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After Matjames Metson Survived Katrina, His Assemblage Art Kept Him Going

Matjames Metson
Matjames Metson
Steve Craig

"I consider myself a survival artist," said Matjames Metson as he explained "Method Attic," his new assemblage art show, "because I'm looking for any kind of material I can use to make something work, whether it's salvaged or refurbished. ... And one of my main materials is the past itself."

In Chinatown this past Saturday, July 28, Metson stood in the middle of his first L.A. solo show, at Coagula Curatorial, chomping on the end of what appeared to be a cigar. People poured into the gallery from the street, where children banged on drums and danced underneath dragon costumes. And as if on cue, Metson turned and looked at his pieces hanging on the walls and said: "This is how I rebuilt my life."

Seven years ago, Matjames Metson moved to Los Angeles from a New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina with only his dogs, the clothes on his back and a case of PTSD. Metson had refused to evacuate the Big Easy during the storm in the summer of 2005, and he survived for eight days, though many of his friends weren't as lucky. So he found himself in Los Angeles, pining for a city that had gone underwater; his work was what kept him going.

After Matjames Metson Survived Katrina, His Assemblage Art Kept Him Going
Bianca Tribuzio

"[I used] art to save myself from the oblivion of being dropped off here," Metson said. "To keep myself sane, really."

While staying in the tradition of great assemblage artists like George Herms and Robert Rauschenberg, Metson has created something fresh, with survival as a key concept. He survived Katrina, but the real battle, according to Metson, started earlier as he struggled with clinical depression and poverty -- a journey that has compelled Metson to seek found objects in the most forgotten places.

"I'm doing this because I don't have a choice," he said. "It's like I'm possessed by all these faces. Originally, I started finding the photographs in abandoned houses. Then I found them in the trash."

At Coagula Curatorial, in a show curated by gallery owner Mat Gleason, each piece is a city unto itself -- a larger object constructed out of an enormous number of smaller objects. There are several automatons made out of old pieces of wood, gears from clocks, broken pencils and old rulers. Dresses are made from flowers. Then there are the pieces using 1930s photographs Metson had found -- the faces faded and haunting. To find the objects for his work, Metson walks his dogs around Silver Lake, diving through trash and searching estate sales, an impulse that started when he was 8 years old.

"My activity," Metson said about Bakersfield, N.Y., a once-booming industrial town where he lived as a child, "was to break into all these abandoned houses and go through all this crap that was still there from 100 years ago. So I started picking up photos and pocketknives, which you'll see in my work today."

Now, Metson is making incredible work out of Popsicle sticks, matches and coffee stirrers he swipes from Starbucks. Sometimes he receives packages from friends -- aluminum floats for fishing nets from the 1930s, a box of bones or old photographs. He'll even clean out a friend's garage.

The result is art you can walk around, where you find something new every time. You can discover a tiny door that opens to a concave mirror transforming sets of false teeth, or a sculpture of a man actually made up tiny matchsticks, broom handles and toy soldiers.

Metson's work is impossible to predict and seems to spring organically and naturally from a man trying to find a place of wholeness and peace mentally and physically. Metson said, "I think because of the nature of the objects in the photos, everyone can come up with their own story. People will look at something and tell me that reminds them of their grandmother. ... [My work] is more for the people."

Walking around the show on Saturday, people were returning to certain pieces, pointing out small details and sharing stories. The work was doing its job -- allowing the audience to bring their own narrative to the piece. The art was triggering memories buried in the viewer's unconscious, through assemblages of objects many people would have considered trash.

"I want people to slow down and look at the details," Metson said. "Find their own urge to explore. Think about what's in their drawers and closets and see what it is they can pull out and embrace again."

For example, curator Gleason grew up around a lot of machine shops. Not only did he see the machine shop when he looked at Metson's found objects, but he also heard the sounds of machines cutting through metal and felt the texture.

After Matjames Metson Survived Katrina, His Assemblage Art Kept Him Going
Bianca Tribuzio

"Every time you look at a Matjames Metson," Mat Gleason said, "it's different. It's never clichéd. There's a compelling aspect that involves you, the viewer, making their own narrative. ... The connections you want to make are your own."

"I am trying to keep something alive," Metson added on why he searches for objects society has forgotten or misplaced. "I've lost a lot of friends over my years. Maybe that's part of it."

"Method Attic" is on view through Aug. 4 at Coagula Curatorial, 977 Chung King Road, Chinatown, (424) 226-4852, coagulacuratorial.com

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