Now Featuring Matthew Jensen
Matthew Jensen explores history and place in humble, roundabout ways. Using the most unassuming methods of walking, picking up forgotten litter, noticing trees, Jensen assembles specific and rigorously thorough portraits of locations. His concrete images are cataloged as expertly as forensic evidence, but the everyday items and places Jensen selects invite us to dream about the lives of other people, and the history of the soil beneath our feet.
MH: It’s lovely how your images provide a kind of simple typology that gets me thinking about the logic of the collected objects and situations you’re documenting. Your website provides quite a bit of context for your projects, but the text for your Little Paper Planes series isn’t concrete; it’s poetic and enigmatic. Can you give us a little background on the images?
MJ: The typologies found in most of my work explore the culture and history of a specific place by examining recurring natural icons and motifs: trees, rocks, sunbursts, and in this case flowers. Sometimes I will do a project that involves collections of found objects and not photographs. The nine images and three texts featured for LPP are from a series I call Brand New Tattoo. The entire series is a collection of 75 images and 15 texts. I thought it would be interesting to look for landscapes in objects rather than trying to find objects in the landscapes. So I went through my collection of porcelain shards and I set aside all the ones with flowers, plants or landscapes. I photographed the final collection using the type of camera that would be used by a jewelry photographer so that none of the nuanced details are lost.
With this series it is more about the objects than the time or place that they were found. What I really love, why I picked them up in the first place, is how time and circumstance have pushed and pulled the patterns in the most beautiful ways. Pairing the images with a text seemed like an appropriate step because both the objects and words were derived from the same experience of walking and exploring.
MH: How did you develop the text for this series?
MJ: The texts are also a selection from a larger collection. After I photographed all the porcelain shards I went through all of my old journals looking for texts where I mention walking or the landscape. They vary in length from a sentence to a few paragraphs and each set of three images has a fourth image that is the text.
MH: Are you a wanderer? So much of your work deals with a very specific experience of a place… how do you find your site? While looking for a destination? Or while passing through?
MJ: I always try to make work about where I live as a way to connect to the place. A number of my largest series are from the small towns where I grew up. I returned over the course of a few years and walked every street in each of the old red brick mill towns along the Shetucket and Quinnebaug Rivers in Northeast Connecticut. Living in New York City I have maintained a similar approach and have walked hundreds of miles over the years working on projects like Nowhere In Manhattan, Searching for Something Previously Forgotten or Unknown on Governors Island, 12 Mile Rockaway Walk, Park Garbage and a host of photo and found object series piled in my studio.
MH: Can you talk about your roots? Within a few minutes of browsing through your website, I thought “This is a fellow New Englander,” and it was surprising to find that kind of identification in a very straight-on photo of say, a millstone or a humble backyard.
MJ: Northeast Connecticut is called the “Quiet Corner” but it was also the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. I find the space between these two realities fascinating. Before electricity was invented the many small rivers in the region powered some of the largest mills in the world. Prior to manufacturing there were gristmills and sawmills along all the rivers. So today, even the most pristine landscape will eventually supply a stone ruin open for exploration. Growing up I was always outside and I knew the rivers and railroads like the back of my hand. Much of my process and love of exploring comes straight from my childhood pastimes.
MH: How much historical research do you do when working on your projects? I appreciate how, while reading about each photo series, I felt like I got a little nugget of social history as well as a lot of aesthetic experience.
MJ: Sometimes I research-then-explore and other times I explore-then-research. It really depends on the project. Understanding place history was crucial to the projects I did on Governors Island and on Inwood Park in Manhattan. However, knowing too much about a place can dampen the mystery and wonderment that comes with being there for the first time. So sometimes I leave the research for later.
MH: So much of your work focuses on the Northeast, on where you have lived, and it looks like a certain amount of living-and-working is a part of your process. That said, are there any far-flung locations you’d love to go and make work?
MJ: I do like the idea of making work where you live and about a place even if that location is only temporary. Even as a kid at camp I always moved into my bunk like I was never going to leave. Thanks to a few residencies I’ve learned that I can make new work that I’m happy with just about anywhere. At the moment my daydreams tend to take me to the Northwest; Montana, Wyoming, and I would love a chance to explore Canada. I am hoping the next road trip will take me through the provinces.
MH: Who are some of your inspirations? What artists are you looking at these days?
MJ: I loved the recent Francis Alÿs show, and some of his video works were really inspiring. Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and Olafur Eliasson have maintained their clear love of landscape and I always enjoy their work. Jessica Cannon, Aaron Wexler, Jude Broughan, Daniel Ballesteros and Jeremy Miranda are all doing interesting work, much of which touches landscape in some way, shape or form.
MH: What are you working on these days? Is there anything that’s taking shape, or just getting started?
MJ: I have been working on a series called 31 Days for a while now. It’s a photo series connected to 31 walks I took in New Hampshire. The post-production is taking forever! Then in a month I will be starting a work-space residency at Wave Hill in the Bronx. There will be a host of small photo-, installation- and walking-based projects that happen during that time. Wave Hill is this garden and arts center in the Riverdale part of the Bronx. It is an amazing spot and looks out over the Hudson River and the Palisades. I will be doing projects that document the various ways of getting to the site, which is a bit more of a challenge then most spots in New York City.