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Sunday
Sep142014

INTERVIEW - C. MATTHEW LUTHER

We'll be having a very special exhibition this Friday September 19th. The show addresses environmental concerns and how they may relate to human disease. C. Matthew Luther answered some questions on his approach to this topic. 

 

This exhibit deals with your struggle with Crohn’s and how the disease may relate to environmental toxins. When did you become interested in these correlations and when did you start integrating them into your studio practice?

"Exclusion Zone"It is a bit hard to describe, and it is kind of like the “Perfect Storm”. Several years ago I did a body of paintings that tried to mimic dreams and hallucinations I had while in a medically induced coma and near death, but that was more specific to an event. Jokingly I generally live with a certain amount of denial of having Crohn’s, but since I was diagnosed 9 years ago there has been an underlying current of my health condition in my artwork. A little over a year ago I began investigating Superfund Sites across Wisconsin because I found that there was one not far form where I lived. I wanted to know what had happened, why, and what toxins existed there. I began documenting more and more Sites because I believe people need to know about their history, where they are located, and if they continue to remain a health risk.

It was about 6 months into the project that I came across a recent research article from Environmental Health Perspectives in which researchers had found significant changes in the DNA structure of mice when PCB toxins were introduced. Several of the Sites I have been documenting have heavy PCB contamination. I had no intention of bringing my disease into the project until I read this article. It solidified all of these ideas I had about being a walking metaphor for how American culture treats the landscape and so on. The article pointed out the links to Crohn’s Disease and the similarities to genetic mutations in the human intestinal biome. I was still unsure if I should introduce my condition as part of the project for several reasons, but the link had been created between what I was working on artistically and what I live with internally. I felt that maybe I can not only create a dialogue about environmental conservation, but also talk about a disease that is often hard for myself and others to describe how they suffer or how the disease affects them. I always think about a couple of students I have had that had either Crohn’s or Colitis. I remember look of fear in their eyes before they tried to explain why they might miss class and why, and then the lift of this giant weight from their shoulders as I told them I could relate, but I also remember their horror stories of trying to explain to other faculty and some of the insensitivity.

Part of your practice involves documenting the EPA “Superfund” Sites. What are these sites and what is it like walking onto one and witnessing it firsthand? How have you been received by government authorities who you encounter in producing your work?

The Environmental Protection Agency of the United States defines a Superfund site as an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located and possibly affecting the local ecosystem or people. These areas are further recorded as Remedial sites (long term clean up), Removal sites (short term hazardous material removal), and listed on the National Proprieties List for immediacy and time of action due to the amount of pollution. The money to clean up these location falls on the responsible party or property owner, but often these properties are abandoned or fall into ownership limbo and money is then allocated from Congress or what is know as the Superfund. Originally Superfund was the title for a trust of taxes billed to petroleum and chemical industries. The tax was dissolved in 1995, at which point the fund was 6 billion dollars.

By 2003 the original trust was exhausted and though there is resistance from the chemical and petroleum industry, there are efforts to reinstate the tax.

All of these sites are different and some worse than others. Some older, some new, and some have current clean up activity. Each site comes with set amount of hazards being on the property or near them due to the toxicity or condition of structures on the property. In general there are few locations that I have enter buildings on the property and most often I am just walking around the property experiencing it from the perimeter. Part of the project is experiencing everything from the outside and the mystery of what occurs inside. Kathy Halbur an On-Site Coordinator for Region 5, E.P.A. Superfund Sites has been an invaluable resource and a pleasure to work with. She has meet with me numerous times and helped guide and direct my project in many ways. Other government and state employees have been a little cold or non-responsive at times and there is a feeling that a wall goes up once you mention the word art.

In your work, you employ various production techniques such as pattern and the manipulation of layers, as well as digital and analogue processes. How do these processes relate conceptually to a feeling of presence and memory?

Overall it is a contemporary dialogue of culture I am addressing in regard to the evolution of digital technology and how it affects us physically and psychologically. This is a never-ending condition. What is new turns old. This is not a new theory, but what interests me is how it affects the human connection to nature, and to the landscape. Not all that long ago the Hudson Valley Painters presented a romantic view of the Catskill Mountains as many great painters presented an idealized view of the landscape that surrounded them. Now the romantic view presents itself through Instagram and other modes of the electronic globalization of images.

This presentation of images affects our vision of life that exists beyond our immediate experience. In my process of photography I use both film and digital for there unique values, one is antiquated, but as a medium will continue to be superior in quality and resolution. The other represents a superior element of storage, ease, and quick editing or manipulation. The elements of print I introduce are generally of a wallpaper pattern, an older traditional value of decoration. It is a pattern to represent home and comfort within an interior space. That pattern and structure of comfort exists along as it supports new forms of digital prints on canvas to adorn the home. All of these forms of process and production speak to elements of how and what we define as the present it in light of the digital experience of ideology and how we experience the past through an analogue vision of comfort, home, and landscape.

"Buffum MDC"How does presence and memory relate back to environmental issues through your specific experience of someone affected by an autoimmune disease?

…I remember one of my first rebellious environmental actions was pulling up survey stakes and remarking trees when I was a punk ass kid full of idealism. I wanted nothing more than that suburban plot of woods to remain as it was a thin 4 acre walk through of hardwood, and to grow it to something more, developers wanted something else…

I am not sure how to approach this question. But here’s my best shot; before I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, I was an artist, and before Crohn’s, I was an environmental activist. I went through the door of a tragic event and came out diagnosed with Crohn’s and everything changed, my understand of everything changed. Literally my memory was working on altered for a time. When I look out on the landscape I can see the scares of past events like my scares and I am aware of what is occurring presently and not much changes. An entire economy sprouts up before, during, and after a Superfund Site is created. Before it is defined as a Superfund Site it’s a proposed economic strength, it’s a private industry, and it’s a Gogebic Taconite Mine in the Penokees Hills.

Visiting the Little Menomonee River and the Moss-American Site is a bit eerie. I am familiar with this area from what I have read and about a river so badly polluted that volunteers cleaning up the riverbanks received chemical burns on their legs in 1971 from industrial run off. It is a Site not far from traffic and industry, but the area is now lush with vegetation and rich with amphibian and aquatic life. I recently shot underwater video footage of crayfish, as they would surround my feet as I waded in the water. Now that area is rebuilding itself, relearning how to be nature.

You do not shy away from the more “personal” aspects of what it’s like to live with Crohn’s Disease. In fact, the exhibit contains some darkly humorous elements. Can you explain why you choose to approach these subjects in this manner?

There a story my mother told me about a time in the hospital when the doctors would pull me out the drug induced paralytic to see how I would respond. I would try real hard to communicate, but I couldn’t speak so I would try to draw. The nurse or someone in the room asked me what the international sign for the bird was, and I would lift my finger and everyone laughed. I have no memory of this at all, but the story always makes me smile, and happy that in such a difficult time my parents were able to laugh as well. This illness is something I have to live with and If couldn’t laugh at it or myself, I would be letting the disease win. Humor is hard and a challenge for me to place in art. I love to make jokes and Robin and I are always making each other crack up, but in art it’s a different story.

In general I am tying to lighten the atmosphere and poke fun at myself a little bit, while making connections in the work with the metaphors of digestion, shit and pollution. Telling jokes about shit is difficult and fairly uncomfortable, and the outcome is both funny and awkward, but it is meant to be. It is difficult to describe Crohn’s to people beyond what is portrayed through bad Pharmaceutical commercials or what’s on the Internet. It’s not like talking about the weather when describing how the inflammation that causes chronic diarrhea also causes painful arthritis, or the medication and surgeries. So this is an attempt to create that dialogue with humor, but not forgetting that environmental decay and cultural perspectives on nature art at the core of all of this conversation.

Luther filming in Menomonee River