While studying at UCLA for his MFA degree, Matthew Brandt was shooting a series of portraits when a friend posing for him began to cry. Brandt, who was fascinated with historical photographic techniques, had a “eureka” moment: inspired by the 19th-century salt print process, he decided to add his subject’s tears to the chemical baths he was using to develop the photographs. Since then, he has been playfully experimenting with old methods and materials, often incorporating physical elements of his subject into the work. Pushing traditional processes in new, unexpected ways and fearlessly using (or misusing) the tools at hand, he creates one-of-a-kind images that are unmistakably process-based while also posing conceptual and philosophical questions.
Brandt, born in Los Angeles in 1982, has produced an eclectic oeuvre that includes heliogravures of the fossilized skeletons on display at the La Brea Tar Pits printed in black, sun-cured pitch, as well as gum bichromate prints that reproduce archival images of the demolition of New York’s Madison Square Garden, printed with dust and grime gathered at the site. Recalling the work of Vik Muniz, some of Brandt’s prints integrate unusual ingredients such as peanut butter and jelly, Cheez Whiz, chewing gum, sperm, or chocolate mole sauce; he has made screenprints of archetypal American landscapes such as Yosemite National Park, for instance, with ink made from ketchup, Kool-Aid, mouthwash or Jello; his Los Angeles starscapes were screenprinted onto black velvet with cocaine. Still others convey sadness, like the poetic photographs made from crumbled bits of dead bees (victims of “colony collapse disorder” discovered on a local beach) mixed with resin, or the “Lakes and Reservoirs” series, in which he saved jugs of water from the sites he was photographing, then used it to bathe the large C-prints until the emulsion began to dissolve, leaving behind limpid, painterly abstractions in vibrant color.
His recent inventive, refreshing exhibition—Brandt’s first solo show in Europe—presented three series of woodblock prints, all made on the artist’s handmade paper with his handmade ink, in frames crafted by him from his own matrices. These works are less philosophical, less about the blurring of subject and material than many of his former projects. Instead they celebrate the excitement of making things. In the most prominent series, he de-familiarized the familiar: fingerprints. Simple and decorative, in jazzy or pastel hues, they share little with well-known fingerprint precursors like Chuck Close’s 1981 lithograph of Philip Glass or Robert Morris’s Blind Time series, initiated in 1973, created blindfolded.
Brandt magnified impressions of the markings found on a fingertip’s surface, transforming them into abstract patterns that looked a bit like zebra-striped area rugs. He then hand carved their grooves and ridges on panels made from locally available woods (California cedar, redwood, pine, spruce, fir) and printed them with handmade inks ground from local materials (cinnabar, malachite, smalt or ground-up cochineal, the tiny insects used to produce the pigment carmine). He also made the paper, its surface textured and uneven, the color of sawdust. His first exploration of the subject, enlarged versions of the fingerprints of criminals (Lee Harvey Oswald, Al Capone, John Dillinger) found online, soon gave way to another set of subjects—the fingerprints of people who had left their mark on Brandt, from John Baldessari and architectural photographer Robert Polidori (for whom Brandt worked as an assistant in New York) to Jim Shaw and James Welling (his UCLA professor).
The second series consisted of humble, shaped woodblock prints carved to depict the grain of the wood used to print them, printed on paper he made by hand from the wood. Inspired by the narrow, irregular galley space, and discreetly hung at body level near the edge of the walls, they created, from certain vantage points, the illusion of wooden steps in perspective.
Hidden in the gallery’s office, the most beautiful series consisted of three unpretentious woodcuts of a slightly deformed pine tree. Again, they were printed from ink Brandt ground by hand from local materials and on paper he made from the wood of the tree depicted; as with his fingerprint prints, the woodblocks used to make the prints, bearing the colored-ink traces, were cut up and made into frames for the work. There was no gimmick, just classical compositions that evoked pastorals by Claude Lorrain and the sheer pleasure of the physical process: layers of bright, mottled hues of tangerine and cerulean blue, from seven separate color passes, applied to the textured paper—lovely, faded and worn, like frescoes.