It’s said that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and we’d have to agree. So what do you do when you’ve recently quit smoking and your twitching fingers start searching for some mischief to get into? For San Francisco Bay Area artist Matt Cunningham, the answer was obvious — teach yourself Adobe Photoshop and collage together faux exploitation film posters, sci-fi mashups, and pop-art occultism. Taking a page from William S. Burroughs’s “cut-up technique,” where written text is sliced up and rearranged to create something new, Matt applies this principle to the visual medium by drawing on many disparate elements of popular culture to re-contextualize them in new, curious — and sometimes horrifying — ways.
Iron & Air: What’s your backstory?
Matt Cunningham: I am a teacher, dad, and husband in Northern California. I am originally from Washington State, but I’ve called the Bay Area and North Bay my home for a while now. I’ve always liked to make stuff, but I quit smoking a few months before I picked up this line of art and needed something to keep me occupied once I was finally able to sit in one spot for longer than 10 minutes. I decided to teach myself Photoshop as a gift to myself for not smoking, and this kind of took off from there.
What motivates you to create?
I’ve always liked to create, whether it is visual art or writing. I’m not sure what my motivation is; it’s always been that way since I was a kid. I’m shitty at small talk, so maybe this is a way of communicating? I’m not sure.
My mind is like a really heavy airplane that needs a lot of runway to take off.
What artist or person has influenced you the most, and why?
Turntablists such as Kid Koala and Cut Chemist influenced me in that what they do is essentially collage, but with audio, and I always found that interesting. I am often influenced by authors such as William Gibson, William S. Burroughs, and Thomas Pynchon — authors who throw anything and everything into their books. There’s something collage-like in their style of writing.
What is inspiring you right now?
Lack of sleep.
What’s your biggest distraction, and how do you overcome it?
My wife and I have two young kids. I don’t want to call them a distraction, but parental responsibilities can supersede any free time you might have to otherwise create art. There is no need to “overcome” it; I’m happy being a dad. But kids are a game-changer.
What things are necessary to get you in the right headspace to create and work?
Plenty of time to make mistakes. My process is all about trial and error, and I need time to throw away several dead-end attempts before hitting on an idea that might work. Any given piece of mine has hours of failed attempts leading up to it that the observer, of course, can’t see. My mind is like a really heavy airplane that needs a lot of runway to take off.
What’s the best thing about being an artist?
Finishing a piece of art — the afterglow that follows producing a piece that you’re genuinely happy with.
How about the worst thing?
Always needing to create something. It’s like being a smoker and having nic fits. If I’m away from the creative process for too long, I get kinda edgy.
What are your ambitions as an artist?
To keep making art as long as I can.
How do you see your work progressing in the future?
Moving from isolated figures against blank backgrounds towards full scenes that fill the whole frame. I have a few people imitating my old stuff, so I’m looking to make pieces that would be really hard — if not impossible — to copy.