Over a spread of brioche and raspberry jam, the Stockholm-based artist Matthias Van Arkel tells me about his work “Anna,” named after his ex-partner. “Anna” was first on view at Gallery Björkholmen, his gallery in Stockholm, with nine other works that he made after their break-up. Our conversation soon morphs into an interview, where he discusses his installed sculptures and the role of his personal life in his work.
“Silicone has a strong physicality. It is a material with character,” he says. “My work is all about coming together and breaking apart. It is sticky, sensual, imperfect, with a certain ferocity. It is too shiny, too thick, too heavy, too colorful, too rough—too much of everything.”
We are sitting in my New York apartment recuperating from an art and alcohol-fueled evening kicking off New York Art Week. van Arkel is in the city to install his work at VOLTA, where he is showing with the Hungarian gallery INDA.
His works on view this week at VOLTA are monumental in their show of emotion. ”Some artists working in abstraction focus on experimenting with materials. What gets me going is adding personal expression — an original melody of sorts that responds to my emotional environment,” he says.
“Creating ‘Anna’…I wanted to create a large work with stripes that were as precise as possible. And then as I was working, I received a text message from my cohabitating partner, that read: ‘I want you to move out on Sunday.’ I was devastated.”
Instead of working to achieve the precise lines he had initially planned, he shifted his focus to the dramatic. “I imagined creating a moment in a story,” he continues. “Perhaps two bathers in a stream. I wanted to create ambiguity: maybe they are playing, maybe they are drowning. I wanted my lived experience and emotion to be palpable.”
Also on view at VOLTA is “Diablo,” a work that precedes “Anna.” This work was made at the height of their relationship, which was secret for three years due to its extramarital nature. During this period, van Arkel made seventy-two pieces that were on view at Galerie Forsblom in 2018. “Diablo” is shinier and more intense than “Anna,” with bloody reds and dark tones that give the piece the aura of rotting flesh, alluding to the relationship’s illicitness. With overlapping pieces of silicone, the organic shape of “Diablo” seems like the interior of the body. The holes that result from gaps within the rubber seem both like a reference to sex and incompleteness, foreshadowing the relationship’s looming end.
The exhibition also included a work titled: “Dark Nature.” “All the works in this exhibition described my overlapping and contradictory feelings surrounding the concealed relationship,“ he continues.
In 2003, before he started working with silicone, he created the installation “Bedroom” which was on view at Botkyrka Konsthall in Sweden. It was a 1:1 recreation of the bedroom he shared with his wife, adding to a Swedish library on the topic alongside Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage.” Tracey Emin’s seminal 1998 work “My Bed” also comes to mind. “I used 260 liters of red paint to create that exhibition, it nearly put me into financial ruin,” van Arkel says. “I applied a warm cadmium red with a palette knife and incorporated a cold red and a browner and dirtier tone to represent the different facets of a relationship.”
van Arkel is widely known for his silicone sculptures, which he views as hybrid paintings. “Each strip of silicone represents a brushstroke,” he explains. Working step-by-step with a roller mill, cutting machines, and the oven where he fires his work, his creative process is performative as it intensely engages the body. Usually, he works on a table and builds the work strip by strip.
During the process of layering, imperfections become embedded in the work, creating a tension between his own will and the behavior of the material. To fire the works van Arkel cuts them into squares to fit them into the oven. van Arkel approaches color like a painter combining both, in his words, “disgusting and beautiful” colors. His departure from traditional painting is clearest in his clean edges cubes that allow access to all six sides of the work—unlike the one-dimensionality of a canvas.
After living in New York between 2014 to 2016, van Arkel returns to the city several times a year to work on special projects and install works with collectors. With the help of public art agencies and real estate developers in Sweden, van Arkel’s work is embedded within the fabric of Stockholm, located within transportation terminals and buildings.
In the U.S., he frequently collaborates with the architecture firm Morris Adjmi for whom he has created a large-scale artwork to incorporate into the façade of a nine-story building on the intersection of Broadway and Canal. The skin of the building will be cast in zinc, engaging with SoHo’s history as a cast-iron district. Through the same firm, van Arkel also spraypainted the interior of the ten-story Atlantic Plumbing Building in D.C.
“When people come to my studio, they either love my work or hate it,” van Arkel concludes. Notably, with all of his work, he talks about the importance of hitting a “poetic nerve” — when an artwork affects the viewer in a way that is “beyond words.”
Matthias van Arkel’s work is on view at INDA Gallery, booth #300, at VOLTA, May 18-22 together with Zsofia Schweger, and Rita Suvegas at 548 West 22nd Street.
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Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is editor-in-chief and founder of Cultbytes. She mediates art through writing, curating, and lecturing. Her latest books are Assuming Asymmetries: Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects of the 1980s and 1990s and Curating Beyond the Mainstream. Send your inquiries, tips, and pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.