I was in the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum gift shop last weekend, buying a little bowl, browsing the jewelry in the case, when I pointed to some booklike objects that I knew weren't books. "What are those?" I asked the clerk. She reached in and drew one out for me, a little box about 2" x 3", framed with rulers, a wooden assemblage, with some photographs.
"He calls them shadowboxes, I think. He's a Katrina survivor."
The back was signed "Matjames."
I felt like I had tripped over him by accident and had to step back to look again.
The fact that he was a Katrina survivor made me think these boxes were made with the things he had saved. But that isn't true. He's been living in Los Angeles for a number of years. Hurricane Katrina uprooted people and tore them from their New Orleans homes in 2005. Many of his pieces are house shaped. Curious how that label became an important part of how he was defined.
Knowing that part of his past touched me, but the boxes had a life to them beyond the artist; they had an emotional impact all by themselves, and they were mysterious, too. In an online video Matjames says, "If a house can be haunted, why can't ordinary objects?" (4:01). And I did feel that his created objects were haunted. Old objects, old photographs: the people who owned them are long gone, but still they remain, embalmed in gel medium. Matjames selects and composes and arranges them carefully.
The video gives you the flavor of his work and how he thinks. He also writes and creates graphic novels (here's the one he reads from). At one point he says, "…I don't like the term 'found objects.' So much of it is sought after, and very specific…once I've found it, it becomes part of my little language" (2:17). I hadn't thought of collage and assemblage quite like that before; I like the idea that we are creating language, and perhaps roaming the world seeking our language as well.
And after we gather it, we form it into something else that others can see. "That's kind of what I fancy my job to be…to translate or to give you an opportunity to hear what's being spoken that I hear…" (3:42). A translator, a receiver, a transmitter. The mysteries that filter through us that we are compelled to share.
I was too surprised to buy any of his work that day. I was drawn more to his assemblages than to the $20 bowl that I bought, although I liked it, too: metal birds cut out of an oil drum and formed into a bowl, made by craftspeople in Haiti. Maybe next time I'll be ready to spend the $100 to find something closer to my own language.
MATJAMES:TRANSLATOR (short) from SALAD FILMS on Vimeo.