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  • Writer's pictureAngel

British Artist Mat Collishaw Talks Extreme Imagery, Defending Your Art And Where To Draw The Line

Mat Collishaw - Wet Collodion Portrait

Part One

Mat Collishaw was an integral part of the YBA group that graduated from Goldsmiths in the late 80’s and exhibited work in the legendary Freeze exhibition, fronted by Damien Hirst in 1988. Since then Mat has exhibited around the globe, and continues to make compelling work which is seductively beautiful, yet hard hitting, bringing into question our fixed way of seeing things.

Mat invited me to his house/studio in a former pub to talk about his creative journey, from being forced out of studios by unsavory characters to exhibiting in Queen’s House, Greenwich, all whilst still teetering on the edge.

Angel - Why did you decide to go down the route of pursuing art?

Mat - Well I couldn’t really do anything else, you know, I left school without many qualifications. I spent a lot of time wanting to be a soldier then wanting to be a footballer and then a rock star, but I wasn’t good at any of those things. But what I could do is make a lifelike representation of things and I loved doing it, and I started spending more time down at the library. I was from Nottingham and there weren't a huge number of galleries, there was an art center, but for me it was going to the library, looking at the books of old masters, I was sort of just pouring over all of those, and I slowly drifted more towards doing art.

Bromley House Library -

Angel - Did you have tutors encouraging you at school?

Mat - At school they were pretty rubbish and also when I did A levels they were very non committal as well. Foundation school is when they started to take it pretty seriously. It’s not just a subject that people do to escape doing chemistry or physics or history. Some people actually want to do it as a profession and a lot of people on foundation go on to work in industries such as textiles or graphic design. So they are proper jobs with a salary and something this country is very good at doing, fine art maybe less so, but it became pretty obvious after doing foundation for a few months that theater design and graphic design wasn’t for me. I wanted to do different stuff, and it seems quite an indulgent path as there isn’t any practical application for it. But it just intrigued me, the fact that you could make things and communicate to the world through those things that you’re making, and what you’re making is purely on that level without any practical application at all.

"He was just sitting there facing them with his head in his hands"

Angel - Was there a plan of what you were going to do once the course had finished?

Mat - I spent a lot of time going around all the art schools in England seeing all the different places that were recommended. Goldsmiths College at the time was two minutes over that way from Camberwell, and they seemed very serious about the practice of making art, they appeared a lot more engaged in contemporary art and what was happening now in the world. Whereas some of the other places I visited were happy spending a bit of time doing sculpture and it didn’t seem as important or serious to them. I remember going into one art studio at Goldsmiths and there was a guy with about eight blank canvases on the floor in front of him, and he was just sitting there facing them with his head in his hands. I thought this is the place for me, because I could see he couldn’t commit himself to making any marks at all because he knows those marks will have implications.

The head of Goldsmiths at the time was Jon Thompson who was a curator of an exhibition at the Hayward called “Falls The Shadow” of which I had seen, and that was my first real taste of international contemporary art. There were artists from America and Europe, of what I thought was quite cutting edge at the time. There was an essay quoting TS Elliott, it was pretty engaging stuff which I hadn’t come across before, so the fact that he was the head of Goldsmiths college all of those elements drew me towards applying there.

Exhibition Catalogue - for Falls the Shadow: Recent British and European Art, Hayward Gallery 1986

Which when I did get in and go there I found quite a lot of like minded people, who had done quite well education wise but they felt that they wanted to do something else. In a way they had nothing to lose because they had money to fall back on, so for them this was the time to give it a go.

"The context of something is important"

Angel: What were you interested in at Goldsmiths?

Mat - I was just doing drawings with pencil, charcoal and conte crayon, of the nude male body, the torso, like these smoldering sensual pictures. Quite brutal looking tree trunks, that kind of thing. One of the first questions asked to me by tutor Richard Wentworth was “does it make a difference to you if this tree you’re making an image of is in the city or in a rural landscape?”. Of course I had never thought about that, it had never crossed my mind. So suddenly the context of something is important, and I realised I got quite polished at making these drawings, they were quite accomplished in a way. There was nothing really to challenge myself because I was becoming quite adept at using those tools.

1989 - Downs

So I started using a camera and making photos because I knew I wasn’t very good at working with a camera technically. So my choice of subject matter and what I made an image of was as important as my composition.

"We can change the world by making images of it"

I wasn’t making art photographs. I was just trying to deal with images, so then I started to take images from books and magazines, reuse them, and try to re-frame them in some way.

I slowly started to try and make works about images, and I realised that interested me in art. How we relate to the world, through depictions of it, and how those images change the way we see - how we can change the world by making images of it, and that slippery relationship that the image has to the real world.

So using appropriated images that people have already made of the real world, with prejudices, beliefs, angles and trying to make something about that subject.

Mat's vast book collection

"Porn has its own little kind of cubicle"

Angel - So recontextualise?

Mat - Yes, I was using images from forensic pathology books, and images from pornography. Quite extreme imagery, things that had it’s home in places other than the art gallery. And so when you bring them in the art gallery they are charged in a different way. You can look at them in a way without the baggage that they have/ get. Porn has its own little kind of cubicle, a locked door, and the forensic pathology manual belongs in a context for studying certain conditions. When you break them into the gallery you open them up to be looked at as examples of humanity, and what humanity is at this particular stage in time.

Gresham, Austin G (1975) - A Colour Atlas Of Forensic Pathology

These pathology books, like porn, and those kinds of things were the stuff that young men would pass around at the time, before, before the internet, that was a kind of way of freaking each other out. It was quite a common thing. You were learning about the world and sharing your findings with other people. So those kinds of imagery were under the table currency.

Angel - How did education impact your art? How did it shape you as an artist?

Mat - I think people used to look forward to the crits, there would be a group of between six and twelve students, and we would all bring an artwork that we made in the last few weeks, and then the tutor would open up a discussion about everyone's works in turn. So you had to justify what it was you had made.

"Quite intense little moments"

People were generally quite challenging, you know, “what the fuck have you done that for?”, so you had to be able to justify it in some way. Often it was quite a tough job to do as people were not just bringing an oil painting of a horse in a wooded landscape, it’s more like a pair of boxer shorts in resin which are standing up on their own, on the floor. “What is that? How is it art!?”. So you got to experience these quite intense little moments when all kinds of things were being argued for as being artworks - from a crappy sixteen millimetre video to a pair of boxer shorts standing up on the floor. These kinds of things. This is a very good fertile area to be experiencing so many different perspectives of what art is, or what art could be.

Angel - Was there any significant lessons you remember from your time at Goldsmiths, any aha moments?

Mat - Definitely. It’’s three years, so little by little you become more aware of what it is to try and make an artwork, what it is to look at an artwork, and to work out what it is. I think not knowing anything about art and walking into an art gallery can be quite difficult sometimes, because you are dealing with a language that has evolved over hundreds of years. But particularly the last 120 years or so, since conceptual art became a very common language, and that takes time, you can’t just pick up a book and read the history of art and understand it. There are so many subtleties to this discipline. It takes time to absorb all these different elements and everybody has a different take on it. It’s not something that you can pick up, or listen to someone explaining it and suddenly get it.

"It falls into the category of exploitation and outrage"

But there are definitely certain things that people said that were of use. I started using the material from forensic pathology magazines, which is quite a hard core material, and my tutor Michael Craig Martin said to me, “you know you’ve got to be a little bit careful? Because there’s a point at which certain materials cease to be interesting for an artwork and it falls into the category of exploitation and outrage. At that point you can’t really absorb it. It’s no longer possible for it to be used in an art context”. He gave an example; they had a tutorial with a young chap and went up to a little viewing room, to see the work that he had created that morning. There was a dartboard, and into the dartboard there had been pushed some very long sharp shards of glass. Impaled on these sharp shards of glass were recently dead puppies which he had killed by impaling them on the glass. They were still warm and bleeding onto the floor. He gave that as an example of something so extreme it’s impossible to really absorb it as an artwork.

I didn’t really have the intention to do anything like that with puppies, there is a limit. It’s not a moral or ethical one, but at that point it becomes beyond something that you can deal with in a way that’s interesting, because it becomes interesting for so many other reasons which are not art based.

"You don’t want to hold back too far"

That was a lesson that I thought was quite good about trying to construct certain barriers, because art is such a nebulous thing, it’s quite difficult to talk about a lot of the time. The reason you are making art is because it can’t be expressed in any other language. It’s about the material, the scale, the content, and all these different elements.

Angel - I had a tutorial with Dexter Dalwood once and he suggested I should go to the edge with my work, but warned not to go over it!

Mat - Yes it’s the same thing, you want to go close to the edge but you don’t want to hold back too far. So something that is teetering on that edge is usually of interest, but if it’s too far either way then it ceases.

Photo by James Thornton -

To see more of Mat's work go to his website -

Click below for part two where Mat talks about the legendary Freeze exhibition, being forced out of a studio by a bunch of thugs and how his career went international.

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