptom of a system failing its people. When there are limited to no resources or opportunities for a productive future for a population that is, by circumstances of birth, excluded from the American Dream, the resulting culture is dark and diminished.
I firmly believe that education is the real answer to social inequality. Art education, specifically, should not be seen as a luxury. Many minds work in ways that do not fit the norm. Probably the most enlightening moment of my public art career was when I approached a group of ten to thirteen-year-old boys in Philly with some spray paint for an improvised mural. They had tagged up the neighborhood, and were blown away that anyone felt anything other than a negative reaction towards their artistic practice. The resulting project left them empowered and had improved their skills. Whether teaching or painting in my studio, I think it is important to understand people on their level and put that understanding into practice.
What are you hoping that people will take away from the show?
I hope to offer a vantage point into an often neglected reality, so that outsiders can understand the events unfolding in this and many other cities. I hope that understanding will lead to empathy, informed decisions, and positive action