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Fetish and Fantasy: The artist Matt Greene in conversation with Kathryn Garcia

Matt and I conducted this interview a while back while driving through Highland Park, he wanted to show me the house where the cult-classic Spider Baby was filmed. The movie is about  three siblings who suffer from “Merrye Syndrome” a degenerative disease that causes them to regress down the evolutionary ladder, yielding primitive cannibalistic results. One of the siblings, Virginia nicknamed “Spider baby” for her obsession with Spiders, moves lithely around the house mimicking the movements of a spider while carrying and using two very sharp knifes to torture unsuspecting victims. Matt sees her character as a Hollywood (via Freud) fetishization of castration anxiety. Clearly, I think.

We drive up to the house - a spooky Angelino mansion - and talk about Matt’s paintings, ambiguity, his relationship to cross-dressing and its inevitable link to castration anxiety, fantasy and fetish.

What does the grid in your paintings represent to you?

I never want the work of art to make a specific reference that can be tied to any one thing. I prefer to let the work be ambiguous, not only in terms of gender ambiguity and life-death ambiguity, but also being in between the theoretical and naïve or emotional.  For example, I like studies of early renaissance paintings where the illusion of the illusionist space was disrupted by seeing the mechanics that created the illusion. That's one interesting thing about painting; you have the ability to see the flaws in the construction of an illusion or fantasy. Hollywood uses computer animation to create a perfect surface, a perfect reconstruction of a fantasy. I prefer imperfect things, because any reconstruction is flawed.

So your work is simultaneously about fantasy and the point where fantasy crumbles?

Yes. A fantasy can only be a fantasy, it can only exist in your mind. There's no way to make that fantasy take place in reality.  A sexual fantasy can never be replicated with another person. For instance, the whole beauty of Bellmer's dolls is their failure to be a three year-old girl with eight legs and no eyes.

Do you think that the impossibility of a fantasy urges the creation of it?

No, it's the insanity of being able to imagine it in your mind and it not existing that urges the creation of art, that what you want is limitless. Marx said that there's no end to human desire, and fascism is about realizing limitless desire with no concessions to reality. So how do you accept the history of someone like Bellmer who is acting on his fantasies? Well, because he's not actualizing his fantasies; he's willfully not acting on his fantasies. He's documenting them whereas fascism is about enacting them.

So do you think fascism was based in fantasy?

Yeah, for sure.

Do you think it is a symptom that drives fantasy?

The feminism from my upbringing says that the symptom is male desire, that the male gaze is that symptom. I agree with that, but I also have a penis and desire sex with other people, so what's the tightrope I can walk between feminist theory and my masculine urges?

Do you think feminist theory creates a dichotomy that's not necessarily real?

How can we find the language to both talk about it? I want there to be effective feminist thought, because I have the same issues with masculinity on a purely emotional level. It's easy to love women and hate men.

My point is not to critique feminist theory, but to say instead that the reality is in the ambiguity between feminist thought and a lot of other things. I like to think of painting as a space where I'm putting all of these different arguments into question while deliberately not taking a standpoint. My only position is a point of willful ambiguity.

Does an ambiguous stance constantly shift?

Always… I want every painting to be different, because I want every work to be a different play between ideas.  There are also latent meanings within my paintings that are only there for me, but that's not their only subject.  A truly hermetic work is not communicating an idea, it's embedding an idea within it's own language accessible only to the artist.  Bellmer, for example, crosses the line between the public and the private. The poupée itself is a fetish object, while the photograph of the poupée is something else. The documentation of the poupée is about publicizing the fetish . There's a difference between the two.  Maybe we can assume that the puppet was involved in some kind of sexual practice that we cannot understand, but there's a difference between that object and a photograph of the object intended for a public.  It has to be viewed as an image of the fetish object and not the fetish object itself.  When it enters that arena it creates a difference between pornography and art.  The rules of a successful pornography are easy to attain-- male orgasm. With art there is no way to define success. 

There are things that some consider pornography that no one else would, and that's where it gets interesting, because you're getting into ambiguity.  In Germany there are all of these rubber fetish magazines, where men and women dress completely covered in raincoats. There is no nudity and no sex, but the images are definitely intended for sexual arousal. These were sexualized images, but they were so far from sex. I wouldn't know how to make...

Porn that was Art instead of being porn?
Yeah. But my interest isn't in porn, exactly. It's in the moment when the mechanisms that make up the porn become visible, suspending the fantasy. The pixelated grid of the screen is like the perspective grid in painting.  When the computer glitches, cutting off the video right before ejaculation, that's the moment when it stops being porn. Instead it becomes an abstraction that breaks the viewer's fantasy, and that suspension of fantasy is, in my opinion, the sexiest part. The half-ejaculation, half-grid.

Another thing that interests me about internet pornography is the index page, the page where there is a grid of 100 tiny preview images that you click on before accessing the models. In many ways, it is a collection of fantasy partners. One psychological definition of fetishism is that it is a solution to repress the male urge to have harems of female partners. In order to repress that urge, they form collections of fetishized objects as proxies for the missing harem.

What about objects collected that conjure memory? Like childhood toys, fetish objects not necessarily linked to desire but objects attached to a memory, a time that no longer exists or an attachment to something that one cannot have?

To answer that in a roundabout way, another big theme in my work is the idea of the phallic woman. The Freudian theory of cross-dressing is that it is an attempt to preserve the moment before the trauma that results from realizing that women do not have penises. The child assuming women are born with a penis assumes the woman has had the penis cut off by the father.  This idea of cross-dressing claims that it's a fetish resulting from wanting to prevent the male from seeing the vagina-- the site of the lacking penis. Cross dressers are obsessed with proving that phallic women exist, so they become a phallic woman. In that way, it's like preserving a childhood memory, a naive notion of sex preferred to the trauma of learning an actual one.  It's like clinging to an infantile perception of the difference between male and female.

And then fetishizing it?

Right…it always becomes a fetish.

Because of its impossibility?


Matt Greene will be performing a piece titled “THE END OF THE LINE” on June 25th at Human Resources at 7PM. The performance is a panel discussion surrounding the idea of heavenly Eunuchs and castrati.


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