The cover of the March/April 2014 issue of Orion features “Rachel’s Wave,” a collage by artist Matthew Cusick. Learn more about Matthew and his work in collage, paint, ink, and video at his website.
“Rachel’s Wave” is built from careful cuttings of what appears to be a world atlas. What about the atlas suggested itself to you in terms of creating this image?
About thirteen years ago I started experimenting with maps and atlases lying around my studio. I discovered that maps had all the properties of a brushstroke—nuance, density, line, movement, color—and their palettes are deliberate and symbolic. They function as a cognitive mechanism to help us internalize the external. And since each map fragment is an index of a specific place and time, I realized I could combine fragments from different maps and construct geographic timelines within my paintings.
You’ve used cuttings from maps to unique effect in your other work, too. Have maps always been your medium, or have you experimented with more traditional tools as well?
Before maps, I used a painting technique that involved cutting stencils directly on to panels and then brushing or pouring enamels. The subject matter was similar, but the flat stenciled shapes were much more traditional and relied upon certain conventions of painting. Now I’m more interested in using material that has content embedded in it and can be manipulated to become a surrogate for paint.
What does it take to create an image like “Rachel’s Wave”? How much time and material is required?
Compared to some of the struggles and revisions that other works have demanded, “Rachel” was relatively effortless. It still demanded around two hundred hours of work, but it felt like less than that. Some pieces will start to approach three hundred hours of work, and at that point the labor of love begins to challenge my patience.
Do you feel the medium (the map) and the image (the wave) intersect somehow? Are they in conversation with one another?
I started working with waves early in my career, while I was making paintings of natural disasters. Yet very few people made the connection between the image of the wave and the theme of natural disasters. I came away realizing that an image of a wave, no matter how threatening, could never only be a symbol of destruction. A wave embodies the most powerful and unstoppable force of nature, yet somehow also radiates serenity and beauty. I suppose it was this iconic ambiguity that captivated me most; but the translation of the icon and its many meanings into paint remained an enormous challenge.
Once I started working with maps, I returned to the wave image, and the intersection immediately became more harmonious, emotional, and cerebral. The ocean is a place of great mystery; it’s an alternative reality, a place we can visit only temporarily. Seeing a wave composed of maps elicits a reaction that resonates deeply with people, possibly because learning to navigate the oceans is how we came to know the world and, consequently, map it. The fragmented maps from which my waves are made reconfigure the world and suggest alternative histories; they remind us that life is a work in progress and that things change.
Another reason I find the pairing of maps and waves so compelling is simply because a wave can encompass all the variations and shades of blue used by cartographers to represent the ocean. The wave becomes an archive, or compendium, of blue. For a painter, finding such a rich vehicle to express color is very exciting.
The intricacy of “Rachel’s Wave” in combination with its scope and form seems to suggest a comprehensive power, an almost geologic force. What feeling does the image inspire in you? Do you wish the same for its viewers?
With “Rachel’s Wave,” I had the advantage of using as my material the cartographic representations that have shaped our cognitive perception of the world. Ever since the first map was drawn, humanity has relied on the information they convey and preserve in order to orient and facilitate travels and conquests. So, in this sense, a map is one of our most enduring, necessary, and powerful tools.
Yet the feeling of dominance over the world that maps encourage can be misleading and dangerous. The world will always evolve in unpredictable ways. And the truth is that we are—and always will be—dominated by the forces of nature. I think “Rachel’s Wave” speaks to this notion.
As for other viewers, I always wish that people will see certain elements in my work that are intentional. But I also want the work to take on a life of its own; I want viewers to find unique interpretations and broaden the scope of its meaning. With luck, they’ll enlighten even my own understanding.