Beginning 2018 with her first solo show, Amy-Lou Matthews has proven her ability to choreograph both space and spectator. Following the recent completion of her BA in Fine Art, the Staffordshire University alumna transported her practice from art school to the artist-led studio in a six-month Graduate Residency at AirSpace Gallery. Matthews has continued to explore her deep-seated fascination with binary relationships through photography, film, staging and performance, and has ultimately transformed the gallery into a menagerie of theatrical tricks and tropes.
Running until 27 January, Smoke and Mirrors invites the viewer to actively decipher reality from illusion in a series of opulently playful props; in turn, equipping participants with the psychological and physical tools needed to battle their way through today’s post-truth era. Between the overwhelming folds of fervent green and red velvet, audiences are asked to trust both the artist and themselves in the search for meaning in a synonymously familiar and unknown situation. In this interview, Matthews – at the time sat very much at home against a verdantly green-backdrop – speaks about her residency experience and culminating show with Selina Oakes.
Selina Oakes: What drew you to apply for the AirSpace Graduate Residency?
Amy-Lou Matthews: The prospect of a studio was a major draw. I was coming to the end of my degree and the idea of losing access to the studio became quite daunting. I didn’t want to lose the creative atmosphere that I’d experienced at Staffordshire University – people with different practices and interests were always milling about. It seemed a good idea to spend six months practicing alongside established artists in the area – and seeing how they work. Another draw was the chance of having a solo show – you can’t not at least try!
SO: How have you found the transition from life at university to the artist led studio environment?
AM: There was a definite shift – mainly of how big, and at times, quiet, the space was. It was strange to be given the keys to the gallery and left to get on with things – making it my own, more independently. Also, without the safety blanket of a student loan, I’ve had to find a good balance between supporting myself financially and practicing. I struggled with that to start with, but my time management skills have improved. In the future, I hope to focus more time on making.
SO: You’re a graduate from Staffordshire University. How has your experience of the city changed and/or stayed the same over the last six months?
AM: It hasn’t changed that much in terms of what I’ve seen change – the same organisations are still doing what they do brilliantly, regardless of the City of Culture Bid result. But my experience of these organisations has shifted: I really enjoyed working with the Cultural Sisters on The Last Bus project in October – an off-site exhibition marking the imminent demolition of the city’s old bus station – as well as being more involved with b-arts.
SO: Thinking back to your degree show, how has your practice developed since graduation?
AM: Now, my practice focuses more on participation and the audience’s role. Post-Performance, my end-of-year piece, touched on these themes: I created a stage setting and guided the viewer on to a green screen through the aid of a TV. That was the start of focusing on the audience’s perspective, but also on the way in which the outsider spectator observes a fellow audience member. I knew that I wanted to push these ideas further.
The knowledge of having a spacious area to exhibit in pushed my practice. It was great to sit in the gallery and plan how the audience would walk around. And the green-screen is still very much coming through! It was important to break down my practice and get outside of my comfort zone – letting my audience be a bit more playful and free to disconnect from enclosed spaces.
SO: You appear to place less emphasis on the screen and more on the stage set in Smoke and Mirrors than in your degree work. Would you agree?
AM: Yeah, there’s much more focus on the stage. Previously, video was the medium that I used to create my multiples and two-dimensional illusions. These illusions have definitely evolved: the zoetropes in Perform – Post-Performance (part of Smoke and Mirrors) physically shift and bring two images together that wouldn’t normally be possible in real-time.
SO: What have been the most valuable parts of the residency at AirSpace Gallery?
AM: Being able to come into the gallery and work out where pieces would go ahead of the install has been valuable. You can map things out on paper, but actually experiencing the size of a space really helps. With regards to the mentoring – my mentor was Hetain Patel – it was great to hear about another artist’s journey and perspective. Also, the support and feedback that I received during the install was great. With Hetain, we spoke about which pieces worked where in the space; Glen Stoker, AirSpace Gallery Director, provided more logistical advice; and Natasha – the fellow 2017/18 graduate resident – enabled me to clarify each works’ intentions and the messages portrayed.
SO: In Smoke and Mirrors, you’ve transformed the exhibition space into an immersive theatre and stage set. What fascinates you about theatre and stage methodologies, and how do these sit within the gallery context?
AM: The beauty and wonder they create. They provide a space where you’re disconnected from the outside – a space in which it only matters what you see in front of you. These tropes mirror the gallery’s ‘entertainment’ persona. I like the idea of staging something in the ever-changing: AirSpace Gallery is a building which shifts with each new project that arrives – it’s similar to a stage which changes with each new production.
SO: Why is it important for you to question and reveal the illusion behind the magic? You enable the viewer to discover the structure behind the illusion, rather than merely the magic trick.
AM: I wanted to play with the simplicity of magic tricks – they’re all about misdirection and slight of hand. Once you start seeing part of a trick, you begin to pick up on similar traits everywhere – it’s a game of spot what’s a little off. In our current post-truth era, it’s about doing your own research and not simply believing what you hear. I want to instill a taste for curiosity in the viewer – for them to see where things lead to, rather than accepting someone else’s information.
Do you think that audiences today are more prepositioned to engage with your work, compared to say 10 years ago?
AM: Yeah, especially with audiences’ approach, like the need to break things down to get information quickly. I’m presenting viewers with both sides simultaneously – they have to think and question almost instantaneously. It’s definitely more relevant for contemporary audiences.
SO: Smoke and Mirrors invites the viewer to perform. What do you hope the viewer will gain from this interaction? And what are you, as the artist, looking for?
AM: My intention is to enable audiences to feel as though they exist. When reflecting on traditional museum and gallery exhibitions, I noticed the sheer distance created between the viewer and the artwork through both physical and invisible barriers. I wanted to break those boundaries down – to invite the viewer to participate beyond observing, and to potentially create something new by activating the work. I’d like them to be playful and forget themselves for a short while – for them to give into their curiosities and instincts.
SO: Your exhibition statement begins with a quote from the 2006 film, The Prestige. How important is this contemporary reference and the history of magicians to your practice?
AM: My obsession with The Prestige is definitely an issue. I came across it when I was researching magicians like Harry Houdini, and his predecessor Robert-Houdin. I was intrigued by their showmanship and cleverness, and also by the way in which the audience was in love with the act. It’s as though everyone was in on the trick, even though the spectator didn’t know how it was happening. The Prestige exposes this idea in a beautiful way. It presents a magic-trick formula: the set-up, known as the pledge; the turn, making something magical happen; and the prestige, letting the audience reflect on themselves and what they’ve seen. The film – and in a way, its trailer – are magic tricks in themselves: bit-by-bit they reveal subtle truths that cannot be unseen.
SO: Can you offer any advice for future graduates participating in the residency?
AM: Have a routine. The residency was a huge jump from school and university, and so prioritising and managing my time became an important balance. Enjoy making. When I started the residency I put pressure on myself to make the most of the opportunity: remember, you’ve been given the residency to explore and experiment, so push your ideas and test everything. This is a time and space where you can learn. Make the most of the gallery access: come down and sit in it, bring down artworks and try things out – when there aren’t any shows on!
SO: Where do you go from here?
AM: I’ll be applying for opportunities with New Art West Midlands. I’d like to exhibit more, to continue pushing my practice, and to see how another artists’ work might sit within the spaces and atmospheres that I’ve begun to create. I’ll be staying in Stoke-on-Trent until the summer at least. Maybe I’ll continue having a studio here at AirSpace Gallery, but I’ve also discovered that I don’t necessarily need a studio to produce my work. A space to exhibit – and to store fabric (laughs) – yes, but I’m also interested in seeing how my practice develops in other environments.
Amy-Lou Matthews, Smoke and Mirrors, AirSpace Gallery Graduate Residency, 19 January – 27 January, Stoke-on-Trent.
Instagram – @amylou.matthews.art, Twitter – @amyloumatthewsaWebsite – http://amyloumatthewsalm.wixsite.com/artist
The AirSpace Gallery Graduate Residency Scheme, running since 2012, seeks to tackle graduate retention in Stoke-on-Trent and offers new arts graduates an opportunity to bridge the gap between education and a professional arts career. Residents receive a studio space for six months, monthly mentoring meetings and full access to the Gallery’s facilities.