Matt Neff and J. Louise Makary are alumni of the RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residence) program, an art residency based at a facility in Northeast Philadelphia that recycles construction and industrial materials. The two met in February at Neff’s studio to talk about the work they made at the site and to reflect on the life and career of Terry Adkins, who advised them when they were graduate students at Penn and whose close mentorship brought eventual changes to Neff’s philosophy toward materials. Trained as a painter and established as a printmaker, Neff now engages in an object-based process that reflects a desire to allow materials to assert their purpose within a piece without manipulation or force on his part. His is a practice of intuition, patience, and improvisation in the studio. Makary is a filmmaker whose work employs improvisation, dance, and movement in an exploration of control and letting go, and is especially responsive to location.
J. Louise Makary: You mentioned to me that your process changed around the time you started working at RAIR. Could you tell me about the disassembling and repurposing strategies you use, and how an object might be used in several different pieces?
Matt Neff: In the past few years I started moving away from printmaking exclusively and began printing on objects. I was getting into the zone of reusing things, collecting, and archiving. My residency at RAIR was in 2014, the first year of their program. I would get to RAIR early in the morning to be in the yard during working hours, before I would go to work. At first, I made things quickly in the yard; this was followed by a long process of working with materials in the studio. There weren’t walls to work off in their studio space, which is oriented more toward making sculpture, so I adapted to that by using the floor predominantly and pulling in objects. Some days I would make 10 to 15 pieces, set them up in orchestrations, and photograph them. At the end of the day I would disassemble them and put all the materials away, and start again the next time.
JLM: RAIR is sited at Revolution Recovery, an industrial/commercial recycling plant. This isn’t a bottles-and-cans facility—the materials are from construction sites, building demolitions, and estate clean-outs, and there’s an unpredictability to the materials coming through. Did that lead you to working quickly and intuitively, as a response to the chaos and speed of the environment?
MN: Yes. For the most part, as I accumulated materials I would incorporate them as soon as possible, and I would try not to manipulate them much. It was a matter of waiting for relationships to take shape, waiting for the right time to pull materials in. This was an approach I learned from studying with and assisting Terry Adkins at Penn. Some of the objects that I’ve been using and incorporating in various pieces, I got from Terry—some he gave me over the years, and some I got when he died. I just keep recycling them in and out of works. For years Terry had been a huge influence on me, because I was making work for him and with him in those years. I think it seeped in—his way. I watched him care for the objects he would acquire.
JLM: How would you characterize his way of working?
MN: His approach was to defy the medium or what was expected of the medium—he’d talk about “composing sculpture” and “sculpting sound.” He had a very elegant way of bringing objects with different histories together to make a comment on history or rewrite history, often underrepresented history. It was poetic, and it was slow.
JLM: How would Terry “care” for objects? Would he cultivate a relationship with an object before it became a part of the work?
MN: It’s more that he was specific about relationships that are created among materials. He’d accumulate things and tuck them away in countless places, just waiting for a time to use them. We’re still finding things he hid! These things would be lying around—overlooked, unnoticed—in his office, my office, or the print shop. But when he pulled them into a piece, it was magic.
JLM: He would put things in conversation with one another, then wait and see whether they were speaking to each other, take objects away…
MN: Yes. But he didn’t see them as objects, he saw them as potential. Energy. I learned from that way of engaging with materials. Another local artist, Bill Walton, also influenced me. He never dated his works. Things would show up again and again. That helped to free me, especially working in prints, where everything is editioned and the archive is very important. I think about that—sometimes I’ll take a photograph of a piece and insert it into another piece, which becomes a way of referencing and recycling, never letting anything become bound or static.
Terry’s death hit a lot of us hard. It was so unexpected, and I was shaken by it. I wanted to stay in that feeling and understand what it was about. In some way, parenting is the other side of that preoccupation, a response to mortality. That was something I jumped into [with the adoption of my son, Yasir, six years ago] and it had a major effect on my work. I no longer have time to just be in my head in the studio, thinking through all the possibilities. Now if I have even a minute, I go straight to work. My decisions are often intuitive and I let them be, and then I go make dinner and help with homework. I don’t have as much angst about work because there are so many things going on in my life. I think that’s represented here in the work, too. There’s a kind of stillness in these objects, but the truth of the matter is they were made through consistent movement in tiny increments.
JLM: The impermanence of your work is really beautiful. There’s also a simplicity to the arrangements, a sense of not doing too much—a naturalness. It reminds me of how my friend who is a lifelong surfer talks about letting the wave tell him what to do, rather than exacting his will on the wave. It seems like you don’t get too caught up in disguising or changing what the object actually is, by removing its readability. You just let the piece absorb the familiarity and assert itself in whatever humble way it can. These are really proud works. The continual movement of objects in and out of the work gives this practice a flow. What’s it like to be open to the idea that things are always in flux?
MN: It feels natural. I have stability in other parts of my life, but nothing is ever truly stable—there’s an illusion of stability. Before I started working this way, I would get really jammed up about conceptualizing and fully resolving a piece, and when the show was over it was always such a letdown. Now, when I think about showing a piece, I look at it as the state in which it exists in that moment, accepting it and embracing the chaos. Which is like being at RAIR—it really is quite visceral and physical being out in the yard. It does move fast. Things are impermanent. It also, for me, carried the emotional weight of people’s whole lives coming through with a house clean-out, for instance. Sometimes operations would slow down and offer the chance to look through stuff. The experience put me in touch with waste and privilege, and this idea of cleansing and getting rid of things as a way to erase histories.
JLM: Are you thinking about the life of these things?
MN: Their former lives? I wonder about that. But I’m more interested in how their context shifts dramatically once I engage with them. Again, to me it alludes to these washed-away histories. I found some stuff at RAIR that is totally wild, and I would hit the Internet to find out what it was. But to me, part of the process hinges on not really knowing where these things come from, not knowing the stories behind them.
I just did a piece for a small publication, pairing an image of a pile from the yard at RAIR with text from research I was doing about land reparations, land stolen from African-Americans, and histories that are not taught or circulated in many communities, especially in many white communities. I was thinking of those histories every time a huge load of drywall and brick came in. I thought about land that had been stolen, and the ways in which it is repeatedly stolen, in a sense, through gentrification. Being at RAIR raised my awareness about a much longer history, tied to oppression and systemic racism. That was a weight. But I also really loved the kind of speed with which the machines move and how quickly the drivers can push things away. There are metaphors you can make about that, too.
JLM: I found someone’s driver’s licenses, every one they’d held since the 1980s, along with the rest of their worldly belongings. This person hung onto a lot of things—expired pharmacy products from the 80s, outdated computer cables, the White Pages. Stuff that had been sitting around, unobserved, in this person’s house, until he died and everything had to be cleaned out. When construction materials came in, as opposed to house cleanouts, I felt more distanced from the narrative. My lens was oriented toward a different issue, a different aspect of the way we live now. I think it’s interesting that we had such different experiences being confronted with these materials.
MN: That’s the beauty of your project, making a project out of airborne dust. Materially and metaphorically it has a different weight. The dust is such a beautiful thing that is omnipresent there. In my work, I was interested in the dust, but in observing how it fell on things.
JLM: When I first visited, what interested me was the way that order is brought to chaos on-site. It’s complete chaos when stuff comes into the yard, and then it goes through a highly mechanized, very dirty process that involves heavy machinery and human labor to bring order to it. But even the order is chaotic. If you look at something like the copper bales, they are cubes of roughly the same dimensions, but they have weird wiggly bits popping out and creating pattern within the uniformity. I liked the formal tension there.
When I started shooting the project in November, I decided to focus on the dust—it’s the particulate residue of our waste, and it can’t be recycled or completely controlled. A friend referred to it as “renegade material.” These particles infiltrate our lives. And it’s toxic—asbestos, gypsum, lead, bacteria. It’s beautiful, but it’s also dirty and scary, so for me that was another way to explore the formal tension of the site. We shot documentary footage of the daily plant operations, and the different ways dust is captured in the light during an ordinary day. After hours, we used a sweeper and a compressed air machine to generate giant dust clouds as a setting for performance. You and your son came one night and helped me out—you got to see these enormous dust clouds.
MN: I was interested in how you didn’t use any of the objects or materials that came in daily. You focused on the smallest evidence of the massive volume and density of waste coming through and, more importantly, the transformation of that waste into something so ethereal, ephemeral, and evocative. As the dust clouds formed, I felt like I was in a war zone or a disaster area. I had a feeling that something horrible had just happened, and it felt simultaneously peaceful and anxiety-inducing. There was a kind of stillness and purity to the clouds, especially at night. I had spent a lot of time at RAIR, but in those moments you were able to make the facility and the waste piles and Philadelphia disappear.
JLM: I was floored by some of the images that I pulled from the footage. There’s a theatrical quality to people interacting with the dust. The performances are not specific to a narrative, but the dust suggests some kind of event, some kind of story. I was trying to tap into fears about whether our way of life is sustainable, using the dust to create a heightened sense of threat and uncertainty. Did working at RAIR make you think differently about some of the things that it stands for, like sustainability and environmental issues?
MN: I was already down with the mission before I got there, but after RAIR I began thinking about sustainability in my approach to teaching and making supply lists for students, and realizing how market-driven all this stuff is—it sets up a class structure, it sets up a market-driven economy within the art world, starting as a student. You think you need to have certain supplies and materials. I don’t buy any of that stuff anymore and I don’t ask students to buy those materials for class.
JM: I’m thinking more deeply about what I actually need, having been confronted with those massive piles at RAIR. It’s amazing how much shit is in there—stuff from the dollar store, craft supplies, flip-flops. Packages that were never opened. On the one hand, you have people who are hoarding things for years and on the other hand you have people who are in a completely disposable frame of mind. It made me realize that a lot of change needs to happen at a legislative level, because when given the choice, in a market-driven society, we won’t make the difficult changes on our own. So many products are necessary for our social survival, so we don’t smell bad, so we look presentable, so we can shave our beards or our legs, right? To be socially successful to some degree means participating in commercial culture. That’s the way we have been taught to live and our culture doesn’t make it easy to live a different way.
MN: No, it doesn’t. Store displays made up of thousands of things end up at RAIR. There’s an insane amount of waste from marketing. All these hierarchies of capitalism have stuff attached to them, physical material that we throw away.
JM: There are only a couple of places in the country that have places like Revolution Recovery that are actually municipally funded. I didn’t realize how much of what gets thrown out can be recycled, even into fuel pellets, which is a new product at this plant. The residency gave us an incredible level of access to observe and be reactive to the recycling process.
MN: In some ways we weren’t working that differently there. I was trying to be in the moment and to wait, make a move and then look at it later. Watching you work that way, too, was intriguing. The beauty of that residency is that they adapt to whomever is there and help them make the best work they can. RAIR is so interactive, and I really looked forward to going there.
JLM: Me, too. The site itself is so many different things. All the things we’ve been talking about, in terms of its heaviness, politically, economically, socially. At the same time, the way the business is operating, it has its own energy—it’s ticking along in a sensible way, there’s camaraderie, there are systems. And then there’s the residency, which is not heavy at all! It brought out the best parts of me as a collaborator because it was fun, which made it feel safe to explore ideas.
MN: I’d be immersed in a state of reflection, and then I’d turn around and Billy [Dufala, cofounder of RAIR] would be fooling around with a toy goat he put on a stick, or driving a forklift really fast around the yard. So this whole process of letting go and being open, it blossomed for me there because I was allowed to just have fun. Those walls between the work and the art world and academia break down when you’re having a good time.
Matt Neff is an artist based in Philadelphia. He received his MFA from the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches and runs the Common Press. More of his work can be seen atmattneff.net.
J. Louise Makary is a filmmaker and visual artist based in Los Angeles. Her current work is online at jmakary.com.