Matthew Couper: Thirty Three

When he turned 33 – a significant age in many spiritual traditions - Matthew Couper embarked on a unique rite of passage: he created a painting depicting each year of his life to date, from growing up in Hawke’s Bay to attending art school, travelling overseas, teaching and wrestling with sex, religion and mortality along the way. The result is an impressive touring exhibition called ‘Thirty-Three’, currently at Aratoi. What makes this show even more vivid is that Matthew uses the format of the ‘retablo’, a Spanish Colonial painting genre that was bought to New Mexico and Southern Colorado by Franciscan monks.

These small, portable pieces of decorated tin were traditionally made as a way of thanking God, Mary or a saint for intervening during a dangerous event such as an illness or earthquake – in this case, Matthew’s own physical and existential crises from birth to adulthood. It’s a style of painting that can be visceral, surreal and even grotesque, and Matthew exploits these strands wholeheartedly.

He moved to Las Vegas with his wife Jo Russ three years ago, after they won Diversity Visas in the Green Card Lottery, so we connected via email. My first question was…How did you first encounter the retablos form?

This was about a decade ago, in a private collection exhibition at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui. I was at art school at the time and it was the aesthetic similarities and the use of symbolism that resonated with my own paintings. It was a small painting on a crinkled piece of tin, all rusted around the edges and attached to the wall with a piece of frayed string, looped through a puncture wound, suspended by a nail. Hanging among contemporary works, this small image of a Mexican woman kneeling before a vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe held it's own on the wall - it 'pinged'!

Do you plan to keep working in the retablo format?

Yes, I like them because there's no cult-of-personality tied up with these works, in fact the artists were really artisans just doing 'God's work'. No politics, no egos - what a great way to earn a wage! The creators are known by names such as The Bee-Stung Lip Painter, The Almond Eye Painter, The Red Bole School or the trusty Anónimo. This, for me, helps focus on the depiction of the visual narrative or the adaptation of a saint into a contemporary figure relating to contemporary social issues. It's simply a vehicle between the faithful and their own sense of deity.

Why did you decide to move to the States?

I guess the main reason was to experience the USA. Las Vegas is the polar opposite of New Zealand; it's arid desert with a totally manufactured city center based on simulacra. There's something about Las Vegas that seems to be the epitome of perceived American culture. It's a city that has given us permission to do exactly what we want to do.

Is it proving useful to be close to Spanish / Mexican culture there, which can be fed into your retablo making?

Yes, but you find caches of Spanish Colonial art in lots of different places such as Denver, CO and San Antonio, TX. I'll often go over to Los Angeles to get my dose of Hispanic culture and I have a source there where I sometimes purchase traditional retablos and ex-votos.

What are you currently working on?

Works for group shows in Tucson, AZ, Houston, TX, Las Vegas, NV and Los Angeles, CA. Also upcoming exhibitions in Riverside, CA, Carson City, NV, Berlin, Germany and Manila in the Philippines. I'm heading back to New Zealand in August to attend the Auckland Art Fair and my ‘Thirty-Three' exhibition has a couple of more stops in NZ art museums. The next thing on the calendar is ‘The Traveling Miracle Show’ that a group of Las Vegas-based artists are taking up to Reno, NV to forge some connections between other Nevada artists.

That sounds extremely global! How different are you finding the US art world?

It was fortuitous winning Green Cards as interest in my work overseas was starting to pick up in USA and Spain because of the subject matter and medium/technique. The USA is so big - each State seems to be a country in itself; different historical influences, different visual environments and depending on where you are, different speech intonations. And of course, people are interested in two Kiwi artists who have chosen to move to the USA, particularly Las Vegas. This scale allows for more strata in the art world here, so instead of a perceived single national scene there's lots of different scenes in each State which makes for interesting visits to art galleries and museums. Most of our connections have been made via social media, and visiting other cities and meeting artists, which is why we're heading up to Reno soon. Other connections have been made by senior artists suggesting my work and showing in group exhibitions in Los Angeles, CA and Brooklyn, NY.

Currently showing at Aratoi: Thirty-Three: Matthew Couper, until 26 May; Spirit Tree, until 26 May; To the Beginning: 50 years of acquisitions from the Friends of Aratoi, until 19 May; Worlds Apart: New Zealand and Antarctica, until 14 April.