A Crusade in Clay

Working with, and watching Matt Wedel when he was a graduate student at California State University, Long Beach, I often thought he seemed like he could be a character from the world he creates-a wiry and boyish young man, of far greater strength and stamina than his outward appearance might suggest, tirelessly laboring to bring a mythic world of fantastic creatures, children who grow large but don't seem to grow up, and a visionary landscape, to life by forming it all from clay.

I imagine Matt, having himself grown up with wide open spaces in which to wander and wonder, and with a potter for a father who day-in-day-out turned lumps of mud into somethings, responding to clay in a way not unlike how Gepetto, responding to a voice heard calling from within a log, carved the doll/boy Pinocchio. Matt is the kin, in spirit and ambition, of Pygmalion, who sculpted a woman, Galatea, so beautiful as to be worthy of his love, and in the eyes of Venus, worthy of being brought to life. Matt is the creative descendent of Hephasesus, who created automatons to help him run his forge, and who, at the behests of Zeus, created Talos, a bronze giant, to protect the Isle of Crete from invaders, and formed Pandora from clay that she might unleash divine punishment (human evil) upon humankind. Matt's aspirations seem little different from the Old Testament God who fashioned Adam from the dirt, and Matt's talents would rouse the envy of Daedalus, the great mythic artificer who created a hollow wooden cow for Pasiphaë, the Queen of Minos, so she might hide within it and seduce a bull to mate with her. The same Daedalus later built the labyrinth necessary to imprison the Minotaur born of Pasiphaë's unconventional union, and when he himself was imprisoned by King Minos, Daedalus assembled the wings by which he found his escape while his more famous son Icarus flew high enough to fall to his fate.

Purporting to describe an ancient painting of Daedalus in his studio, Philostratus the Elder wrote of a scene with Daedalus at work on Pasiphaë's cow costume while surrounded by "statues, some with forms blocked out, others in a quite complete state in that they are already stepping forward and give promise of walking about." A retelling of a painting, perhaps actual or imagined, inspired by an epic tale, no other word-image arises in my mind as worthy of comparison with my memory of Matt-as prolific a sculptor as I have ever met-fashioning the flora, fauna and humanity of his world, while his completed works multiplied around him in his studio and in the adjacent spaces and work yards he gradually annexed with what became something of an occupying army. His army just happened to comprise vividly colored oversized children, undersized livestock, imaginary creatures and otherworldly-looking, stage-prop-like outcroppings of rock, and upthrusts of vegetation.

So able, so prolific was Daedalus, and so in demand to provide the props and costumes for the mythic theater surrounding him, that without his creations, we wouldn't have some of the greatest hits of classical myth. And without the fabled creative urges and ingenuity of Daedalus, and Pygmalion, and Gepetto, and Hephasesus, and the God of the Old Testament, we wouldn't have some of the few stories that continue to resonate in a world that has largely lost grasp of the purpose and pleasure of metaphor and myth-tending to view them with disregard, or as points of entry into fundamentalisms that no longer raise questions but rather beg them.

While in my fantasy, I imagine Matt working in his studio, waiting for the day when his plants will sway in the wind, or one of his animals will spring into action, or one of his children will call his name, I understand that such is the sort of thing that might happen in the mythic world he creates-the sort of thing that might happen in Gepetto's doll shop, or in Pygmailon's studio-but not in Matt's sphere of operation. Unlike Matt, Gepetto and Pygmalion did not study at the Art Institute of Chicago, or at the university where I got to know Matt, and did not participate in the discourse of sculpture that has shaped Matt as much as the alfalfa fields and potter's studio that sparked his childhood imagination. While one can't look at Matt's work for more than a moment without figuring that he enjoys exercising a capacity for fantasy that society blunts in most of us well before adulthood, there's no doubt that Matt is a knowing and sophisticated young artist, less lost in fantasy than astute about it, and valiant in its defense.

Matt is a crusader, not for the insistence that myth and metaphor be taken as law and fact and be seen as threatened or valueless if they aren't, but for the insistence that myth and metaphor be allowed to tell us of their world, and tell us something about our world, on their own terms. And the occupying army he is forming to help him in this crusade-that is growing at such an alarming rate as to make one wonder, given Matt's youth, if one day those of us not made of clay might begin to feel in the minority-is an army of metaphors for the crusade itself.

Christopher Miles
Los Angeles