« It’s not the message that interests me, it’s the language »: Don Mateo’s sculpture-paintings

By Michel Fily, May 17, 2019


Erudite and diligent Street Artist, Don Mateo impresses as much by the incisiveness of his cut-out portraits as by the depth of his reflections. After having painted his famous faces of women on the walls, he now creates stencil negatives that he sculpts and puts in abyss or in light. Urban Street Art Urbain met him on the occasion of his « Portrhands » exhibition, at the Epicerie Moderne, inaugurated in partnership with the Peinture Fraiche festival. Portrait of an actor-thinker of urban art.

11Hello Don Mateo, can you introduce yourself to the readers?

I am from the Jura region, in France. I studied at the Beaux Arts Academy until 2003. After my academic training, I went abroad to Spain, Sweden and Denmark. I did not come back to create in Lyon until 2010. I started by painting on canvases and I accumulated paintings. I had them all over my house. But I realized that I was missing the exchange with the public. That’s why I started painting outside again. At first, I stuck little things, portraits here and there. Then a little more, a little higher, a little bigger. It was a real discovery in the early 2010’s, a boulevard to explore…


I have, from the beginning, oriented my research around the representation of the figure, associated with the urban space, both on canvases and on walls, cyclically. Each one feeding the other. What I like is to paint; on canvas, on wood, on walls, I am very free with this desire. There were times when I only wanted to work in the streets. And other times when I wanted to work only on media. I do not constrain myself. My workshop is located on the slopes of the Croix-Rousse neighborhood in Lyon. I integrated it five years ago.


What was the main trigger of your desire to create on the street?

It basically answered my need for freedom and my desire to be totally independent. This may seem contradictory, considering the illegal character of Street Art, but the street has indeed given me a form of freedom, to the extent that with it I was no longer obliged to go through a galleries or exhibitions – with all the constraints that they implie – to carry out my projects. I was able to share my work in an immediate and direct way with the public, without intermediaries nor owing anything anyone. Before the Street Art movement, when an artist had an idea, it had to be presented to gallery owners, exhibition venues, and he had to seduce them, to sell his project. It’s something I don’t know how to do and I don’t like to do. I freed myself from it, thanks to the street. One of the main components of Street Art, in my opinion, is, above all, freedom. Then it’s an infinite creative space. I play with the walls, with their grains, with the colors of the coatings… Finally, there’s a playful aspect in this form of art, related in my opinion to childhood. We all upholstered our rooms with drawings and posters when we were younger. Street art is the same thing, on a larger scale. You start with your neighborhood, then, gradually, your city becomes your playground… I also painted in Paris, in Latin America and in Jordan…


How has your technique evolved?

I always worked the portrait, but I went from stencil to painted paper cut. It’s a kind of upside down stencil, in relief. This evolution happened because I had reached the end of my technique and I was missing something. I lacked gesture and soul. The stencil erases the imperfection and prevents accidents. It allows, certainly, to paint quickly something effective, but for me who comes from the drawing, it lacks the « instinctive » aspect. I did my first paper cut portrait four or five years ago. The postulate is that of « contradicting » the stencil, bringing back the movement, the drawing, the accident, and also preserving what others usually throw away. Then, playing with the light, with fullness and emptiness. I slightly distance the cutouts from their supports, to create an effect of shadow and depth. The act of creation interacts with the cutting. It’s a bit like a second drawing, with a scalpel. And then they are unique pieces, unlike stencil works that can be multiplied.


You mainly paint women…

What centralizes my work is the portrait, the figure. Mainly the female figure. Each piece is different and each has an emotion of its own. It’s a language, a perpetual search. You could think of a systematic aspect, but that is not the case at all. I work emotions, looks. Right now I’m using hands to work the movement and the line. The portrait is actually a pretext. What interests me is the curve, the color… I find in the feminine motive much more interesting information than in the male motive. But that remains a motive. Cezanne said that he painted a model as he painted an apple. For me, it’s a little bit the same. I find more information in the feminine motive, among others, because they have hair, and the hair allows me to work the line.


Your works are white, black, red… A small number of colors, but very much contrasted…

It is to go against what is found elsewhere. Graffiti is often saturated in color. I wanted to do the opposite, to purify and let the work breathe. The emptiness is very important in my art. But it doesn’t mean it’s empty. It gives breath, it allows the eye to circulate… I paint mainly with primary colors, which are often there to bring soul to the characters. These colors placed on the canvas or on the wall allow me to « contradict » a little the paper cut, to create more relief. The line is hyper instinctively posed, so that it becomes a kind of DNA to my character. Like a footprint, like the soul, which are unique…


What message do you want to convey to people who discover your works?

This is not the message that interests me. I’m not saying that I do not want to convey anything to the public. But I do not want to control it. After much research, I realized that what interests me is not the message, but the language. It’s fundamentally different. I understood recently that it is a mistake to focus on the message. The messages, there are not a hundred thousand. Art speaks of love, of life, of death, of religion, of sex… Take the history of art: what do we retain mainly today of a painter like Picasso ? Not his messages, but his language. What could be the message behind the « Demoiselles d’Avignon »? Prostitution? No, there’s no message. What’s important in this picture is Cubism!


And if there’s a message, it must serve the language?

Absolutely. Otherwise it’s just illustration. The work is only there to illustrate a subject. To make art is to create something that escapes us. Léo Ferré said: « When I write, I do not know where it comes from. It falls on me, it’s not me who writes. It’s my hand. » I feel the same when I create. When I cut and at all stages of my creation. If I have a clear idea of what I want to do, the result is usually bad. But when I let go of my mind, when I « let go », without asking questions, there are always very interesting things that happen and surprise me.


You recently started doing monochromes…

These are recent pieces, not quite monochrome, rather black on anthracite gray. The objective was to question the light, getting closer to Soulages issues… To « disturb » the look and to ask the viewer to make an effort to find the line, to recompose, to look for the forms, which are also close to the abstract, for these new works. Glances are also hidden there. One must take the time to observe well… These are the premises of a new stage, in which I want to take this portraits, from something hyper figurative to something closer to the abstract. Unfortunately this disappointed a certain part of my public, the one who likes to be reassured, to see what they can recognize. In urban art, when a work pleases, everybody wants to see its copy everywhere. I find it crazy that people are surprised when an artist evolves…


What are your inspirations?

There are several of them. I have no particular reference in terms of urban artists. I would rather cite classical artists, those who have always guided my work. Those who comfort me when I’m in doubt. Among those, there is Georges Brassens, his texts and his thoughts… He is one of my pillars. Among visual artists, there are, of course, the paintings of Alberto Giacometti, where this notions of movement and line are found. Gérard Fromanger, less known, is a French artist who started with narrative figuration, in the sixties, and who has evolved a lot today. He works on photosynthesis, pictures he projects and on which he paints. He uses photography as a basis to draw form it its essence. Today he works on lines… I’m also a fan of Mark Rothko and his abstractions, works which explore the accident, the vibration of the color, uncontrolled and unmaintained. There’s Pierre Soulages, of course. There’s also Robert Rauschenberg, who in the 1960s transformed his paintings into sculptures, like in his most famous piece where a stained eagle is placed on the painting. My painting is also a kind of a path between painting and sculpture. It is neither painting nor sculpture, it is both of them at once, and at the same time it is neither of them. The master Giacometti gave a great interview five or six years before he died, in his workshop, during which he explained, with his Italian accent: « I sculpt, these men on the move, these characters, and I say to myself: one day I will find… For now I am just looking for…” He said these words at a time when his career had been long established. At the end of his life, he still doubted. I keep this sentence as an important safeguard in my moments of uncertainty. If this genius searched all his life as I am searching, then I am in good company…


What do you think of the evolution of Street Art?

It is the continuation of contemporary art. I mean, it’s an art movement in its own right. And what’s great is that it’s the first movement in the history of art that has appeared simultaneously all around the world. The births of the great artistic movements have always been linked to economic situations in certain countries or on certain continents. Surrealism in Paris and Europe, Pop Art in the United States… It’s not the case with Street Art because, from the beginning of the movement, Street Artists started to create in Australia, in France, in Ireland, in Lebanon … As for its origins, can we really compare the walls of Diego Rivera and the first tags of Jean-Michel Basquiat or of Taki 183? The movement may have been born in New York with the gangs, but we can also go back to the Lascaux caves…


What are your last and future projects?

I was very recently in residence in Jordan, for a festival of ten days, the « Baladk Project« , in Amman. We were six international artists from Sweden, Colombia, Germany, mainly Europeans. When I came back, I p        ainted a wall at the Peinture Fraiche Street Art festival and I also hosted a Workshop at “l’Epicerie Moderne”, an alternative culture center next to Lyon, in partnership with the festival. I will soon realize the new “Marianne” of the city of Chenôve, near Dijon. This mural will become the symbol of the city. It’s a modern and mixed Marianne that a painted crowd comes to build. And one cannot decide if her hat is a Phrygian cap or a simple woolen hat… I will finish this wall project on the occasion of the “Heritage Days”, in September 2019.


If I was the genie of Aladdin’s lamp and you could raise three vows, which would they be?

I do not have the madness of fame and money… I would like just to keep on the passion… My dream has always been to do what I love, to paint, to paint from morning till night. My wish is to keep on doing that. To paint everywhere around the world. I would also like to publish a book. I write a lot at the moment, I have lots of notebooks; it’s a way of expression that I like, but which remains intimate. I would like to illustrate my thoughts as an artist with images of my paintings. We, Street Artists, do not often have the opportunity to talk about art. It’s quite rare…


Is there a question I did not ask you that you would like to answer?

What seems primordial to me is this questioning of the language. For years, I wasted time trying to find messages and it took me a long time to realize that I was wrong. We must not think of the message, we must think of the language and the message must come to serve this language. It’s my truth, maybe it’s only mine, but it is that truth which feeds my art.







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