Please join us in congratulating Matthew Coté on his new series of jewelry, The Hidden Agenda, created with support from a Tacoma Artists Initiative Program grant. Meet this ridiculously talented, thoughtful, Tacoma-bred artist in the Q&A below, and at the opening on Saturday, July 25, 3-7pm at M+M! Show runs through Sept. 19, 2015.
Moss + Mineral: Hi Matthew, I’m glad to see you survived the last two brutal months of working on this show.
Matthew: Thanks, Lisa. It wasn’t easy but that’s what made it fun.
M+M: So cool you chose to introduce your new series here; it’s called The Hidden Agenda, and I haven’t seen anything quite like it. Your pieces range in style from antiquarian and intricate to pure populist pop, but somehow it all hangs together on a narrative thread. Tell us about Hidden Agenda.
MC: This new series of work, for the most part, is meant to act as a reflection on [Tacoma’s] past as a community; of the history we may not want to admit or may look back on as a failure. The idea behind it was to give narrative form to various deceptions and hidden motives that have shaped Tacoma history. Growing up here, I had the privilege to experience our history as a community, and to learn how we came to be who we are. But it amazes me how a lot of people never know our past, or remember it.
M+M: Tell me about some of the true stories your series explores from the seamy side of Tacoma.
MC: Well, there are many. Some are good and others we wish didn’t happen. I have been told that I have a knack for pissing people off, and the fact that I focus on controversy and opposing viewpoints probably won’t cause that description to change anytime soon. I looked at the deceptive way Walmart, and a particular land developer, made their way into the city, and the impact it has had on the surrounding community. I researched the incident of arson at the Top of the Ocean restaurant, involving a Pierce County Sheriff [indicted for racketeering]. I also looked at Chambers Bay golf course, developed with public funds during a recession and ask the question. “Was it worth it?” The narratives I decide to pursue are meant to try and understand the issues, and to at least get people to talk about them.
M+M: Most of the events took place within a recent time frame?
MC: I stuck to events that happened within the last 50 years. I wanted people to see that even though we have progressed as a community we may still have a way to go. There is nothing wrong with admitting our problems and coming to terms with them.
M+M: How do such narratives lend themselves to metalsmithing?
MC: The very thing I enjoy about jewelry and metalsmithing is its interaction between the wearer and/or viewer. The narration of a piece is sometimes dictated by how a person wears a piece; I enjoy using that to advantage in my work. A belt buckle can scream arrogance or signal a blatant sexual desire, while a ring can show a connection to someone else or even to a distant memory. Gauged ear plugs/tunnels can map a process of pain driven by a desire for more. The narration of a piece is driven by how the wearer interacts with it, how the people around them interact with it, and whether or not the person wants to wear it at all. Using that idea you can then add much greater emphasis in a narrative style.
M+M: Would I want to wear them on my body?
MC: After completing a piece called “Innocence Lost” last year, a Seattle-based gallery owner asked me the same question. That piece in particular is about children in the United States being indoctrinated to believe in [racial] hate and cruel rhetoric that the average person would not normally take as an absolute truth. The harsh subject matter and the imagery of the piece caused her to ask the question in a way that insinuated that she doubted anyone would wear it. Yet, that is kind of the point. What feeling would you get while wearing a piece like that? I imagined it as a burden, a mark of disdain that someone would be ashamed of, which was the exact reaction I was looking for. I am not driven by, “Would someone wear this?”; I am driven by, “How would someone feel if they wore this and how does that connect to the concept and the heart of the message?” If someone won’t wear the work I am not bothered by it, because in the end that was probably the point, that subtle reaction. But I don’t think anyone would have a problem wearing it, unless remembering the past is not something they enjoy doing.
M+M: When we first met a few years ago you were finishing college, and had had some important experiences studying abroad; particularly, exploring the cathedrals of France. Please tell me how that experience informs your work.
MC: I was in France for about a month in 2009 for an on-site field study of Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture. I learned a lot about the construction of these spiritual structures and the approaches taken to add meaning to them. Specifically, I focused on iconography and hidden numerology. The coincidences of numbers and meanings of numbers found in scripture are staggering. An example would be that in Christianity, the number 12 represents Christian authority and governance because 12 is a reference to the number of thrones on either side of the throne of God in heaven that John saw in a vision, as well as the 12 disciples of Christ, etc. Also, the numbers 1 and 2 in 12 added together make 3, which is a direct reference to the holy trinity. [Medieval architects] also used a method called Gematria, which is basically applying numerical value to words and then taking those numbers and applying them to a design. The labyrinth design on the floor of Chartres Cathedral is a beautiful and perfect example of hidden messages; the labyrinth itself is a design within which the measurements are words taken from Latin Christian scripture.
M+M: You said there was a secret system of numbers built into the medieval architecture; is there a parallel to be found in the works in Hidden Agenda?
MC: Yes, very much so. The idea for “Untitled 1” [see photo above] came from the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth and its intricacy. I wanted the piece to be an abrupt introduction to the series while containing a hidden message. To be blunt, the main message for that piece is, “Wake the fuck up.” Each word was given a numerical value based on the position of each letter of that word in the English alphabet….That element was perfect for the overall concept and gave me a chance to create designs that were truly bizarre and unique. Other messages were hidden in that piece and in the other pieces of the series, but I am not going to give everything away.
MC: I decide where the piece is going to go on the body and how that translates to the message of the piece….The design of the piece itself has to have fluidity and make sense as a narrative. I like to use both the front and the back, using the front like an introduction or exclamation of the narrative while the back completes the story or adds more substance to it. I also like to take advantage of humor, such as thinking about the awkwardness of not only kneeling down to see a belt buckle with a narrative, while being worn by someone; but then having that person unbuckle it to show the rest of the story. I can’t help but laugh at that.
M+M: Your art, while containing humor, shows a lot of underlying seriousness.
MC: I focus on the message and make that the priority. And how the interaction of the wearer and the piece adds to the message.
M+M: You were just accepted into grad school and are leaving right after the show for the East Coast.
MC: I was very excited to learn that I got into graduate school at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. It will be jarring to leave Washington State and Tacoma since I have called them my home for the last 27 years.
M+M: You worked an insane schedule at work and in the studio to complete the works in this show. Wasn’t it one piece every two weeks, on average? And they’re very technical works – enameling, as well as a lot of sawing, engraving, filing…
MC: Yeah, I’ve got no one to blame but myself for that. It’s funny; I remember discussing it over lunch and you looking at me as if I had truly lost my mind. It was a struggle for me to decide whether I would take the TAIP grant, considering I would have to leave in a few months, condensing what was supposed to be a two-year time frame into a few months. Dividing my time between work, the studio, the preparation of the show, and preparing to move across the country made the effort that much more insane. Halfway through and completely exhausted I remember asking myself, “Why do I always do this? Why do I always have to go for the challenge? I really need to learn to say no sometimes.”
M+M: “Why do we never say no? Why must we always say yes?” Artists have this self-talk all the time!
M+C: To be honest, I stayed away from enameling for this series of work not because it would have been too difficult, but because I wanted to do something different. I felt that with moving on to graduate school and starting a new chapter in my life it would be great to see how far I could push myself and not only try new things but do things I don’t normally like to do. Using found objects, using pearls, incorporating cast-metal objects, and incorporating gold for the first time, all allowed me to discover what I needed to improve and how I could possibly use those methods better. Needless to say, the weeks flew by quickly.
M+M: Your day job now is at Tacoma Art Museum, in visitor services; and as an instructor and studio assistant at Tacoma Metal Arts Center. How do you feel about your Tacoma journey?
MC: Being born and raised in Tacoma continues to drive my work. There is so much opportunity to thrive as an artist here, not only from the city but also from the greater community. Finding the Tacoma Metal Arts Center really allowed me to continue my work and gave me a place to build my resumé. The Tacoma Art Museum gave me a chance to meet renowned artists and get invaluable advice and guidance from them, all while building my character and passion for the field. Without the city of Tacoma and what it has to offer to aspiring artists, I do not know if I would be where I am now. My Tacoma journey has been wonderful and I am proud to be from this city.
M+M: Matthew, I can’t wait for your show! Thank you so much for the honor of hosting it.
MC: Thank you, I am looking forward to the opening and to talking to the community about my work.
Please come meet the artist on Saturday, July 25, at M+M: 305 S. 9th in Tacoma! Show runs through Sept. 19, 2015.
(This article has been condensed for length. Lisa Kinoshita)