Interview: John CRASH Matos

Flow Exhibition by Remi Rough & John ‘Crash’ Matos

At Dorian Grey 

437 East 9th St. (between 1st Ave & Avenue A) 

EXTENDED to March 9th, 2014

*Cover: Close up of a Crash and Remi Rough collaborative work, Eye 02 Spraypaint on Canvas

I sat down with John “Crash” Matos at Dorian Grey Gallery in the Lower East Side, Christopher Pusey joined us.  Crash and UK Graf Artist Remi Rough teamed up for a collaborative works exhibition at Dorian Grey Gallery.  FLOW, brought differing graff styles together, the feature solo pieces and pieces which the artists worked on together.  The legendary graffiti artist Crash has four decades of influence in the graffiti arts scene and practice. He has informally been both student, and teacher. Among the very first graffiti artists to spray on canvas, and work with galleries, I think what makes Crash such an interesting person to get to know, is his ability to decipher the values gained from his years of tagging out in the South Bronx with crews in the dark of night. Most notably of this pliant talent is his ability to stay fresh, engage in new practices, and continually push this refinement process while never losing the edge, and free-spiritedness of one of the oldest public art forms. Graffiti has always served as an expression; a public declaration, unfettered by any system of cultural privilege. The rules are simple. Forget they exist. Crash would agree, and today is perhaps the most precious piece of advice a veteran artist could give to anyone willing to listen.

Unique to graffiti as public art is its availability to anyone desiring to make public an idea or thing of some sort. Or simply to make an object of beauty, as has been done in every culture and iteration of human dating back to African hominids in 100,000 B.C., who put red ocher to rock depicting epic clashes, or in Ancient Greece to express political and personal grievances—no less important than the telling of tribal wars—has been the practice of choice emanating from the body. It is a form of art indisputable. Where in culture this expression arises from is the only form it has had to grapple with—the glorious method of communication; expressing the maker’s interiority, in relationship to his or her experience. The authenticity of graffiti speaks to its lasting resonance. Where many other cultural practices are exalted up the cultural ladder of taste and distinction, defining what is desirable—making them a practice of privilege, graffiti is determined to resist, even as the evolution to formalize its practice with ‘higher’ forms of graffstract or graffuturism popularizes. In our contemporary times graffiti, at its root, is done without consent, and possesses a DNA that might resist what Walter Robinson said of art that “We don’t have art movements any more, we have market movements.” While the newer hybrids are quite possibly prime for the art market, its root may remain an art movement. Graffiti-art in our Modern times, after all, can ‘best’ be described as a practice that as a tag defines one maker, and as work intended for public view (a visual ownership)—belongs to no one singular person other than the creator, but only for purposes of crediting the eye and hand of the artist. Crash’s original subway car bombings only exist in grainy photos from the early 1980s, they have all been buffed away, never will they be owned by anyone.

You should also read: Interview: John CRASH Matos; the history

I am curious especially with this current show at Dorian Grey, where you see yourself in this transition. (thats interesting) from graffiti to street art to fine art… what are you thinking about?

I’m one of those rare guys who really loves collaborating with other people, its easy to sit in the studio and do stuff by yourself and just go, ‘thats what we’re supposed to do.’ It’s a lot more interesting for me, to butt heads with other artists and see what can come out of it. I guess it goes on with music, when musicians get together and they jam. And whatever comes out of it… if nothing does, then that’s fine. It was that point in time when they get together and they played and that was it.

But the thing with art, is you don’t have that because it’s too individualistic, where as I’m painting, the other persons painting… lets put it together and see what happens. With musicians they just jam, they play at the same time and evokes, whatever is going to happen. I love the process of collaborating, i mean it goes back to the subways where you meet up with other guys and paint together. In a studio setting its totally different, you cut yourself off and you’re doing your own thing, and lose that. I love the act of collaborating, you know I’ve been collaborating with people for a very long time. Its just that now, I have confidence and I’m willing to show it, and people are going to say, what they’re going to say.  The point was to collaborate, its not whether you like it or not. If you like it thats a plus, but we’re just collaborating.

You know, I’ve been doing that for years with different people. I love abstract art work, its very graphic… the abstract expressionistic. My stuff is very, Its very pop oriented, but i paint abstract because i take images and put them together to form one. So its sort of like a weird hybrid. You never know whats going to happen. So with Remi I love his work, and I’ll just do a couple of pieces and see how it does. And the exhibition comes up, so I say why don’t we do like eight collaborative pieces, and four of my own. So people can see the process, its as simple as that.

Solo Work by Remi Rough; The Isolationist

Solo Work by Remi Rough; The Isolationist

I was having a conversation with someone about jazz music. We were at a cafe, and they were playing some pretty generic jazz music, it was very technical… ‘I went to jazz music school, and learned to play jazz music (Crash laughs… So they went to school to learn Stan Getz.) Yes it was very much so. This is ironic because jazz music, is originally a bit more free flowing. But it seems likes, we want to box it in, make it comfortable, easier to conceive, whereas what you’re saying about collaborations is your willing to experiment with no framework?

The only framework we had was the size limitation. And what we did was, I tend to paint with very bright colors, and Remi is also bright but in a different way. We spoke, and decided I was going to paint monochromatic. If I’m going to do reds, I’m going to do all shades of reds, and he was going to take the opposite effect. We did this very blindly, I didn’t tell him what I was going to paint, he didn’t tell me. We did our thing, and sent what I did to Remi. And when he saw what I did.

Kind of like what would happen on the street?

Yes, exactly, that’s how it was 25-30 years ago. Let’s do a wall, O.K., just get the paint, and just go from there. The beauty of it is, I always put it hand and hand with music, let’s see what comes out.

Can you tell me about the shift to graffuturism?

I think it has been around forever. It’s just people are more receptive to it, because it’s growing. There are so many different languages, all of these hybrids coming out. It has been there for a long time. I’ll go back to like 1985, I did a couple of pieces and they were called ‘Homages to Franz Kline.’ I took big swipes of black and white house paint, over my pieces. I always saw them, our tags and the paint, as similar to abstract expressionism—an act of expression. We didn’t do anything really planned, nothing really detailed. And this show (with Remi Rough) goes back to that. I sent the work to him, he did his thing, nothing planned. We didn’t hinder ourselves. Sometimes you’re going to play somewhere, you don’t do any long riffs. We didn’t have that. The only thing we had was literally just the size, but that didn’t stop us. Because even the small pieces are very strong, it doesn’t lose anything


So now that there’s a name coming for it, even though it has been around for a long time, I think an interesting point would be that, you will have a lot of younger artists getting into it by name now. (C That’s interesting, I never thought about that.) Maybe there will be some classes at SVA (C laughs) Its important for younger artists when they look at something like this, to not necessarily look at it so much like form as a matter of learning it, because what you’re telling me is that there is a tremendous amount of freedom in making them, does that make sense?

Yes. You know you go to a museum and you go see pieces like Matisse. And, I look at it, I see the brush strokes. It’s just like this beautiful journey. But there are people that look at the technique, that look at the canvas, the colors they used, it becomes this historical. I don’t for that. I more like, looking at the colors and the brushstrokes, and you know it’s two different heads. I know what you mean, and I guess it all depends on the person. I don’t think about that (D Good, don’t think about art) You write song, at the moment that was what was in you. you put the music down and you (wipes hands)… Next! People see that, and they say ‘there was something to it’ and I’m like, really? You just express it, and you go.

That’s the kind of stuff I like to discover about process.

I don’t think about anything my biggest thing is the challenge. I come straight from the subways, because you know ‘this guy does something really cool, and I want to outdo him.’ You know that type of thing. And you know, in every show I do there is some type of challenge. I love Remi’s stuff and Im like ‘god he’s gonna kill me, he’s gonna over power me, he’s just going to blow me away.’ So I just stay true to what I want to do and it came out great. There’s always the personal challenge, but that’s just me, I need that, a little drive to communicate, and then express through communication what it is that I want to say.

When you look at the completed pieces, what do you think that Remi’s work adds to yours?

Oh man, I think Remi’s so good. What he does to my work in collaborative pieces.. he gives it another dimension, and that sounds obvious because of the way he works. You know, his stuff is very graphic, very linear, very calculated. But in an abstract sense. People can’t understand that because they’re two different mindsets and then also you throw the way I paint, I don’t use anything… I just spray, I don’t use any kind of tape, its all free hand. And then he takes it, and makes it look like its supposed to be there. He’s not adding on, to add on …he’s adding on, I guess through a filter and he makes it work, so it becomes his piece, as it was mine. So its a really bizarre and we talk about, we’ve got to do bigger pieces… this can’t just stop here, because somethings more to this. And its just an experiment. I’ve got other people ask me online, through email, wanting to do some collaboratives with me. I can’t say yes, because I’ve got to figure out if it is going to work I can’t say no, because I don’t want to limit the possibility of something that could be happening. You know, even if it’s not cool… the act of doing it, you never know what could happen. I just felt that this could happen, something that could really work.


Christopher Pusey: I love the analogy of comparing your collaborations with Remi with two musicians getting together. I don’t think its frequently looked at in that same capacity. There was also a degree of separation—you sent pieces to him, he sent pieces to you, and that should really be looked at and discussed as well. I consider you (Crash), I’ve known for a few years, a very confident artists, and to hear you talk to Douglas in a very humbling way about releasing these pieces, and not knowing if Remi was going to over power them. I really think this worked, two artists come together, one didn’t blow away the other and theres a balance there. Because your style has a very graphic/pop identifiable components to it, and Remi’s abstract—Its hard edged, its movement, he’s playing with some of the different surfaces, like wood. but that pairing, i think its very successful. So with the success of this under your belt, how do you look at other artists too? Who else do you have in the pipeline? I mean, if you can, I don’t want to be premature.

Right now I’m talking to a friend of my that’s a sculptor. He does a lot of stuff with steel. But, he drags his feet, you know very cerebral. And he saw this show, and he’s like what do you want to do. For me its easy, send me the steel and I’ll paint on it. And you can just cut it, and do whatever you want… if they paint gets burned it doesn’t matter, its part of the process. But then it got to the point, where he was like we can get the steel printed, and then cut it, and then you can add stuff to it. No, I don’t want to do that. Because then it means I’m trying to go over stuff that was a ‘mistake’ or I think was a mistake. I don’t want to do that. I want to do what I do and then let it go. And then you have to take care of it, and I don’t care what gets cut. That’s your point, thats what you need to do. I told Remi a bunch of time, you paint what you need to paint, you go over whatever, I don’t care. I’m done, i’m gonna turn my back and you gotta do it. Don’t measure. He took it to heart. I was telling my friend Carlos, lets just do one or two pieces and walk away from it. Let’s try it, let’s get to the floor of it, and just move.

Christopher Pusey: Who went first? Does it matter, was there a progression? Did Remi work on pieces and send it to you do?

I did everything and sent it to him. It just happened that way, I guess because it was my initiative. He did the drawings, he did all of the line work and then sent it to me. I didn’t do anything with them right away, I sat with them.

How did you find that reverse process?

Well it’s different, I paint on canvas, I paint the surface, the entire thing and sent it to him. On this, he just fragments of color and he didn’t say paint on the cut, paint on the white. I just took it upon myself and put where I thought everything needed to be. Laughs… he sent me a role of tape, that he uses on paper, you know so the ink doesn’t go over and I said, no, I do everything freehand. I might take a ruler just to do a line, but everything’s free hand, if it went over, then oh well. And he asked. ‘you didn’t use tape?. how did you do it?’ and I said ‘I’m just good.’ Everything fit, the way it had to fit. And he was puzzled because I use pencil, I use crayon, I use markers, I use pens, water color, acrylic whatever I wanted to use. And he used spray paint, so I said, I’m not going there…

There has to be a lot of trust, especially as Christopher mentioned with that degree of separation?

You have to. I said to Remi, it’s on you, I turned my back and started working on something else.


Do you think that you owe your success to that?

I don’t think I’m controlling. When you look at the wall on Houston Street, everything was laid out. I was helping Iko do the stenciling on her thing. You have to.

It seems like you don’t have this sense of attachment that probably many artists would have of their work, and perhaps that stems from starting as street artist?

Well yes, I guess everything is temporary to a degree. Nothing you had was permanent, nothing. It goes, from one thing to another. You can be in a house for fifty years, when you go you’re not taking the house with you.  I was in Los Angeles, at Venice Beach, and at this long wall where everybody paints. So I would join up with a couple of guys to paint with them, and as I’m walking right there were a couple of guys coming to white wash the walls. ‘Whoa, whoa, what’re you doing?’ And he goes, no you don’t understand, and he explained to me when a group of painters are done, they take pictures, it gets white washed, and another group of painters comes. Its constant, very temporary.

Christopher Pusey: You’ve seen that so many times when you’ve worked on trains, and then they get buffed. You’d spend hours, doing what you were doing, risking whatever you did, albeit under the guise of night. I saw that with graffiti universe, there was this incredibly elaborate, a city block, and the whole block, and a week later it was painted over. STIK came over from London and painted a gate, guys up on ladders, wheat paste, Army of One did his thing, and Fumero, and Icey.

Yeah, it had been there for years, its funny that people were suing the owner of the building. Why are you suing this guy? It got crazy, they went to the city, and finally he went in the middle of the night with the police there, and white washed the whole thing. People were all upset, it was all over the news. I was one of the rare ones, that was like, ‘why are you upset? First of all the guy gave you permission to paint on his wall, for ten years… you you had access to do anything you wanted. He wanted the building back, because they’re going to do something different and demolish it, and they’re going to put something else.’ He even said to the guy, in charge, I want people to design stuff for the inside of the building, and that’s going to be permanent. And he was like ‘No’! ‘Dude, he gave you the building for ten years… FREE… and even gave you a little office. All of this you got for free, you got all of this exposure. It’s his building! I went crazy, it is NOT your building! You had access to it, it was a gift from God, be happy for what you had, move on. Its temporary. I got bushwhacked online. “Yo!, you’re old school you should know better!’ Yes, I know better, My trains aint running anymore. Its temporary, I have to deal with that. And you have to understand, thats just the way it is. You come by in my neighborhood, you paint a wall, and two months you come by and its something different, and that’s cool. That’s just the way it is, and they don’t get it. Miras… he went on. He got all depressed over it. Dude you had all this good stuff for ten years, take what you learned and move on, get something else. You see, some people can’t. That’s the problem. If its yours, you’re able to go anywhere, and go with it. If its not yours, then you were just sitting there as a babysitter and thats your problem. you gotta learn from it, thats not me, that you.

There will always be a sense of attachment, you know. With me, there have been some painting that have sold, and then gone to auction and I bought them back. It’s here, and now what am I going to do with this? (We all laugh) Ok, so its wrapped up in the corner of my studio. Its not even hanging in there. But other times, some one buys my painting, and ‘Bye painting.’ and thats it. Its yours for the rest of your life, but now someone else has it.

Christopher Pusey: Who else do you want to collaborate with, what’s your wish list?

I had spoken to Cause, and he thought that was a good idea. We collaborated before on some prints. And I told him if we’re going to collaborate, we’re not going to do it now because you’re busy and hot. Because that’s not the point. ‘I want to go over some of your stuff, and you go over mine.’ We’ll go some place, do ten paintings. ‘Here’s your five, here’s my five.’ And just do it, that’s the fun part. I don’t care if no one see’s it, that’s not the point. This was just I know someone, this was a rare time. There are pieces that Daze and I’ve done through the years that no one has seen. I collaborated with Lee, and no one has seen it. Me and Keith [Haring], we collaborated at the museum in Paris. He did chalk, I did spray paint, that’s gone.

Do you think past collaborators, have found an appreciation after working on project with you, and do you want to show more of your collaborations?

I hope they did. I never even thought about that. I think with Remi, it might have triggered something. It takes a little time to see what happens. But I like the challenge of it. I love it. The idea of the possibilities is what intrigues me. That’s where the no limits come in; the photography, sculpture, tattooing.

Someone posted online that 2014, was my year of collaborations. I’m like ‘Huh?’ Its funny because when I was talking to Nick Walker, we might do something here. But I told him that I don’t want to do it on paper. I want to do it on metal, or we could get really nice wood. He said, ‘Oh yeah, mate!’ Collaborations open doors, new ideas. Have fun with it.

Your approach, there’s a lot of freedom involved in that. Considering this shift into graffuturism. Like you said, there’s not a lot of framework. Do you think that overall the way things go, that there is this push formalize the style?

I think, it’s evolving so in a evolving, like an peeling in onion, you peel back layers and layers until you get to the center. There are a lot of layers, and maybe we’re only at the third layer. It has so much potential, and the internet is just going to carry it further. In ten years I don’t know what’s going to happen. Just the immediacy, with the internet things move quick, what use to take some time to spread, now you put up some pics and you’ve got a whole show. In ten years we might be able to fax ourselves somewhere. But you don’t know. That possibility—not knowing, doesn’t scare me. I’m good with it, lets see where it goes. What’s the point of being afraid. I can’t take it seriously because there’s so much to it. I got a lot, this is great.

Some people are like, oh the mystique of your [work]… ‘Whoa, step back, you’re thinking too much.” You’re a painter and you paint. Theres some people that can’t. ‘Oh no I can’t.’ Alright then I’m not going to push it. They can, its just they don’t want to. Can’t doesn’t exist… you don’t want to. Every person has a book in them, every person. Whether it sells one copy, or it sells a billion, doesn’t matter because your life is a story. So for someone to say I can’t. I say you can, you’re living it. If you had a diary and just wrote every day… ‘I woke up and I have a headache.’ and leave it. At the end of the year you have 365 pages. You just wrote a book.

Everyone can paint, everyone has a measure of creativity. Some more than others, some to the point where that can’t deal with it and they kill themselves. Whether through drugs, whatever it is. Its just so much, that they can’t even communicate it because no one will understand them. I mean, Amadeus, he died when he was 27. The guy was writing music at the age of 7. Major pieces, a prodigy. They self destruct, its just overwhelm, and no one will understand what they’re trying to get at. What you hear, what you like… that was not what the intent was, doesn’t matter. Because its just beyond. Everyone has a measure, everyone.

Sounds like over thinking a relationship to creativity?

I’ve learned, when I’m painting in my studio, when I’m done, I’m done. Wash my hands and I’m gone. The next day I take the piece off and I put it aside. I will not touch it, unless the paint cracks, or something happens physically. You know you buy a piece of 1930s furniture, and you shellac it. NO! It is what it is, leave. You can wipe it down, you can clean it. But don’t paint over it.

There are probably a lot of great artists out there that never come into that light of being, because they’re heavy on trying to say something.

Right, and they overstate. I mean, you say it, and then they start underlining, and underlining and then they italicize it. “Wait a minute!’ I go back to some one like Picasso, he did his pieces, and put aside. To the point that the house got so full, he bought another house and started painting there. That was a good practice. You communicated for five minutes. Like a photograph, you take it, now you want to edit them, delete them.. that’s on you. You took the photograph, it’s done. Thats a good way of thinking about it.

I think what’s special about street art and graffiti. There’s this freedom to use a lot of different materials. Its about just going for it, adapting to the materials available to you. Maybe you can’t afford the finest canvases. (C Use paper) Exactly.

Was it Franz Kline, he painted on newspapers.

Christopher Pusey: And de Kooning too. That painted on the pages of the phonebooks, they did these transfers.

And you know why? People were like, wow that’s genius! They didn’t have any materials! They painted with house paint, because that’s all they had. Its the necessity, and it should bog the creative process down. Listen, creation is going to occur regardless. You ain’t got pens, take scissors and cut the image out. Look what Matisse did, with the collages. It’s endless… the word ‘can’t’… shouldn’t be.

When you consider getting into fine art, there are a lot of assumptions and pressure.

You know its funny. I don’t go to a lot of openings. Because there’s a lot of that. If you go to an opening, and say wow this is nice. People are going to listen to you and say, and they’ll gravitate. No, you should like it for what you like. I just like it, and that pressures there. Like a lot of collectors, collect because their collector friends collect it. And if they don’t do it, then they’re not the cool collector. Come on man! I like what I like from the get. If I react to something immediately, then I know it’s right, I’ve learned that.

Yesterday, there was something going on on instagram… There was an image that everyone was just reposting, because it had to do with autism, and I have a lot of friends with autistic kids, and I’m with it. But everyone just doing it because their doing it. And why am I gonna do this, just to be the cool guy? So now in a couple of days I’ll do it, because i want to do it on my own terms, not because everyone else is doing it.

It’s very much a nesting… everyone has one, but it is not intended to completely encapsulate you. There’s an opening there, but it’s much more comfortable inside.

Well a nest is temporary, you’re supposed to be able to fly out. When you’re big enough, the Mom bird kicks you out, ‘let’s see what you can do!’ You don’t stay there, because if you do you’re going to be bigger than the branch, take the tree right down. Well this show is definitely out of my comfort zone. If it doesn’t work, I’ll tell Chris ‘Thank You’ and give him a drawing. To be a true creative person, you need to do this. If you don’t then, don’t. Go raise some cattle. At least you know what you get with that.

I don’t know if artists think that there is a not a lot going on right now. But when I look out, there is a tremendous amount going on right now. I think its a reaction to that. Whatever’s going on in your own little circle. Or whatever is going on in the entire world, there’s a lot of chaos going on right now, and chaos creates opportunity.

It’s up to you how you use the chaos… it could be creative in a positive or negative way. Thats on you, you have the choice. I look out and see for my work what I can use. And then you see that there is some kind of a reference point. I don’t need to do paintings on what’s happening in february at the Olympics. That doesn’t have to influence me. So I’m gonna do a bunch a Russian soldiers wearing girdles? I don’t need to do that.

From the outside looking in at the work that you do. At the same time, there’s this wonder that if now is that kind of time where some artist are seeing that there’s this process going on, and they’re just engaging with whatever they can sink their teeth into.

I hope so, I hope it opens doors for people. Fear, but not a troubling fear, what can happen? Someone says no? Ok. I got a lot of no’s in my life. We were painting illegally on the subways, we did a lot of stuff. I remember in Paris in the early 80s, I was in Paris for the first time with Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, Kwong Chi. And we were slammed in the press, I mean it was nasty, really bad. I had two choices, I could taken that to heart, or I could go off and let it inspire me. So that’s how I took it, and I’ll prove them wrong… and now in Paris, I can’t do anything wrong.

All art is a form of communication, it is a call and response.

Absolutely, not everyone communicates your language. They look at your work and say, ‘What is this?’ Its all good.

Read on… Crash talks about Fashion Moda, Jane Dickson, Patti Astor, Stef Eni, Jeffrey Deitch, LAMOCA and Brooklyn Museum’s disaster.