Dispatch from RISE/SET with Matt Wessen

Matt Wessen (born in Los Angeles in 1982) is a photographer, filmmaker, and art director currently based in Ojai, California. In his current Compound YV exhibition, Rise/Set, Wessen captures the moods and movements of two occurrences we all have the opportunity to witness every day: the sunrise and the sunset. Typically thought of as either impossible to capture in a way that’s true to the experience — or else clichéd and sentimental — Wessen instead uses abstraction to organize this daily ritual into a show that is colorful, bold and graphic, more akin to a PANTONE color book than nature photography. Matt and C.YV Program Director, Caroline Partamian, chatted via Zoom as Caroline spent time in the gallery with Matt’s work. 



Episode Transcript

Welcome to Art Personals, a podcast made by Compound Yucca Valley, an art and event space in California’s high desert. 

Today, we’ve invited Matt Wessen for an interview with me, Caroline Partamian, Program Director here at Compound. We are currently exhibiting a series of Matt’s photographs in an exhibition called Rise/Set. In this show, Wessen captures the moods and movements of two occurrences we all have the opportunity to witness every day: the sunrise and the sunset. Typically thought of as either impossible to capture in a way that’s true to the experience — or else clichéd and sentimental — Wessen instead uses abstraction to organize this daily ritual into a show that is colorful, bold and graphic, more akin to a PANTONE color book than nature photography. Born in Los Angeles in 1982, but currently based in Ojai, Matt and I chatted via Zoom as I spent time in the gallery with his work.


Caroline: I wanted to ask you a little bit of a tuning question. Could you tell me a little bit about where you are right now? I know you're in Ojai, but like the room that you're sitting in, is there something in that room that's pretty special to you in any way, or it maybe like stands out a little bit differently at this moment in time than anything else in that room?

Matt: Let me see. Yeah, hold on. I'll get it.  It's a photograph of my grandfather Louis, uh, smoking cigarette, uh, in around 1944. Uh, US Army before going to the South Pacific. He's just wearing the, like button down, full length. Uh, canvas. I assume it's a green or tan military. Uh, non formal.  I know that in the South Pacific they either ran tan or green, the light green or tan and uh, yeah. 

He is my grandfather, but um, he was a really accomplished photographer and basically, had the opportunity to run the creative marketing and photographic division of United Airlines in the heyday of like the golden era of flight. 

And my grandmother, uh, she didn't want to leave Bakersfield and originally Avenal, which is like even like a small town outside of Bakersfield, California. And so he ended up like just working on the oil field and just like never left, kind of the small town thing. Um, so. Just as a motivation of just like kind of carrying, trying to carry on the, uh, the creative element that he had and then him not being able to like fully, um, do that. I mean, I don't know. It's hard to, hard to think about that he wasn't able to move to San Francisco and like, basically, you know, be part of that whole scene. And he just stayed in like a small farm town, you know, and worked on the oil field. So anyways, it's just a photo of him and he died when I was young.

And yeah, I mean, I kind of got that part, um, from him. I mean, he has his own dark room, did all his own development and all that. But, my brother got my grandmother and she was a crazy musician and he's in the band and he does music and he did the whole, still in the band doing all the like world tour stuff.

So it's kinda interesting how the bloodlines from two different families kind of  cross and my grandmother was like a flapper in the twenties and stuff, you know, like, so she was like part of that whole scene, um, in the thirties,  and then my son is named Louis after that.

This here too, I mean, it's not my favorite one, but it's a super8 camera. Um, that, uh, I did a lot of my life's work when I was in my, maybe like 19 years old through mid thirties, shot like a lot of 8mm.

And then it's more, I guess, complicated now because it's a, a tool that's like kind of more widely used in the commercial setting. Um, so I don't really use it as much. And a lot of the film stocks were discontinued by Kodak, uh, due to either people didn't want it, demand, budget cuts, chemical, uh, like Kodachrome, they don't make anymore.

So there was only the vision, the Vision and the Triax and then they just came out with like a new Ektachrome. So, but anyways, yeah, I mean I really like shooting motion picture. Made a lot of small films and medium and full length films, uh, in my earlier part of creative world, I guess.

Caroline: Thanks for sharing that with me. It's 

Matt: Of course!

Caroline: Really special to learn also about your grandfather being named Louis, and then just like the trajectory, I would love to know more about kind of when the first time you knew that photography was a medium that spoke to you, whether that was via Louis, or maybe it was a specific piece that you saw, like a specific photograph that really spoke to you. But I would love to know more about like the history of like the first time you knew this is what I'm gonna spend a lot of my time and my life doing and focusing on.

Matt: Well, it started out actually with my neighbor when I was growing up named Logan Shinto. And we started shooting things, people and stuff. And it was more like youthful things, uh, more of in a derelict fashion. Um, We really liked filming things, so I think that photography was second to, uh, motion actually. Um, and then out of high school, we both moved to Hawaii and tried to go to school. I didn't, um, I think he did mostly or finished, I'm not sure. And we came back and, uh, my friend Charlie.  He was living in Australia and he shot some things. Um, and basically we made a movie, named Hooligans, Logan and I, and, and his brother Blake. And then we had a premiere at the Laemmle Theatre on Second Street in Santa Monica. And it was really, A nice evening, a nice success sold out and everything. It was all wild and people doing drugs and theater and smoking and you know, we were like 18, 19 and it was like a cross section of like teenage youth anarchy and like parents that were shocked at the, uh, behavior. So it was like a really fun evening.

Um, and I don't know, during the process of that film and making Hooligans. And anyway, so that, uh, that started me shooting photos and it was more of like, of the youth, kind of wild side of life moments. And I was like shooting with colored filters on regular 35mm film.

And I don't know, just kind of doing things like that time, even though I went on to move to Santa Barbara, go to City College, then to Brooks, um, that batch of imagery was actually how I got like into shooting for people and doing projects and things.

But that time, that particular time, Of shooting like that batch when I worked with a woman named Sophie Howard, um, who represented me for a long time, that's how kind of I got out of all the shots that I had shot  like almost 10 years after that. That was the batch that she went out and got me jobs from. So it all kind of is stems from that I guess, that 19 year old idea of trying to depict life in a slightly different, uh, shade, I guess. 

Caroline: One of the quotes that we pulled to build a statement for your show was by Sam Francis, American Painter. Um, and I wanted to just see how you would respond to it and like how it, how it resonates with you. But I'll just read the quote. " Color is born of the interpenetration of light and dark."  And I wanted to just ask about lighting and darkness and how that sort of influenced, you know, especially the show that we have currently here in Compound, Rise/Set, where there's so much play with light and dark and like the circadian rhythms of different times of day and being able to shoot that, but it like kind of resonates and sits in and you just like let the viewer ruminate on like the light and dark before they really realize it's actually like sunrise and sunsets. Like  the playfulness between light and dark is what is really most captivating to me, I feel like about mm-hmm. the show. And so I wanted to ask you how is it playful for you? Like how does light and darkness play into your, um, you know, videographic and filmographic and photographic work.

Matt: Well, I would say that the, I mean, regarding just the show itself is if anyone has traveled a lot, there are just certain ways that certain places at certain times of year have a certain color. And obviously the farther you move away from the equator, the more dramatic and shorter those certain times are. You know, so for me it's like in, uh, Southwest France, it's almost the same as like the LA color spectrum at that same time in October. And the show is really based upon a certain light and atmospheric conditions that happen usually once a year or twice a year and that like middle October through middle of November time period, and like this year we're not gonna get it. For some reason it's cold. I just called, been talking to all my friends and like, Why is there no, no wind and  none of that light this year. It's strange, strange year, but you typically, we get a certain type of conditions and then within that conditions and within the wind there's like particulate that gets like taken from the dust and the deserts and the things and the smog and whatever, and funnels through the canyons. And then, and then, so when the, the light's projected, uh, at the end of the day, in the beginning of the day, I guess some of it is shot midday, a few pieces, but there is like a seemingly more depth or tangibility in the color in that time of year because there is actually all the air movement with particulates so that the, there is a more of a density in the color rather than if I were to take it even on the same day with the same color, without the particulate in the air, then it would still feel like a flat image. And I think it's something that I've always wanted to show and I shot it like over a decade ago, having to just be those perfect days where there wasn't like one part of the sky that had one drop of moisture in it. It's like almost, you know, obviously we can't live at 0% humidity, but the humidity was probably like at 7% or something. You know, 5% maybe, where it's like almost like your skin's cracking, like that kind of air, you know, and it's moving fast. Like the wind's maybe blowing like 35, 40. And then from a higher, higher vantage point, most of the photographs are taken. so yeah, I mean, it's been something that's, I'm always freaked out about the weather and, and meteorology and just the whole process of how the ocean and, and the sky and how things kind of all meet up together. and those conditions maybe last for like maybe a day and a half. 

And a lot of times that even if you have the conditions, you still have clouds. Weirdly. You'll have high, high stratospheric clouds or, or something. There, there, it's not always like even within the conditions that you have, like the right angle of the sun and like in the summer it's more of a white light, you know? And in the, in the fall, in the winter, it's like more of like a yellow. It's the way that the like sun angles on the earth, you know? But in the winter becomes more like cool, more into like the blue tone and like the fall is like the only time your, where has that like yellow. So the color is more dramatic with that, you know, infusion of that Pantone or hue.

Caroline: I mean, it's a very beautiful and like obvious attention to detail with the light in this show. That is just really nice. Um, and very interesting to kind of hear you go through like each season and point out different elements of like what the color spectrum would match up to like that specific season too.

Matt: And I think with wave Pattern, there's just like an emotion to that type of like days that happen, right? It, it creates this, uh, symmetry and things that like only you see within the water texture when the water in the air moving like that happens. So it's kind of like this emotional thing to that, like the feeling of being in that wind and, it has that certain texture and feeling and sound, you know, And the beach is, naturally combed where it's like, you're like the first like virgin footstep or something, you know, as you're like running towards the sea. So it all is like part of that. It like all has that like kind of reference point to that. Whereas like the winter is kind of cold and more lonely depending where you are and, and the summer is more crowded and joyful. You know, and the spring is like birth, and then that's like kind of like an animal nature, right? And relationships and everything else. It's like, you know, like in the fall you're like, kind of like a feeling of trying to find a mate to like have down for the, winter and then the spring comes, you're kinda like, I don't know if I wanna, you know, like whatever, you know, So I wanna be free at summer. You know, So I think that's like, that's all like part of the, like that same like cyclical nature.  And it was like really nice to work with you and Mike and Lara to um, be able to show the show. 

Caroline: Thank you for showing it here and I mean that's something else I wanted to ask about and something that I appreciate about your practice too is because the first time I learned, cause I know you have your own artistic practice, but it's something that I see similar with, with my trajectories. I have my artistic practice, but I have a curatorial practice as well, which has you know, beautifully built my community of artists that have become close to me. And so I know that the first time you ever, um, showed at Compound, you included some of your work, but you also curated a show back in 2018 called LA County with a group of artists here. 

Matt: Yes. 

Caroline: So I wanted to ask a little bit about, your community, um, you know, through the practice of curating shows also over the last decade or so and how that has influenced your artistic practice and like, you know, who some of the artists are in that community from curating shows or just building your practice, who really inspired your own artistic and curatorial practice. 

Matt: Well, I think, um, obviously being able to spend time with, with, uh, people that are, that have gone through it, traveled through time a lot longer. They kind of pass on things. You might have taken you like another 20 or 30 years to even understand what that was. And then they like kind of turn you onto that and then you're able to like redirect your trajectory just slightly. But maybe you're gonna get to where you kind of want to go differently, faster, better, more aware than, than you would've without their help.

Even though the art or the creative might have been the same, you know, the way and why you do it is maybe different. Basically the story is, is uh, I had an opportunity to show in, uh, Tokyo, like almost 10 years ago. I think it's like seven or eight years ago now. Um, I was doing some residency things, kind of just some concepts, and a guy named Skip Engblom who was the co-founder of DogTown with Craig Stecyk right. Those are like the two main guys with Jeff Ho, who also shaped the board. So it was kinda like the three of them were all like, you know, and, uh, Craig Stecyk obviously legendary, uh, artist and writer, and cultural icon. And Jeff Ho does incredible work with surfboards and Skip was like kind of, uh, a poet that not really a lot of people know about. And also like another marketing kind of genius person who saw potential in this youth culture and whatnot. And they kind of changed culture as a group.

And also I remember seeing DogTown for the first time at the Laemmle Theatre. And then being able to work with Skip, who was working at Aquatech with Scott Anderson, um, who passed away, a couple years ago. Tragic, another great iconic shaper, artist. A lot of people, didn't know how talented, uh, he was and being able to facilitate a lot more than just surfboards.

Um, and I walked in and was like, Hey, can we kind of try this stuff? And, and so every week, uh, for like two months we'd come in and do these pieces and work on it. And by the end, I felt that my work with Skip, was kind of a team effort. It like, certainly wasn't just mine, you know, So I, I personally felt awkward, going to Japan without at least offering him like, Hey, do you want to go to Japan to the show?

And we do this thing together and see what happens. And so I go, you know, do you want to go, do you want maybe go to Japan or whatever. Um, I think he must have been like 69 or 70, so it was, obviously it'd be a big trip, you know, to be able to do that. So anyways, talk to his wife, Martha, great lady. Um, she's like, Okay, go. And so we went to Tokyo together. And I had this great experience into the show, and, and that was kind of like the beginning of like the collaborative, like actually going for it I guess. That was the first time I've actually like, you know, kind of teaming up in that kind of fashion, you know.

Um, and so that was kinda the start. And so when I got home, we went to Japan again and we started doing shows and I worked with my wife Anna, who was super amazing with trying to get all that other stuff rather than just the talk. And she's a great writer and being able to write all the, different parts that you need for the show and the one-page and the stuff that goes on the wall and all of the, you know, website and, all the digital correspond, you know, that whole part, that kind of is the way, that's actually the way the world works and the curatorial is just what the world sees, you know, kind of, they're kind of needing both and it's hard to be both. I've found. It's hard to describe your, like  your own work, I guess is, is sometimes difficult, at least for me personally. So, yeah, and then that was going really, really well. Uh, and then basically COVID hit. And then that was just like, what do we do? We kind of worked five years straight to try and make that happen.

And then everything got canceled. So anyways, we moved North Carolina, Louis came into the picture. And now we're in, in Ojai. 

Caroline: Speaking of Louie, I know that, ‘cause I wanted to ask as kind of like a closing question, what your next big upcoming projects that you hope to, to see in the coming years? And I know that could be sort of a, like a nonsensical question because I feel like asking what the goal is kind of an overwhelming question that doesn't need to be asked, 'cause things just do happen organically. 

Matt: Sure. 

Caroline: Um, and I know that being a parent, like that's just a huge full-time project in and of itself. But artistically, I mean, feel free to answer this any which way you want to, but like for yourself, what do you foresee that we could look for in the coming years? Or if that's not a, a generative question, then what is exciting you right now, um, that you're either just checking out or absorbing? 

Matt: Well, I mean, I think the difficulty I've had trying to do things is I have a, I'm, you know, seemingly a hundred years' worth of projects and like doing this show alone, it feels like lonely, weirdly, cuz it's usually always collaborative. It's always trying to work together. So this has been really exciting in a way and nervous to be able to ever show, like anything personal alone. Uh, so during the pandemic I was fortunate enough to work, um, and art direct the Morning of the Earth book and make a film. Uh, With a guy named Jonah Reimers and my brother did the music. Bradford, um, some other people, Bradford's crew and my brother's crew, Ryan Raven, Max St. John. So, I mean, I really have a love for, uh, bookmaking. So there is a few books that are, you know, in the pipeline right now, but with global shipping and costs of materials, it's kinda, we're trying to navigate those waters right now. And trying to figure out how to make that work. 

And filmmaking. There's some, some things and, with personal stuff, you know? Yes. Um, there's a few things coming up in the future that are personal and, and collaborative. I mean, that's what I really love a lot, um, be able to participate with people. I think it's just as, to me it's just like nurturing for the soul. Like actually has like an emotional process internally before the public even sees it. I think that's always really satisfying, personally.

But having a 15 month old and a full-time job and two part-time jobs, um, I think that sometimes I've found that right now, it's just personally hard to like, get anywhere. You know, like I could have more time, work all night on my own stuff and do my own work. Be personal about things or like work with books or whatever that are more like, compartmentalized. But if you feel curatorial, the curatorial process is, you know, it's something that you gotta like see that artist and feel the like vibe. It can't be a Skype thing. You can't just like hold the camera.

I mean you can, but I feel like that, that both energies in the same room, talking about life not having a time limit on that time spent with them. Or how many meetings it takes, I think ultimately is what gives you the show or the results that you want. Um, at least I've found. I would like to do is, is the group curatorial things as I really loved, and it was really emotionally hard. 

The whole pandemic shut down. Because like just most of the people I were working with were like 60 plus,  if not 70 plus. So all of a sudden now it's just like the fear of spread and contagion and if they get it, and if this happens then, you know, this is like, that whole thing was not only like trying to be safe, but then just they're in that age group.

I don't know, it's a process, but it's, it's something that I've done since I've been young starting the film with Logan when we were like 15, you know, and now I'm 40, so I dunno. I think it's just, to me it's just really beginning and just trying to hold onto each one of those lanes and try and just focus and just keep, keep going. 

And I think that time does move differently for our generation than their generation. I think that's what I found interesting is that I look at a lot of the older generations and I'm like, Wow, you guys live like 10 lifetimes to our lifetime.  they were able to achieve so many milestones that I feel like our lives moved so much faster and they were able to spend so much more time at each one of those milestones, whereas it just seems the world moves faster so we don't have seemingly as much time to create as they did. I, maybe that's our digital, uh, you know, plug in and all these different things, but I, I think that that's an inspiration I'm trying to, um, trying to hold onto cause it's easy to get lost in time, you know? 

Caroline: It's like such a nice, beautiful 360 back to just thinking about your grandfather's timeline and, you know, closing on this note of how the world moves so much faster now, but like, the output that we have is perhaps a little bit less, but it really is like to each their own time and like just the accumulation of things is, is yeah, it looks different from generation to generation.

Matt: I think I showed you the picture in the beginning because he was never able to like achieve that, uh, creative, height that maybe he wanted to. Right. And I was too young to ever ask him. He died when I was like seven, you know? So I couldn't even ask the idea of what creatively he was unable to achieve. You know, I only hear it through my mother, but I know that she has like a, an emotion towards that non-ability to finish that, that to me was always resonating how, like he wasn't able to finish that because of, you know, circumstances. So I think that regardless of what it takes to keep going, you know, that like there's that um, wanting to fulfill part of his inability to make it happen. So you know, a fire that's always lit. 


Thanks for listening to Art Personals, a podcast produced by Compound Yucca Valley. You have been listening to Matt Wessen in an interview with me, Caroline Partamian, Program Director at Compound. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please consider supporting this artist whose prints you can find over on our website at compoundyv.com

You can learn more about Compound YV and stay tuned for future episodes over at our website and our instagram @compoundyv. 

Art Personals is produced by Lara Wilson, Caroline Partamian, and Michael Townsend in collaboration with our artists. 

This episode was mixed and edited by our gallery associate, Emiliano Vazquez.

Original music by Ethan Primason.

We curate artwork for our virtual and physical spaces. If you are an artist interested in working with us, please send an email to hello@compoundyv.com.