Artist is inspired by silence's force

Process: Instead of wielding a brush, Claudia Matzko uses a computer and books to research ideas before giving them form.

May 22, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

What is there to say when discussing art with a conceptual artist who has no studio, whose work exists only when it is on display in a museum or gallery and whose inspiration springs from silence?

Many things, it seems, when the artist is Claudia Matzko.

Matzko's work is spare and has a quiet beauty that belies its daring. For years, she has been haunted by the words of filmmaker Marguerite Duras, who wrote that before social change can occur, there must be silence. New thought will occur only in the emptiness created by that silence.

"What she was saying really hit me: It was the idea of silence as a force, a kind of active force, something that was necessary before a `new discourse' could begin," the artist says.

Matzko's work often seems poised in what curator Helen Molesworth calls the "slippage" between what is or is not art, what is heard or unheard, what is visible or invisible. Her work includes "Perfume," a vial mounted on the wall and filled with the boiled parts of a violin; an untitled, mirror-and-glass piece that has been sand-blasted so that the viewer sees himself in duplicate and partially erased; and "Chorus," a group of 12 bronze castings of vocal chords hung at different levels to suggest the absence of choir singers.

A fourth Matzko piece, called "Salt Wall," is on display through Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the exhibition "BodySpace." In it, the artist plays with the idea of invisibility and sorrow and the difference between public and private space.

"Claudia's work often deals with a certain kind of invisibility, a flirtation with what is visible and what is not visible," says Molesworth, the BMA's curator for contemporary art who organized the exhibit. "In many ways that is a risky thing for an artist to do: to make works that skirt the threshold of visibility."

In fact, it would be easy to mistake "Salt Wall" for part of the museum. Made of white salt-and-resin tiles, the work extends from the gallery's floor to its ceiling. Matzko's art calls to mind many things - Jerusalem's Western Wall, the tiles found in a bathroom or salt blocks. "There are three obvious visual references in it: It is a wall, and I would call it a sculpture because it is three-dimensional, but because it is attached to the wall, it refers strongly to a painting," Matzko says.

In a world in which art grabs attention with shocking subject matter or vivid splashes of color, "Salt Wall" - monochromatic and without frame or pedestal or moving parts - is deceptively simple.

The salt may refer to tears, a recurring subject in Matzko's work. The tiles form a grid, each square a nod to minimalist logic, or to mosaics or to the orderly passing of time as described by a calendar. But these tiles are not shiny and smooth like those made by a machine; these are lumpy and bear the marks - handprints - of the artist and her assistants. "They refer to life with a human print on it," the artist says.

Matzko is a slender woman with chocolate-brown eyes and economical movements. At 45, she has had work exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and the New Museum in New York; the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio; Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Conn., and is represented by Feigen Contemporary in New York and Angles Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif.

As she talks, Matzko is sitting in the sunny kitchen of her Northwest Baltimore home where she lives with her husband, Gary Sangster, director of The Contemporary, and their four children aged 2 through 12.

In the orderly room around her, there are few clues to her life as artist, though bits and pieces of her other lives surface: A large, doe-eyed German shepherd has to be wrestled onto the back porch before she can begin her conversation; a happy 2-year-old dashes through the room.

Her ability to juggle domestic and professional lives stems, she suggests, from an innate ability to organize. "I have tried to set a `no excuses' policy for myself because there are many, many excuses - really good ones," says Matzko, who teaches full-time at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. "I have told my dealer while we were talking on the phone to hang on for a second while I had a contraction. That's an extreme example, but it's true."

The daughter of a Gestalt psychoanalyst and a retired businessman, Matzko grew up in Cranston, R.I. After earning a master of fine arts degree from Yale University, she spent a year studying art in Germany. But it was the process of learning to speak German that became a formative experience; she began to recognize the ways that cultural biases are embedded in language.

Since then, Matzko has wrestled with the notion of voice - the sort that often goes unheard - and with questions about who owns language, and how written and spoken words buttress the dominant culture.

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