A Collaboration: Philip Matthews And David Johnson Discuss “Wig Heavier Than A Boot”
For two years, poet Philip Matthews and visual artist David Johnson worked together on a photography, video and poetry project across five different rural locations—from Paul Artspace in Florissant, Missouri, to the shores of North Carolina. Exploring the role of ritual and the performance of gender, their project is based upon a consciousness who calls herself “Petal,” whom Matthews brings to life in word and in body and Johnson then photographs. “Wig Heavier Than a Boot” is the culmination of these efforts, on view at St. Louis’ Beverly Gallery until Jan. 7.
What was the catalyst for your collaboration?
Philip Matthews: It happened very organically. Dave and I were both at a residency sponsored by The Luminary two years ago, and every night everybody got to share thirty minutes of their work. I was talking about the Petal project in general, and Dave shared his exhibition at CAM that he had recently shown. We were sitting around the campfire at the time.
David Johnson: I said, “Would you ever want to work with a photographer?” And someone said to Phil, “Hey—I think that means he wants to collaborate.”
PM: Responding to Dave’s CAM project, I was interested in the idea of creating a room for Petal, a sense of place, but funnily enough that never happened, at least not as I envisioned. Instead we have portraiture of a character in recurring landscapes that are tied together.
There’s a narrative to the show in terms of the photo arrangement and a variety of rural terrains—the beach, a cave, brambles that remind me of “Sleeping Beauty.” And in some of the images, we’re searching for evidence of Petal, and it isn’t always there.
DJ: With those landscape photos without Petal, I originally thought, “I’m just going to take these for me,” but when we were arranging the show, we realized we needed a visual break. And we also realized that in a way, Petal is a kind of spiritual being—she’s in the woods even when she’s not there.
As individuals, your aesthetics differ starkly at first glance—Philip’s playful and effusive and Dave’s exacting and minimal. Together the two work surprisingly well, but how did you navigate these poles?
PM: I learned more about this clash as the project was happening. When Dave photographs, what he’s really photographing is light, and so the body has to be directed in the frame to optimize light. That created a stillness and slowness for me, which caused the poems to be more introspective and reflective. To slow down the erratic electricity of the poems, I had to ask, “What are you really after here? Can you slow down the gesture? Can you reign it in a little bit, as opposed to letting the poem laterally unfold?”
DJ: That idea of slowing down is really interesting to me. What first attracted me to Phil’s poetry was seeing him perform as Petal, how he reads. When we started working on the Petal video pieces like “Crown and Crowning,” the reading itself was much slower than Petal was before. The whole reason that I use a clunky 4×5 camera is to slow down the viewing process, but reading Petal’s poems on my own was a way of also slowing down the editing process.
Did you both see a clear distinction between Petal and Philip when these photos were taken?
PM: Less and less after a while—and for the poems, too, less and less. There’s a way also that Dave sees the character more honestly than I do. I know what she looks like in the mirror when I’m getting ready, but out in the world I really can’t see. In the subjective experience of posing, there were photographs where I thought, “This will be the one—I’ve never felt more Petal than this.” But often those images didn’t work. And then sometimes the photos where I felt the most awkward were the ones that were the most true expressions of Petal’s character. I think it brings up questions of trust in a collaboration—how what Dave sees is more objectively true than what I experienced.
DJ: There are images in which Petal has a gesture that Phil does, or where Phil would appear more like Petal. I continually tried to separate the characters visually.
So, Phil, you were less reliant upon the label of Phil or Petal because you let it be something that came out more in the image itself?
PM: That’s right. And that’s more like what the poetry process is to me as well. If I sit down and say, “I’m going to write a Petal poem,” it never works. The poem is what it is; it reveals itself to you in the same that the photographs reveal themselves to me later. I can’t predict whether or not it seems more Philip or Petal.
In the photographs, there’s such a clear dialogue between feminine gesture and masculinity, or vulnerability and confrontation.
PM: Exactly, when I intentionally tried to put on a feminine posture, it never worked. In fact, these gestures, postures and ways of standing are inherent to myself. The project itself has oscillated between being a performance of a drag character and being a form of transgender expression. The truth is, it’s both; it’s along the spectrum. The idea isn’t about being transgender, but rather about loosening up how we see gender is expressed in the first place.
How did you scout out locations for the shoots?
DJ: The process was more opportunity-based. When we first set out, we had this specific image of this Petal party in the woods that was half Madhatter, half Andy-Warhol Factory. But the first test shot of Philip scratching his nose completely turned the project around. It became more introspective—looking at two different creative identities in one body and the tension between them. We shot at Worm Farm in Wisconsin, the caves of Illinois, Paul Artspace and other places that presented themselves along the way. It also became really important that Petal be shot at in Philip’s hometown in North Carolina.
What did you each gain creatively as this project evolved?
DJ: For me, photographing minimal interior institutional architectural for years, and then documenting musicians at a folk music festival, I didn’t have the language of portraiture—using one body or one muse to make images repeatedly. It was a completely different working process. Of course the idea of collaboration, making editing choices with someone else, continually examining together what the project is about—it was a very, very different approach. The only thing that is similar to my past projects is the camera.
PM: For me, it’s been both interesting and extremely challenging to navigate simultaneously the different roles of author, collaborator and also to be the subject—thinking and worrying about the project devolving into narcissism. What does it mean for one’s physical body to be on display, to be the center of a creative endeavor? What does it mean to accept or refuse the gaze? Or to direct one’s gaze back, to directly confront the photographer? What redeemed it for me is that the project is really about how gaze is gendered in various ways, but these ways are complicated and always in flux.
Photos courtesy of Philip Matthews and David Johnson.