March 29 2011 04:02 PM

Bob Matheny's understated anti-art and his quiet contributions to San Diego's cultural scene

“X, Y & Z” by Bob Matheny

Bob Matheny is in his 80s, but that doesn't stop him from climbing the steep stairs to his studio every day. He's past the point of needing much in the way of art supplies. Instead, he sits down at his desk, looks around his room and, lately anyway, uses some of his old art to make new art.

At the moment, he's really into clamps. He uses them to creatively clip together and display things like his used 8-millimeter cassette tapes, slide films, old letterpress wooden-block lettering and classic 45-rpm records. He's clamped together photos of paintings he's done—pretty depictions of the snack food he and his wife ate during one of their many trips to Utah—and has recently taken to clamping down patent photos he finds on the internet alongside marbles from his son's old collection. Think of the readymades of Marcel Duchamp, only with more compositional control.

Matheny's been doing some still-life photography lately, too. Sometimes the objects he needs are at antique stores or a Japanese fish market on Kearny Mesa's Convoy Street, but often he just looks around his studio, maybe takes a stroll through his Point Loma home (which looks more like a mid-century modern-art museum) or heads into a storage room he calls the “Art Vault” and finds the props he needs. He sets the objects in interesting, often comical compositions, then snaps a photo.

Since the day in the early '60s that Matheny hung up his hooking needles as a member of the Allied Craftsmen of San Diego, he's considered himself a serious artist. His work ranges from the flawlessly carved and painted Alphabet Series sculptures to the somewhat tacky but fascinating Infamous Babes, a series of miniature statuettes of women modeled after a much bigger statue in Tijuana that his friend and collaborator Armando Muñoz built and turned into a home. Matheny has made provocative video art; launched a conceptual project declaring Utah an art-friendly state, complete with a new flag and manifesto, and started a letter-writing campaign to get other famous artists on board; and transformed a neighbor's cut-down tree into a sculptural series he calls My Haiku Alphabet. And that's just barely scratching the surface.

While a few pieces or series could be considered lowbrow, anti-art or kitsch, some of Matheny's pieces are museum-quality. In fact, back when it was known as the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, two of his sculptures were purchased for the collection. One, a 40-pound bronze sculpture of the number 2, was stolen from the museum and eventually recovered. Both were sold when a new museum director stepped in and decided to change the museum's direction.

“I believe the term is ‘de-acquisitioned,'” Matheny says slyly, straightening a dusty black-and-white photo of one of the sculptures. “They were both probably melted down for scrap. Who knows.”

Curators don't often know what to do with Matheny's work. There's just so much, and it's difficult to categorize. He's a Dadaist at heart, which means the only real commonalities in his work are his unrelenting sense of humor and his obvious delight in provoking his viewers to question his intent and the value of each piece. The end result has been a long career of making, teaching and promoting interesting art without receiving much recognition.

But Matheny doesn't mind. In fact, he gleefully uses the aliases “Almost Maybe” and “Almost Anonymous” ( Ask him about his contributions to southwestern College as the first full-time instructor in the art department and he might tell you about how he helped an architect design the school's current gallery by handing the guy a picture of the Whitney Museum and asking for the same grilled ceiling and portable walls. But he'll probably just brush off the question.

Ask someone else, though, like Raul Guerrero, an artist who studied at southwestern. He'll tell you that Matheny pushed boundaries by purchasing progressive, contemporary art for the school's collection (it's partly thanks to Matheny that the school's collection is home to a piece by Bruce Nauman, which was purchased for $1,900 and is likely worth six figures) and bringing on an eccentric, talented staff, including artist John Baldessari.

Guerrero will go on to tell you about the art and films Matheny showed and the anti-Vietnam event he helped organize, all which influenced Guerrero and a generation of San Diego artists who felt isolated from the larger artistic zeitgeist happening in places like New York. Most of all, he'll tell you that Matheny encouraged unique artistic expression and championed the work by giving artists a gallery.

Dave Hampton, a California art collector and historian of sorts, will tell you that Matheny is one of those San Diego paradoxes—an instrumental figure in danger of being forgotten and no one's exactly sure why. Perry Vasquez, a professor and one of the current co-directors of the art gallery at southwestern, will tell you he's inspired by the legacy Matheny left behind. Both Hampton and Vasquez will suggest that Matheny may be some kind of a genius.

Last year, Brian Goeltzenleuchter and Kevin Freitas stopped by Matheny's studio to take part in one of Matheny's quirky, ongoing series in which he plays the role of barber and pretends to cut the hair of other artists. Goeltzenleuchter was the curator at Sushi Performance & Visual Art at the time and, over a few friendly shots of tequila, the three started discussing the idea for a big Matheny solo show. It was about damn time, they all decided.

Goeltzenleuchter, a conceptual artist himself, calls Matheny an “artist's artist.” He has two exhibition proposals with Matheny in mind. One—the smaller Bob Matheny: (Arguably) New Work featuring some of the constructed still-life photography—will open at Sushi Performance & Visual Art on April 1. Goeltzenleuchter is shopping around his other idea, a full-scale museum exhibition featuring Matheny alongside Guerrero and other artists Matheny influenced during his three-decade-long career as an educator. Matheny's strange and numerous series make for a challenging pitch, Goeltzenleuchter says.

“Bob's a provocateur, and, to me, some of his best works are things nobody would know what to do with,” he says. “At least [the Sushi show] is a token, like, ‘Hey everybody, remember this guy. He's still working; he's doing awesome stuff.' And he's doing stuff that—like the title says—is arguably new work. He's taking his own legacy as an octogenarian into consideration and using his archive to make new work. That's a trip.”    

Bob Matheny: Arguably New Works opens Friday, April 1, at Sushi Performance & Visual Art, 390 11th Ave. in East Village, and will be on view through June 15. A reception for the artist will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. April 30.


See all events on Monday, Oct 24