Q&A with Charles Mathis, Los Angeles-based art fabricator.
How did you get into art fabrication?
It’s always been very word of mouth. A few different artists hired me while I was working on my MFA at MassArt in Boston; I was into making molds at the time. Later, I moved to Switzerland and got another master’s in industrial design, thinking I’d distance myself from the art world. But I kept getting pulled back into fabrication. I moved from Switzerland to LA and started working for artists Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin. I’m still in LA, fabricating freelance.
Do artists usually come to you with detailed drawings and measurements, or with more general visions?
Every artist is different. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s best to screen out artists who don’t have a clear picture of what they want. But if they don’t have drawings, then we can sit down and draw together.
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What’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to make?
There are so many! I made giant, fake rocks that are soft and shaped like couches for Lizzie and Ryan’s 2016 show at Andrea Rosen in New York. Viewers sat on them to watch their video. We made them out of steel and plywood and Bondo, then covered them with expanding foam that we marbled and tinted. After we covered everything in foam, the artists wanted to add texture using razor blades to shave off thin layers, as if we were carving giant cheese blocks. The rocks were huge! So for four days, we just sat and shaved them. I was pretty grumpy about it. I told the artists, “This is stupid.” But we followed through, and the result was amazing. The artists were right.
You also made Shannon Finnegan’s museum benches, which are blue and include text like THIS EXHIBITION HAS ASKED ME TO STAND FOR TOO LONG. SIT IF YOU AGREE. Is art-seating your specialty?
I definitely enjoy making artwork that has a dialogue with furniture, or vice versa. It’s nice to bring together my design and sculpture backgrounds.
Tell me about your studio furniture company, California Carts.
My friend Nick Rodrigues and I started California Carts after noticing that there’s no ideal studio furniture. Most artists and shops have a hodgepodge of things from IKEA, plus stuff they know how to build with some two-by-fours. So we designed a simple way to build studio furniture, like a functional work table that doesn’t look like it came from an auto repair shop. We also teach workshops where people can learn to make things themselves. Occasionally, we’ll build out someone’s entire studio.
What are some common misunderstandings about art fabrication?
We’re still plagued by this notion that there’s just one creator, but that’s never been the case, and it doesn’t align with the reality of the art market. People think, “Peter Paul Rubens is amazing! He was so prolific!” But like many artists in the seventeenth century, he had this giant studio full of younger assistants. Few artists today have private teams like Jeff Koons’s. Money for art production usually comes from galleries or from institutions, not the artists.
Does watching artists get the credit for things you’ve made bother you?
It’s nice to be credited, but at the end of the day, I’m being paid for a service. I do sometimes wish that fabricators got paid a percentage of an artwork when it sold, as opposed to a flat fee. An artist’s sales might grow exponentially, but my pay stays the same. Some do give me credit: Lizzie and Ryan did on the wall label for their installation Safety Pass (2016). Though usually, it’s emerging artists who are more open to it. It’s important to manage these situations. If I notice that I’m being expected to come up with ideas to fill in gaps in the artist’s vision, then I’ll pause and ask if they want a collaborator, or a fabricator.
What’s rewarding about art fabrication?
Sometimes, I’ll take on an emerging artist who doesn’t have a lot of money. I think of it as an investment in an artist’s career. It means I’m shaping the way they make things early on, which often has a long-term impact. And sometimes, their career later takes off.
This article appears in the January/February 2021 issue, p. 80.