This year marks the 21st anniversary of the influential magazine, Coagula Art Journal. The founder and editor of the periodical is Mat Gleason. He is a cutting edge L.A. art critic and curator who does not mince his words. A well-read blogger for the Huffington Post, Mat needs little introduction.
I had been following Mat's work for a while, prior to the five years that I had my art studio on gallery row in Chinatown, Los Angeles. Mat was a regular fixture on the scene. I was always too shy to approach him and tell him how I admired the criticality, fearlessness and honesty of his art commentary and writing style.
One day, in 2010, I took the plunge and invited Mat to an opening reception of a group art show that included my work. To my surprise, he showed up. Mat was intrigued by a subject in one of my paintings who was wearing a red and white crown and matching garments. I told him that the subject was the Orisha Changó. Mat was unfamiliar with the word "Orisha." I explained to him that Orishas are Yoruba deities and that, in the "New World," they're syncretized with Catholic saints.
Mat said, "But doesn't 'chango' mean 'monkey' in Spanish?"
I said, "I think that might be a racist interpretation. In Cuba we call a monkey a 'mono.' Changó is a warrior. He's the Orisha of truth. His colors are red and white, and his numbers are 6 and 4."
"Whoa! That is so weird," said Mat. "My girlfriend, Leigh, gave me an Angels jersey for Christmas, years ago, and it's red and white with my name and the numbers 6 and 4 on the back."
Ever since then, I've been calling Mat Gleason, "The Changó of the L.A. art scene." Here's a recent interview with Mat, in his relatively new Chinatown L.A. art gallery, Coagula Curatorial.
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Lili Bernard: Are you ready?
Mat Gleason: I was born ready. You turn the camera on, you turn the microphone on and I'm ready to go. I'm one of those types of people.
L: You never get mic fright or stage fright?
M: The only time I had ever gotten tongue tied, I was the best man at my brother's wedding. I went to say something, and I was just -- man -- I couldn't! I was just like, glunk, glunk. It was the weirdest thing.
L: Now you're celebrating Coagula Art Journal's 21st year.
M: Yeah, the 21st anniversary edition just got published -- number 110.
L: How many times a year do you go to print?
M: For many years we were doing six a year, every two months. We shipped it around the country, to galleries. I used to distribute to New York.
L: There's a lot of variety in what you publish in the magazine.
M: It can be anything I want it to be. We did a comic book, last summer, of Jim Caron's comics as an issue of Coagula. We did a book of poetry by Gerald Locklin as an issue of Coagula. Because it's not advertiser driven, it could be anything. I'm just very flexible.
L: You're printing out of your pocket?
M: It's a promotional device for the gallery. Some galleries publish catalogues. I publish a gossip rag.
L: Why do you call it a gossip rag?
M: That's what people picked it up for. There were many things in Coagula. People picked it up for the dirt. We got a level of notoriety. We were mentioned in the John Waters film, Pecker. There's a whole scene where he goes, "Be careful of that guy over there. He's from Coagula. It's a magazine." But now, with the gallery and curating as my focus, I print it basically when I feel like it. I'm very busy working for the artists. I can't say, "Sorry Dude, I can't work for you, I gotta work on this magazine." I have to prioritize.
L: Promoting the artists' work.
M: You have to. That's my job, yeah.
L: Why go from writing to being a gallery owner?
M: I'm more extroverted than most writers. I got tired of talking to myself. I did it 'cause I like curating and I know the art market business well and print-publishing is absolutely dead.
L: But you're still printing Coagula.
M: But I'm printing for the fun and for the promotion of the gallery and my curatorial projects and writing. I'm writing online now. And frankly, I will say this: when I write for the Huffington Post, I get more readers than I do printing any number of copies. If I write a serious piece and I want to reach people, if I want the whole world to see, I write it on the Huffington Post, because I get thousands and thousands and thousands of readers.
L: How do you think the L.A. art scene compares to the rest of the world -- or say -- to New York?
M: When I started the magazine in 1992, I said that L.A. was as, or more, important than New York. History has proven me right.
L: How so?
M: New York is a mall. L.A. is where they make it. There are so many galleries from New York moving here. Gavin Brown opened, Tim Nye opened out here, Mathew Marks, of course, Hauser and Wirth are opening out here.
L: Jack Tilton came
M: The trend is L.A. right now. It's so obvious. And you know you have New Yorkers on the defensive.
L: Can we talk about museums for a bit?
L: There've been some changes happening here with the management of MOCA and the construction of the new Broad Museum on Grand Avenue, Downtown. Do you think the role of museums is very important in the L.A. art scene?
M: Absolutely. I was a writer for years for other magazines, and they would say, write about what's going on in L.A. -- and I would write about what's going on in the museums 'cause that's the top of the sh*t heap. I remember one [magazine] was like, "Well look, all our advertisers are the galleries. Don't write about museums anymore. Write what's happening at the galleries." And I'm like, the gallery owner wants the review because that's gonna help them with their bet on the artist. They're gonna get the review, and I'm gonna get nothin' outta this. I'm gonna get 40 bucks -- that's what they were paying at the time for a short review. The reviewer doesn't get sh*t. So why should I write a review of a gallery show? I own a gallery, now and I don't begrudge a single reviewer not giving me a review.
L: You've had this gallery for over a year now. How many people have reviewed you?
M: I don't even pay attention. I don't know. I don't care. We've gotten a lot of press and I'm happy with it. Sometimes I'll go through a three month period where I have a show every week. We'll have a big opening on a Saturday night and the next week we'll have a different show. Some of the artists go, "Well, but the L.A. Times -- they have to review the show when the show is still up." And I say, I don't wanna wait around for the L.A. Times. I want to make art history today. I don't want a tombstone on the gallery. I'm gonna do what I want to do. I'm curating a show to live in the moment. If I wanna be in print, to be in the archives somewhere and to have it on the record, I can already do that. It's better for the artist, marketing-wise, to say, "One Night Only."
L: How so?
M: We get a bigger crowd. We get more sales on one-night-only shows. "Well you're never gonna get an L.A. Times review." Well you know what, I've said nasty things about Christopher Knight for 20 years and I'm not gonna stop now. I put him on the cover of Coagula once, pointing out that he had a mullet haircut. Why am I gonna suck up to him now? I'm not gonna get a review. So why do I have to play the game of having shows up for four weeks to make sure that the L.A. Times reviewer can get it in, and can conform it to the L.A. Times standards? When is the L.A. Times gonna conform to my standards?
L: I've seen collectors buying stuff at your one-day shows, carting art out the door, under their arms.
M: I didn't open this for my health, which got worse when I opened it. (Laughs.)
L: So next week you have a one-day solo show of a single work of art by Abel Alejandre. The week before, in your Salon Saturday exhibition, you showed 30 artists with about 100 works of art on the walls. [Full disclosure: I was one of the 30 artists in the show]. I've also noticed that you might have a show that's one week or two weeks long, followed by a show that's a month long.
M: Yeah, or it could be a month and a half. Or it could be a week. Keep 'em guessing.
L: Is there a formula to the variety? Or do you just totally go with the flow?
M: Here's the thing. You've got a media outlet that's not changing with the times and everyone is still following them. You've got a whole art scene, following a 1970's model of having four and five-week-long shows. How many artists aren't getting shows because the gallery sits there with no foot traffic for four weeks, 'cause they're hoping the L.A. Times will review it? No way! No! The art schools will tell you that the model of the gallery is all based on theory. But the model of the gallery is really based on the New York Times' and the L.A. Times' demand that a show be up for X amount of time to get a review. And of course the show has to look a certain way, because those are the shows that get reviewed. So everybody starts to follow everybody.
L: Like keeping five feet of space between each work.
M: Yeah, and there has to be a center line. If there's not a center line, there has to be some wild giant sculpture that cost $10,000 to fabricate, which means it has to be the son or daughter of a very wealthy person making the art. It's class consciousness. The thing about having that clean center line is actually, "I'm terrified of doing anything else," because the New York Times and the L.A. Times only review shows when they have a 57 inch center line, and everything looks lean and clean and everything is in a series and it's one artist and it lasts five weeks. The art media hasn't changed with the times. Lap dog galleries are still going, "Hah-hah-hah-hah. I might get a review." They make whole shows and whole careers in the hopes of getting a review. And what is a review? It's like 75 boring words, you know. How many adverbs does David Pagel need to use?
L: Do you tend to stay away from adverbs and adjectives when you write a review?
M: I never use the word "very." I read that it was Ernest Hemingway's advice to writers. He said he got that advice when he was a journalist, when he was 19 years old. He said they said, "Get it in on time and never use the word 'very'." So that's my motto.
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L: What's the best single show you feel that you've curated?
M: It hasn't happened yet.
L: It hasn't happened?
M: No, no, no. I don't want to ever have the best. It's like the golfer who doesn't want to hit the hole in one. Once you hit the hole in one, it's all down hill.
L: Do you consider your writing and curating an art form?
M: Yeah, but I don't want to be one of those idiots who argue with people on the internet who say that "writing is an art form, just like art." If you're an artist, I wanna see your art in the art world. I don't wanna hear you say, "Yeah, I lecture on post-modernism and that makes me an artist."
L: I've heard theorists call themselves artists.
M: Theory is not art. Theory is rigid. There's nothing organic or intuitive or spiritual about art theory. Many things that go into art, before the academy neuters it, have no theory in it, and are giants compared to what theory has contributed to fine art.
L: I recently heard a well-known theorist lecture that "theory is necessary for art production."
M: It's necessary for that mother-f*cker to perpetuate his stupid career. That's all it's necessary for. Theory is like a tetanus vaccine. You get it like once every seven years and it's already obsolete.
L: You're very glib, Mat -- literary, yet street. Did you ever write or say something that you regretted?
M: Yeah, a lot of times. That totally comes with the territory. That's especially the nature if you do anything edgy, try to navigate the edge. They don't call it the edge because it's a flat safe road, you know. I've fallen off many times -- never fatally though, thankfully. I probably have learned how to avoid that last - you know - fatal step.
L: Have any relationships that you enjoyed ever been severed by what you said or wrote?
M: Yeah - I mean if I had to do it again, I probably would have been nicer or kinder, perhaps. The older I get I'm kinda like - "I was a bit of a bastard." But I was a bastard to a lot of the right people too, you know. A lot of times you attack people and they can take it. That's probably the most shocking thing I've learned over the years. You say something -- not maliciously - it's just like - this is how I feel - and the person can take it and you end up respecting the person.
L: Has writing something adversarial about someone ever deepened your relationship with that person?
M: Maybe not immediately. But there are people I've trashed that I'm friends with. A lot of times they say, "Oh, I was a different person then." And I was certainly a different person then too. We're all constantly evolving. I don't think anyone is stuck in cement. Some people could acknowledge that. They don't necessarily say, "Oh you were right," and now we're friends. They say, "I don't agree with a f*cking thing you said, but you still had the right to say it." The art world is kinda weird. Once they realize you're not going any where - they'll be tough on you - it's like a fraternity. They haze you for like two or three years, and then they're like - "OK he's gonna be around for a while."
L: It's like an endurance game.
M: Yeah. And at the worse, they roll their eyes. There are still a few people who are bitter about what I wrote - really petty. There's still a lot of that. I'm not saying that it's all easy. When you point that somebody's art is totally inadequate or that somebody's reputation is totally undeserved - a lot of people will forever hold that against you.
L: One of my favorite comments you made was on TV -- about the work of Jeff Koons. They were describing his artwork as being deeply religious and spiritual. Then you came on and said - I don't wanna paraphrase you --
M: Oh God, yeah! It was in the TV documentary, Beyond Heaven, about Jeff Koons. It was filmed when he was having his career retrospective at the Chicago Art Institute. I was the last person they filmed in the documentary. They realized at some point that they needed a counter voice. And so Bobby Sheehan, who was the director, found me. After he interviewed me, he said, "I wish I woulda interviewed you first." (Laughs.) Because there was no criticality whatsoever. It was all worship, worship, worship towards Jeff Koons.
L: It was weird.
M: Yeah, they kept talking about how there was a spiritual component to Jeff Koons' work -- which is absolutely the biggest pile of horse sh*t I've ever heard.
L: I remember exactly what you said - tell us what you said --
M: And I said, "Do you see God at Walmart?" Saying there's a spiritual aspect to Jeff Koons' work is like saying you go to Walmart to find God. It was preposterous.
L: You called his work "atheistic pop Americana."
M: It does speak to an atheist materialist collector and curator class within the art world structure that privileges money. All they care about is, "Oh, this person has money, so they must be a good artist."
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L: Speaking of atheism, one of the things I've been getting into arguments with some of my professors is why we always have to study the philosophy of Marxist European atheist White men in theory class. Why the emphasis on Marxism and atheism in art school?
M: That's what art school is for.
L: What does it have to do with art creation?
M: You're the one who wanted to go to art school, Lili.
L: It's not all negative.
M: The academy is the rejection of spirituality.
L: There's definitely no talk of spirituality.
M: Not at all.
L: You bring up spiritualism and they criticize you as being nonintellectual.
M: I taught at a local graduate school. I taught art theory at the graduate level. And I quit. It was preposterous. It blew my mind how narrow the view point was. It's a travesty. It's a pretend intellectualism. They had read one book by Foucault and you hadn't. They aren't interested in learning to think new thoughts. They're interested in being perceived as experts and intellectuals. If you want intellectualism and spiritualism, you should not be in art school. You should be as far from art school as possible. There is no spiritual component in the academy -- just like I don't see a spiritual component in the bishops and cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, right now I see it at the top, with this new guy. I see it in the parishes, but I don't see it in the Church hierarchy whatsoever, not in the bishops and cardinals. That's like the academies. They're like the bishops of art. "Ooh, we're the bishops of art." And they really aren't. They're the bishops of a subset of academia. Look, I respect art school teachers at the community college level. I believe community colleges find the people who are the cast-offs, who got a "C" average in high school, who end up being the people whose mistakes lead the way to what really is going to happen next. So the community college teachers, I would stand up and say, "That is art education." But everything else to me is just a big lie. Student loans are funded through Goldman Sachs. So these quasi Marxist professors are actually perpetuating the greatest capitalist entity on earth.
L: They claim they're anti-capitalist.
M: They fancy themselves the elite. They fancy themselves the intellectuals. In reality they're just the foot servants of Goldman Sachs.
L: My MFA Public Practice Program at Otis is pretty non-conformist, alternative. But what I'm finding in grad school, in general, is that there's plenty of elitism and self-aggrandizement in art academia. For example, I heard a professor say that performance art is much more "sophisticated" than theater. It's more "hip." I argued that one, of course, because you know I come from a theater background.
M: And what do they mean by that? I've seen that over the years. The best thing about the internet is that you can debate people in the comment section. I've noticed that the people who make the stupidest arguments -- when you meet them in person, they actually have a charisma and a bit of a domineering quality to their personality that allows them to say, "On no, you don't understand. Theater isn't art. Performance art is art, because it's more sophisticated." That sounds completely idiotic when you read it as a sentence. But they usually have five or six students nodding, "You should listen to the professor here. He's educated."
L: I've experience that in class. God forbid that you disagree with the professor.
M: No you can't disagree with him. It becomes accepted and it moves on. In reality, if you were to read an internet comment and you don't know that this is a person with a Ph.D. -- you've stripped them of their title, of their authority, of their charisma, of their personality, of their domineering manner, of their supplicants around them, nodding yes, and pushing conformity on you -- when they just have their stupid internet comment, -- you go, "My God. You're not even smart!" And the academy doesn't challenge. It insists you nod. And then everybody's pleasant with each other. Academia is not about thinking. It's about ritual, just like the Catholic Church.
L: What about schools like Cal State L.A.? They're not community colleges, but they cater to less-privileged people.
M: The thing about the state schools is that they're still somewhat affordable. But the problem is every program basically parrots everything else. So there is a homogenous quality. Is art about being homogenous? No. But art school is about being homogenous. When is one state school gonna say, "Hey, you know what - we're a regional school. This is L.A. and the art of L.A. is graffiti and we want taggers here." Nobody's gonna do that. Oh no, no, no, because they just want the same "oh, this is art that does this and does that, because Art Forum says it's the way it should be done." (Flips his finger and pretends to fart through his mouth.)
L: Did you just flip your finger at Art Forum?
M: Yeah, and in parentheses, make sure you say, "He made a fart sound, with his mouth," not with his - (laughs heartily).
L: If one of the local art schools offered you a full professorship with a high paying salary, would you take it?
M: (Sighs) I tried teaching. I quit teaching because the culture of academia demanded that I sell out. I'm not gonna sell out. I'm not gonna sell the students out. The students are the ones who are getting sold out.
L: I'm not getting sold out. They gave me a generous scholarship at Otis. But I see your point.
M: I was just telling the truth as I saw it.
L: That's why I call you "The Changó of the L.A. art scene."
M: They don't want Changó in the f*cking art schools. No, they don't want me. I don't have to worry about the dilemma of ever being offered that. I've been expelled from five colleges.
L: I've heard. Your Coagula sign resembles the Coca Cola logo. Is that deliberate?
L: Have they come after you with a cease and desist notice?
M: The font's not copyrighted and the gallery's not soda pop.
L: A giant red Coagula sign across the front of your gallery, red hair, red Chinese lanterns hanging outside -- that's alotta red.
M: I'm an Angel's fan, what can I say?
L: You've crossed over to writing about professional baseball.
M: Oh Yeah. "I crossed over." (Sarcastically) My only happy childhood memories were at Anaheim Stadium. (Cracks up.)
L: You blog about the Angels.
M: Yeah. I'm "Rev Halofan" at HalosHeaven.com. I was at an art fair. I had a big booth. I was supposed to be happy, and the Angels made this terrible trade. I'm f*ckin' livid. Oh my God! (pretends to cry). I had run to a computer and blog about it. It was funny!
L: Living in the moment.
M: Yeah. (Laughs.)
Watch Mat Gleason's classic interview below on Ovation TV.