I met Matt Small at his busy studio whilst he was preparing for
his new solo show at the Black Rat Press in March. It was so crammed
with paint pots, finished pieces and found objects that we had to
do the interview outside on his balcony! With a painting style that
is so innovative, Matt takes the aesthetic of portraiture and adds
his own unique edge to it; turning found objects into works of detailed,
multi-layered art that gives a voice to the voiceless inhabitants
of North London. Be prepared for a truly inspiring artist who has
a drive to paint like no other creative that I have interviewed.
Youtube : Interview with Matt Small (BBC Blast)
Matt Small Interview
- Please tell our readers who you are and what you are doing in
M: I was born, raised and will most probably die in my native North
London. I'm the kind of person who likes to stay put. The city drives
and dictates the direction of my art and my area or locale, is something
that I really want to document. People say that London is one of
the most ethnically diverse cities on the planet and I find it fascinating
how we can all live together in the space provided. I see it as
a beautiful sign of humanity's potential and I feel the need to
depict it. I think it's relatively easy to travel to many cities
around the world and depict them but it's actually harder to stay
in one place and watch that particular environment grow and evolve
and try to adapt your (art)work in much the same way. In my case,
it's the Camden area and a lot of times, the residents from this
area don't normally get a chance to have people from their locale
featured in art and focused upon. That's where my drive comes from;
it's the need to show others a world that they may not get to see
on a daily basis.
- Are there also any particular art-styles that
have inspired you, do you draw your influences from any other artists?
M: Some people will say that they are influenced by the Impressionist
movement or some other style, but that's not what I'm about. For
me, it's all about the city. Everything about living in London inspires
me; for example, walking down the street and you see a billboard
that has been ripped and you can see all the different layers, or
when you see that tag on the wall. They all speak to me in a way
where it feels that the whole city is alive. It reminds me that
the city is a living and breathing thing and it's owned by the people,
not by the local authorities or government.
Personally, I love to see grime; I am inspired by
its ugliness and I guess that most of the time, this particular
aesthetic isn't in the vernacular of what should be seen as beautiful.
It goes unnoticed and unappreciated by most people. But for me,
I am interested in the city's surfaces and textures, as well as
how the inhabitants flow through its streets.
- It seems that you like to work a lot on found objects. Have you
ever worked on traditional canvas in the past?
M: I've never worked on canvas as the choice of materials to work
on is integral to what I'm trying to say.
If I'm trying to paint a picture of a child on the
street and I'm trying to evoke a particular emotion and show the
viewer some sense of who the subject is, then the material needs
to be something that can merge the subject and the substrate. If
I tried to paint the same picture on a canvas, I feel that it would
lose a lot of its impact and lose its resonance and effectiveness
for the viewer. Canvases are so generic that I feel a need, as an
artist, to try and show a little more of the true me and where I
come from by using alternative materials. I always want to challenge
myself, to think outside the box and have my own voice. I want to
make sure that when I sing, no-one else can sing like me. I don't
want to be like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, my art has to be
totally original; I don't want to try and emulate others.
- I agree with you; your style of painting is really
original. How do you make this effect in your paintings where the
individual paints seem to be repelling each other?
M: Well, it's exactly that. I use a mixture of acrylics, oils and
spray paint and when applied in a certain way, they form a colloidal
state on the painting. I wanted to experiment in art-school and
mix oils with water-based paints and I found out that through happy
mistakes, you could create some really aesthetically pleasing effects.
As you watch the two types of paint merge, then react to each other,
you realize that you cannot control what is happening on the painting
and that you are living in the realms of chaos.
I can add the wrong type of paint at the wrong time
and in one brush stroke, destroy two days worth of work. It's like
jumping into the lake and not knowing if you are going to sink or
swim; I love that excitement of the unknown when I paint and that
keeps me going. This is also another reason why I don't like to
paint on canvas with this technique as it is too porous. A material
like plastic or metal, which is non-porous, allows the paints to
be even more unpredictable.
- You come from an illustrative background, why havenft you stayed
M: Yeah, I did a BA at Westminster College and was lucky enough
to do a Masters at the Royal College of Art and both were great
experiences for me. But what I realised was that illustration led
to a much more commercial avenue, where you had briefs to answer
to and strict guidelines. I followed this road for a while but realised
that I wasn't going to find that freedom that you can have with
painting for yourself. Since college I have wanted to do more self-initiated
and personal work that allows me to depict the environment that
surrounds me and show the subject matter in the best way possible.
I started to deal with issues in my work that were deeper than any
design brief could give you.
Issues like the Stephen Lawrence murder (a 19 yr
old was stabbed to death in London in 1993) made me start thinking
that I had to look at my world in more detail; I didn't want to
be concentrating on cereal packages and other unimportant commercial
products. Using materials like metals, plastics and concrete has
allowed me to really play with my images and peel back layers or
mark into stone. Nowadays, I would call myself an "image-maker"
and not a painter or illustrator; I make, re-work and experiment
- I noticed that in the past, you have done a lot
of landscape pieces. Why you haven't continued to do more landscape
M: I always thought that I was quite a stubborn guy and that I
will always do my own thing but the whole commercial gallery thing
that I've gone down has maybe stopped me from fulfilling some of
the things that I've always wanted to do. Part of my original plan/project
was to show both the people who are around me as well as show examples
of their environment. This includes where they live or landmarks
within their neighbourhood. However, most galleries have told me
that the council estate landscapes wouldn't "fit" in their
This frustrated me as I feel that my landscape pieces
haven't been able to take their course of natural progression. My
portraits have but my landscape pieces still need to be shown to
a larger audience. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that
the art buyers don't come from the world that I live in and they
are quite far removed from it. They may find it hard to look at
a black youth from North London, as they may feel threatened when
they see this image and I see it as up to me to try and change their
perspectives of my world. I need them to accept the subjects as
human-beings whose only motives are to equally share the city with
everyone else who lives in it.
- Has there been any changes or more interest shown
in your work since you won the "Urban Art" category of
last years Street Art Awards?
M: I didnft take much from that award. It was a small event that
happened to get a lot of media coverage. At the end of the day,
the less that Ifm associated with the whole Urban Art thing the
better. I donft want to think that my message can be dismissed and
I just want to be appreciated as an artist. I hate the fact that
I have been lumped into the same box as other artists; it goes against
my principles. I want to be different and I want to stick out. Some
reporters have asked me what itfs like to be a street artist and
to win an award; thing is, Ifm not a street artist! I have never
said I was and I have never worked on the street.
- I can see you are a big hip-hop fan, you have
done illustrations of Method Man, Notorious B.I.G. and my personal
favourite, The Gravediggaz. Why do you think UK Hip-Hop has never
had the attention that it might possibly deserve?
M: I think itfs because the UK always soaks up influences from
all over the world and spews it out in a different format. Whether
that new genre like Grime, Dubstep or Trip-Hop becomes the next
big thing is up to the kids but I feel that the UK will always be
pioneers in the arts and music due to the multi-culturalism you
can find here. There will always be that select few hardcore hip-hop
heads who will continue to do what they do best and there will always
be the ones who want to try and progress the music scene.
- How come it seemed like in 2008, there was a huge
focus towards London's artists?
M: I think that each year, there is always a new focus for the
media to pick up on and for the past couple years, it has been attributed
to the Banksy-effect. When one artist becomes successful, it becomes
the focus for the media which in turn, effects the opinions and
feelings of the general public. If the artist becomes highly desirable,
the original art that was bought from them shoots up in price. This
causes an interest in its profitability, which in turn, causes three
tiers of viewers. Those who want to invest in it, those who want
to look cool by having it on their walls and finally, those who
have been buying it from day zero.
This then makes more artists want to jump onto the
bandwagon and have their art sold too. The next couple years will
really tell us who are the die-hard artists and collectors who are
still producing and buying art because they truly love it and not
because it's just a trend.
- For a young and up-coming artist, how important is it to be represented
by a gallery?
M: I think that galleries do not have as much power and control
over the artists as they used to. Artists have realized that they
can take matters into their own hands more and that galleries aren't
the be all and end all of selling. Nowadays the internet also allows
another avenue of sales and helps to gain more attention to an artist's
Personally, what I like about galleries is that
it allows me to show my work to many people, which is what I have
always wanted. I get a lot of enquiries asking me to do private
commissions but I'm not interested in that at all. I want the people
I paint to be featS?ured and seen by as many people as possible.