Rappaport Connects Gateway |
Follow Us |

The Painter-tinkerer

Matt Saunders started in his father’s wood shop and today continues to invent.

For Matt Saunders, winning the 2015 Rappaport Art Prize at the deCordova had a very specific, practical and substantial application, but its implication was far more impactful than that.

The then-$25,000 award was almost precisely the cost of the used color photo processor he found in Texas – a Volkswagen-sized machine which to this day allows him to do the majority of his work across the river from his Cambridge home in Alston.

It was a “transformative” prize, he said, but even beyond the substantial professional ramifications, the 45-year-old Harvard professor is fully aware that the honor – given annually for the last 21 years to a New England-based contemporary artist – has a far broader significance. With its emphasis on innovative, visionary work in the region, Saunders appreciates both the boundary-pushing and team-building elements inherent in the criteria.

“It’s a wonderful recognition of how many seriously good artists have studied in, grown up in, maintained relationships to, or moved to this region,” said Saunders, who was raised in Baltimore before moving to Berlin, Germany, and finally Cambridge, where he now spends a majority of his time. “You don’t want to necessarily get a prize just because of where you live, but the Rappaport Prize has served this kind of community function of making visible the breadth and depth of art that has happened outside of New York City.

“The Rappaport Prize, with that kind of support, always makes a difference in someone’s work, and it has in mine. I feel very grateful and lucky to be a part of it.”

Matt Saunders

“And they’ve done a really good job of finding and making visible a range of very interesting practices.”

Interesting, to be sure. He was the 16th of the 21 Rappaport Art Prize winners, and his genre may be the most difficult of the lot to properly define.

A self-proclaimed “tinkerer,” Saunders was compelled to take his first middle school art class after becoming obsessed with Jasper John’s 1962 “Fool’s House,” a three-dimensional painting featuring a broom hanging in the foreground, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He became similarly spellbound by Robert Rauschenberg’s “Canyon,” featuring a taxidermied eagle and a pillow attached to a mixed-media print on canvas.

“It was something about the status of those objects,” Saunders said. “I was fascinated by how playful they were, how weird they were.”

So young Matt, rather than paint or draw on canvas or paper, would go to his father’s wood shop, nail scraps together, grab some paint and, well, just make things.

“That was my art,” he said.

And today? “Visual artist” certainly covers the medium in broad terms, and asked to attach a single word to his art, Saunders would say painter, as any work he does generally begins with his hands and a brush and a painted mark on canvas.

Beyond that, however, the work becomes trickier to label – a hybrid of painting, photography and film techniques by which Saunders paints images in reversed colors onto linen, then runs light through the fabric to create photographic images on paper. Those images are then exhibited in complex installations along with hand-drawn, highly abstract animations projected onto floors, walls and screens.

“My work isn’t based on being an amazing painter or being super facile with a pencil or having a great control of a camera. It’s more like taking these things and sort of …” he said, and then stopped short with a grin, contorting his hands as if shaping a piece of clay.

“I guess I’m inventing. I try to put things together.”

He’s been inventing successfully for decades now. His earliest work included ink drawings and oil paintings on mylar, and later a series of “silver paintings” using silver ink and oils. It was 2008 that he began exploring the combination of painting and photography that continues today, and that work has been exhibited all over the world, including Liverpool, Shanghai, London, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, Copenhagen, Geneva, Munich, New Zealand, Vancouver, Istanbul, Prague, the UAE and in myriad public collections around the United States.

And that work has been sustained, in large measure, by the generous prize from the Rappaport Foundation.

Prior to the award, he was a Harvard professor with an art studio, by necessity, six time zones away in Germany, while Boston-area color photo labs were becoming scarcer all the time. Creating his art was, simply, less than convenient.

And now, his studio is a short bicycle ride away.

“Every penny of the prize money went into buying and transporting and refurbishing this machine,” he said. “Before, I would have to go to Berlin to do that work, and now it can all be done right here.

“The Rappaport Prize, with that kind of support, always makes a difference in someone’s work, and it has in mine. I feel very grateful and lucky to be a part of it.”