Mat Gleason is a smart guy. Just ask him, he’ll tell you himself. I’ll broach no argument there. Upon witnessing the ubiquitous insurgence of punk rock zines of the eighties and nineties he asked himself an obvious question, why has no one done this for art? His answer became Coagula Art Journal, which debuted in 1992 with corrosive, acerbic, well written essays that exposed the ugly underbelly of the art world. While the moneyed galleries, museums, curators, and collectors tried their best to ignore him, Gleason’s art journal became wildly popular with art patrons, and artists themselves. The success of Coagula Art Journal, 20 years running now, has afforded him the opportunity to open his own gallery, Coagula Curatorial. Since his gallery opened in April 2012, he’s shown the likes of Gronk, Karen Finley, Tim Youd, Llyn Foulkes, Leigh Salgado, Matjames Metson and Germs, just to name a few. And he’s still making people nervous.
Gleason took a short break from preparing a trip to Florida (where Coagula will have the largest booth at Miami Project), to sit down and answer 5 questions from me. It turned into ten…
1) You recently spent about a week in a hospital bed. How’s your heart? What’s going on?
“(laughs) Hey, under federal hypo requirements, you can’t ask that. No, you know what; I was born with a heart issue. I was raised in a hospital. So, when I was eight, I was already past the existential crisis of living on borrowed time, but a lot of complications show up with these surgeries later in life. I was drinking quadruple espressos, and they were like no, no, no! Now they have counseling for kids. A lot of people who had what I had would do two lines of coke and drop dead. So, you know, the fact that I’m alive…I really just dodged a lot of bullets, like cultural bullets. So now, we have a more aware culture. I was just there yesterday and the doctor was telling me that kids with my condition, or similar conditions, they have a camp, where they basically explain to them you really have to be responsible for your own behavior. You cannot smoke, you cannot drink. If you do it a lot, it will exacerbate your problem. So, it’s something I’ve lived with my whole life. If I drop dead tomorrow, I’ve already won the lottery.”
2) Who will you have at the Miami Project and what do you have planned for the Coagula booth?
“We’re taking seven artists, including Karen Finley, who’s really well-known internationally, performance artist. She’s going to be doing a performance, in the booth, called “SEXT Me If You Can”, working with the idea of sexting as a new form of exhibitionism. For $500.00, I give you Karen Finley’s phone number, and you get a code, so you can only do this once, and you sext her, whatever you want to show her. In the booth in Miami, she’s going to be making paintings, and your painting was sold to you. So, you bought her phone number, and you bought the painting that you want her to make. She will make it as part of her performance. Totally anonymous.(We’re taking) Llyn Foulkes, we have access right now to his complete pigment prints, some his greatest paintings, signed numbered editions. So that’s a big coup. Leigh Salgado, great artist. Vito Lorusso, who is in the gallery now, showing with Leigh, and then we are taking Matjames Metson, whose an assemblage artist, a great salvager. He makes just amazing stuff out of salvaged material. Abel Alejandre. Abel’s great, he’s one of our better selling artists actually. We did really well with his show here, very popular, but still very sophisticated stuff. There’s nothing cheap about his work. Tim Youd, he was the show that opened our gallery.”
3) Are you going to be venturing across the causeway to Basel?
“I don’t know how busy I’ll be. You know what, I hope not, because that means things will be rocking in our booth, but if I’m like, ‘oh yeah, I think I’m gonna head over there now, nothing’s happening here’...that’s a very bad sign.”4) In 1999 you named Karen Finley Artist of the Decade. You didn’t award that crown in the aughts, did you?
“Um, I wrote some article. I don’t even remember what it was for, but I named Robert Williams as the artist of the decade, but I write so much that I couldn’t tell you specifically what I wrote that for.The big thing this decade is, how is the street art going to shake out? Where is that going’? I mean it’s getting pretty cheesy, pretty fast. That to me is the most interesting thing. That’s really going to determine the direction this decade takes. But, at the beginning of the sixties, there was no Pop art. Something could show up. You never know.”
“Honesty, Integrity in the work, as a person of course. I’m much more interested in art that is…real. Not realistic, REAL. Like, ‘this is real art. This announces itself as art.’ There are so many trends of people making things that try to ‘oh, I want to find the line between art and design, or I want to find the line between art and crime or something’…whatever. I don’t. I want to find ART. The people out on the periphery, well, it’s a false periphery. You know, conceptually we describe it this way. The more ART something is, that’s where the actual edge is, and it is a true art experience. I don’t like words like pure, but I like words like TRUE. Purity is a gauge of the physical, but I like art that goes beyond just having a material presence.”
6) Your Art World Habits video series is brilliant. What do you consider the single biggest mistake artists make?
“Oh, the single biggest mistake artists make is to think that they can just skate by with a limited signature style, and only a few artworks. That’s the biggest fallacy. People get very comfortable. Comfort, you know what? THAT’S the biggest mistake an artist can make, comfort. Once I drank with Charles Bukowski, and he said that he preferred alcohol over pot, because pot makes you feel satisfied, and satisfaction is the enemy of art.”
“You know, actually, the artists that I want to show, a lot of them are top-dollar artists, for example. I don’t want to say any names, but you know…once an artist has any power, they cut people off as quickly as a gallery. You know, you have to, you have to. These artists that start doing favors for everybody get fucked. So, I’ve approached people, but I’m smart enough to say ‘how big will I have to get for you to show with me?’ I know the game, you know, and they respect that, and they respect that they’re being asked. But I know how the game is played, and I’m not against that. I’m against people not knowing it, or hoarding that information on how the game is played. People want to pretend that it’s always the best art. No, it’s the wealthiest people and the most connected people. You definitely have to cut in line. It didn’t just happen, you know. You bought a publicist, and you worked it, you know?”
8) Would you ever open a gallery in NY?
“I don’t like New York. I used to not be allowed in a lot of galleries in New York. Nah, I’m pretty much the opposite of New York. I mean, look, yeah, if you hit the jackpot. That’s always a doable proposition in the art world, and that’s fine. If an opportunity came up that made sense…actually, I’d do it if it helped the artists out, and I was able to make some money or something. That’d be cool. That’d be fun.”
9) Last time I saw you, we talked a bit about our mutual love of Bob Dylan? Do you have one particular Dylan song that you return to time and time again, or a favorite line of his?
“Whenever I travel, like bus, train, plane…oh my god, I’ve been doing this since 1985, 1986? As the vehicle I’m in starts to leave, I listen to ‘Visions Of Johanna*", and I don’t know why. What I will tell you about Bob Dylan…well, I was not a good student. Not to be arrogant, but I was a kid who always felt I was smarter than most of my teachers, and I was proven correct many times. I was proven incorrect sometimes too, in embarrassing and humiliating experiences, which I accepted because if you dish it out, you gotta take it. So, the way education is structured in America, it didn’t work for me. The only time it ever worked for me was when I was in grade school with nuns, and then it was like God was telling you that you had to do something, and in the absoluteness of the nun, I was able to learn. I didn’t learn anything in a school after the nuns. I was just a kid that couldn’t pay attention, didn’t pay attention, and was smarter than everybody. I got kicked out of high school. I got kicked out of a couple colleges, so, whatever. I might have flushed away an opportunity to have done something different with my life. If I wanted to go to Harvard, my dad would’ve paid for Harvard, you know. My dad paid for Cal State LA and I fucked around at Cal State, but I did learn how to do a newspaper, which started Coagula, so I actually did learn, before getting kicked out. I started out as an art major, and ended up doing Coagula. But the thing about Bob Dylan, and I learned this intuitively, I didn’t articulate it until years later, was we have the western way of teaching. You sit there with forty people, and the teacher lectures, okay? But there’s other ways to learn. When I first heard Dylan, I was into punk, and then when I heard Dylan, I said ‘oh this is the guy!’ Then I listened to everything he did, inside, outside, upside down, for years and years and years. What I was able to articulate early on…I used to say ‘well, Bob’s my professor. He’s better than any school teacher.’ That’s actually the rabbinical method, but the problem with the rabbinical method is it’s perverted into the guru, and the guru has a stigma of people mindlessly following the guru, the leader…who takes them on their life quest. I don’t want to say spiritual quest, much more how to actually live, you know. So, I’m a rabbinical learner, so I know everything Dylan’s ever done, every song he’s ever sung. And Leonard Cohen, you know…Cohen, he mentions rabbis in his songs and stuff. But it’s a way to learn. Just follow one person, and get as much from the thing they do, and not…see the problem with gurus is, what happens is the guru ends up banging the hot chick in the group of people following him, you know? So, I don’t care about Bob Dylan the man. But the art, what he is preaching, and I consider him to be preaching, it’s an absolute blueprint on how to transform yourself, and live. So, you mention Dylan, and that’s a very important part of my life. That’s my school.”
10) Before Coagula, you had planned to be an artist, but you don’t paint anymore. Why not?
“I was an art major at Cal State LA. I was terrible. Oh no, no, no, because my art is my writing, and my persona. That’s my art. So, that’s my creative gesture, and the thing that I do to live on and to live bigger than one can encounter all the people you can encounter through your art. I wanted to be a painter. I ego identified with being an artist. You know, 'I’m going to be an artist', and I had a studio, and I had a bunch of canvases that I bought at the canvas store, and I made paintings that I thought were supposed to be…you know, I could tell you why it was historically important, and where I fit in, in this…but it was a painful break, but it was growing up too. But that was me, I was already happier with my writing. People would always respond to my writing. Always. It’s the responding to your art, you know, if they never responded to my writing, maybe I would have worked harder or differently at the art. When I say most art sucks, I was making art and I couldn’t get my hand to do what my mind and my eye had envisioned…and that’s all I ask of people.”
977 Chung King Road
Los Angeles, California 90012
The gallery is open Wednesday thru Saturday, Noon – 5 PM...and you should really go!
*KrossD note to persnickety assholes: Yes, the link to "Visions Of Johanna" is a wildly different version of the song than the one on Blonde On Blonde. It's still pretty great, and if you don't know the original, than stop reading this blog and go do your homework. I'm just kidding, you should tell your mom about me!