Just days before the play’s opening performance, Alice in Wonderland
was shut down. That is to say, fire codes had been broken, things were not being done by the book, and all of Hofstra University’s theater department stood horrified to the decision deemed necessary by the Long Island fire marshal. It was dramatic beyond the standard means of theater.
In the midst of the chaos, everyone looked to Matt Woods for answers. Fiascos like this, Matt came to learn, were the assumed responsibility of the student director, his role in the production. He, unfortunately, had no idea what to do. That’s when someone rushed on stage and whispered in his ear, “I need you to come with me.” Matt refused, staying steadfast and true to his duty in the dismay. “You just won the student art show, and you need to come over to the art building,” the stranger insisted.
The situation became as surreal as Lewis Carroll’s wonderland was originally intended; Matt had entered his pencil drawings on a whim, only due to the pressure of a teacher, and now found his craft being acknowledged by the entire school of art. So he walked out of one building brimming with rebuke and into another singing his praises. Matt’s unbridled talent was undeniable and now he had a certificate to prove it.
That was May of 2006. It was the first and only time Matt had entered an art show. Well, that was until his debut exhibit last October.
The trick to art is finding your voice, sinking gently into the comfort of knowing what style is important to you and how to convey it properly. Oddly enough, Matt found his voice a couple of years ago through a growing fascination with wolves. This was nothing entirely new (Matt, as a child, would insist his family join him in saying goodnight to the moon) and evolved nicely from Matt’s already curious engagement in matters of the macabre, the occult, and grotesque—all this then juxtaposed with the whimsical. These themes are all immediately recognizable when walking into his Harlem apartment: images of bloody figures, trashcan lids painted as Ninja Turtle shells, nails hammered into the coffee table in the design of a skull and crossbones.
But as of late, Matt’s work has taken a more perceptible trajectory, creations littered with confidence and the indescribable glow of a unique worldview funneled through paints, pencils, and pens.
The trajectory is wildlife, something seemingly counterintuitive to his New York City setting. But it’s the very absence of nature in the Big Apple that fuels Matt’s passion and gives him an important void to fill; it’s what makes his work out-of-the-ordinary and turns city dweller’s heads.
And his latest creations, currently displayed at Pisticci Restaurant on 125 La Salle Street in Manhattan, are turning a lot of heads.
Entitled “All my Friends are Animals,” the exhibit dispels the taboo creepiness of taxidermy by means of a strange and playful spin, something Matt refers to as vegetarian taxidermy. To get an idea of this, imagine the mounted heads of North America’s most recognizable animals—porcupines, foxes, raccoons, rabbits, etc.—but instead of the familiar elements of fur and flesh, rebuild the mental construct with nothing but papier mâché. This is precisely what Matt did when envisioning the project, but then made it a reality with 3 months of hard work, dedication, and the constant mess in his kitchen that came from it.
The inspiration for the entire show originated with a dingy and weathered boar’s head hanging from a chain-linked fence in the East Village at a side-of-the-road oddities shop. The mangy boar remained subjected to the elements year-round and was accompanied by other bizarre items, such as headless manikins playing cards at a table. The boar, endearingly named Tina, became an inside joke between Matt and his boyfriend—an item Matt was ultimately hoping to purchase as a birthday gift. Unfortunately, Tina bore the ridiculous price only New York junk can demand.
So instead of buying the boar (which was about a 2-year debate), Matt decided to make one of his own. And with a little online research and a copy of Van Dyke’s Taxidermy Supplies
, he crafted his first papier mâché head using a wooden mount, crumpled newspaper, acrylic spray paint, and a mix of joint compound, wet toilet paper, glue, and flour all pulverized by a hand mixer. The result was a sturdy sculpture of playful mimicry.
That was the first creation, but the art show now has 22 pieces: 13 animal heads, 4 paintings (of the moon), and 5 drawings (used as blueprints for the sculptures; the drawings were done at the American Museum of Natural History). But the show wasn’t always planned this way.
Initially Matt was going to do a show of just moon drawings, something to include hundreds of small, simple pieces covering the wall and only recognizable upon close inspection (squares with circles becoming intimate lunar phases). This, however, was not a display conducive to the environment of a restaurant. Therefore, the curator asked to see other work and, when seeing pictures of the papier mâché boar head, enthusiastically demanded Matt create an entire exhibit in the same fashion.
And Matt went to work.
With coffee as his creative vice, sculpting became an additional fulltime job, putting in 39 hours a week. The process involved starting all of the heads at once, a time consuming endeavor of putting a layer on, letting it dry, putting a layer on, letting it dry—and then using a saw when something didn’t look quite right.
Papier mâché had other unique challenges as well; without the color differentiation essential to animal representation, Matt had to pay close attention to fur pattern and texture (especially considering how similar many animal skulls are). This became discouraging when friends failed to guess the identity of sculptures still in production. For example, the porcupine initially looked like an obscure bear, but after 600 quills (made of bamboo skewers) were individually drilled and placed in the head, the piece came to life (and ended up being the most expensive sculpture but sold in only two weeks). So—with blood, sweat, and tears—Matt pressed on and overcame the insecurities that plague most artists.
The exhibit opened on October 19th
of 2013 and was immediately met with acclaim; Matt presented in the height of punk fashion: Mohawk spiked, beard burly, and a tight animal-print suit. And although the heads sold quickly, they will remain displayed until the show ends in February. Surprisingly (or maybe not, considering their prominence in New York), the pieces receiving the most attention are the rats (all named after downtown streets). Initially there was only going to be one, but the curator fell in love with the first rat and urged Matt to make more; they sold immediately and Matt has now been commissioned to make more for other individual buyers.
When asked to choose his favorite labor of love, Matt wavered like a parent asked to do the same of his children. And although he never expressed it directly, it was clear he remained partial to the wolf, a piece named Rudyard after the author of The Jungle Book
, and the source of Matt’s favorite quote: “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
It is clear Matt chose his pack well.
Experiencing the magic of “All my Friends are Animals” makes the 7-year distance between Matt’s art shows well worth the wait; a lot has happened in that timespan giving this rising artist vision, voice, and a confidence to pursue a craft worthy of sharing. Matt already has high ambitions for the coming year and will continue to make a growing impression on the NYC art scene; but be sure to check out his current exhibit before all his animal friends vanish—just as they do in the wild.
You can find Matt's work at http://howlingattheearth.tumblr.com/