There were 122 pieces in Matjames Metson's weeklong exhibition at Coagula Curatorial this month: assemblage works of every size and shape, hung nearly edge to edge across the gallery's three adjacent walls, with a handful of free-standing sculptures placed around the floor. Each piece consisted of countless smaller elements, all common objects marked by the traces of some previous life. Pencils, matches, rulers, typewriter keys, jewelry, watch parts, bones, stamps, nails, hardware, scraps of handwritten letters, pages of books and scores of vintage photographs — Metson's materials come with stories of their own, which he weaves into eloquent, finely wrought, 3-D compositions, no inch of which goes bare or unconsidered.
With so many works installed at the gallery, the walls of Metson's studio are uncharacteristically empty on the day of my visit, though several tables remain piled with raw materials. Some of the materials he finds himself, on the street or in thrift stores; others are sent to him by well-meaning friends, often buried in boxes of unusable junk. He shuffles through old picture frames, chess pieces, a pile of cheap gold bracelets, a pocket watch, pointing out the difference between those objects he is likely to use (old, weathered, unique, poignant) and those he certainly won't (new, cheap, plastic, banal). It is a surprisingly exacting process.
"I don't agree with the term 'found object' at all," he says, "because that would imply that it's easy, that these things are just anywhere. It's incredibly hard, especially in Los Angeles, because everything's newer here. There are no art supply stores for what I'm doing."
The question of stuff is a fraught one for Metson, a self-taught artist for whom resourcefulness has long been a matter of necessity. Now 41, he came to Los Angeles from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina with his dogs and little more than the clothes on his back, subsisting for several bleak years on minimum-wage jobs. He now lives with his girlfriend, Clea Jones, also an artist, and three dogs in a comfortable Art Deco house that's been in her family for several generations on a cul-de-sac in Silver Lake. He says he'd rather not talk about Katrina — that he prefers to focus on the future — but the specter of New Orleans haunts his conversation.
"The most common question I get about Katrina is, 'Did you lose everything?'" he says. "Well, yeah, I lost my way of life, my surroundings, the people I know, where I live. But what they mean is my TV, my VCR. Did you lose your stuff? That's the only thing that people care about. But if you lose all your stuff, you'll never care about it again."
Metson grew up surrounded by artists. His mother and stepfather were painters who traded the rising rents of SoHo in New York for an artist's enclave in upstate New York but who moved the family frequently in pursuit of temporary teaching jobs. (His biological father, whom he came to know later in life, was also a painter.) He grew up, as he tells it, making art in the studios and college classrooms of grown-ups, earning an education for which he received no formal credit.
He spent several early adolescent years in the south of France but then "got fed up with all the moving around." He left home at 15. At 17, he had a daughter with a girlfriend, then, overwhelmed by the responsibility, left them. He landed in New Orleans, where he remained, off and on, for 16 years, working in a bar and later a salvage yard, producing what he describes as "esoteric dream state comics" and gradually refining the assemblage practice that is his focus today.
When Katrina hit, he was trapped in the city for eight harrowing days before making his way to Los Angeles, where a friend had offered to put him up temporarily, an experience he subsequently chronicled in a graphic novel called "Survivors Guild," an excerpt of which was published in Slake. He gradually attempted to rebuild his art practice, though poverty, loneliness and depression took a heavy toll. He was on the verge of suicide when he reconnected with his daughter, then 16. "She saved my life by calling," he says.
Career boosts have been promising if few: a solo show at Billy Shire Fine Arts in 2009, inclusion in a four-person show at the Craft and Folk Art Museum around the same time. He quit his last minimum-wage job several years ago and scrapes together a living selling his work directly, via Facebook and other forms of social media.
The work itself is intricate and ornate, filled with niches and doors and odd details, every surface worked over with care. It flirts with many of the traditional tropes of assemblage, though Metson bristles a little at the association, seeing his interest in craftsmanship and precision falling more in line with H.C. Westermann than Joseph Cornell, with whom he is often too bluntly compared. It is the care, perhaps, that most distinguishes the work today: the sincerity, even tenderness, with which he treats his materials — all the richer, no doubt, for being so hard won.
Indeed, when Metson describes his art as a strategy of survival, he is not exaggerating. Living with clinical depression and the aftereffects of trauma, he says, "you realize how short everything is. You don't get to live very long — and that's kind of OK, because it hurts. But I don't want to die, otherwise I would have done it. So it's revenge. OK, so I have this chemical problem that makes me really, really unhappy, and I had this natural disaster happen to me that makes me really, really unhappy. What are you going to do? You can either drink heavily, which happens, or end up on the street, which has happened. Or you can make art like your life … depends on it, because it does."