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As a founding member of Team Response, D.C.’s celebrated squad of art-world pranksters, Matthew Sutton skewered the city. A bad breakup with his creative collaborators later led him into an artistic reclusion, but—after ditching artmaking altogether for more than a year—Sutton has returned with work that’s a cerebral and nearly object-free distillation of the stuff from his brat-pack days.
The Columbia Heights resident’s artistic career began in 2002, when the Team Response trio of freshly minted Corcoran undergrads Jason Balicki, Justin Barrows, and Sutton lit into the city with a series of impish conceptual artworks. These were met with wide-ranging acclaim from the arts media, and within a year, the three were back where they started: at the Corcoran—but, this time around, as invited artists.
“We were always surprised at the reception. We didn’t expect anybody to ever pay attention to what we were doing,” Sutton says, “though sometimes we’d get pissed off when they weren’t.”
Some projects that Sutton, 27, executed with Team Response would be difficult not to notice. In a 2003 guerrilla performance, each member of the group emptied a bottle of Gucci’s Envy cologne onto his person before entering Fusebox Gallery during a crowded reception (for a different artist who was actually exhibiting). The three were—wait for it—reeking of envy.
“There were all these other strata of meaning there—oh, it’s situationist, it’s terroristic, it’s all these things—but it’s really about the word ‘envy,’ ” Sutton says. “For me, anyway.Maybe not the other guys—we all have our own meanings.”
The artists have taken those meanings their separate ways. Having crested early with a group show at the Corcoran—and racking up incredible debt doing so—the band called it quits. Balicki has moved on to New York; Barrows works in construction in Greenbelt. This year, Sutton was tapped for gogo art projects, a new incubation project by Conner Contemporary Art. Induction into Conner’s minor league doesn’t guarantee solo shows, but it does offer interaction between artists, online exhibitions, curated group shows, and inclusion in international art fairs.
“Younger artists who are more conceptual need more time to develop and not have that sense of needing to produce something to sell,” Conner Contemporary Art Director Leigh Conner says. “It’s more essential for an artist like Matt to get critical feedback rather than market feedback.”
For a January group show at Conner, Sutton contributed A General Inventory of CVS Recalled From Memory, a piece consisting of two spiral notebooks, every page covered in his scrawl. As the title puts it, the artist memorized as best he was able the contents of an entire drugstore and then committed them to the page—aisle by aisle, product by product. His notes include placeholders for instances in which Sutton recalls that a brand is missing but can’t fill the gap.
Recalling Yoko Ono’s “Grapefruit,” a series of executable project instructions, Sutton’s General Inventory explores a concept that’s simple in summary but exhaustive in execution. His more recent works fall into the same category: “videobooks,” miniDV recordings of himself reading texts in hopes of examining the tedium and kitsch of audiobooks. Sutton began with Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull; a recording of the artist reading the novel will debut at the Scope Art Fair in Miami this month.
According to Conner, Sutton’s solo work bears some similarities to his previous group efforts. “Like a lot of [Team Response] ideas, some of his ideas have been one-liners. But the concepts have continued to evolve,” she says. “Other artists have chosen to read books, and Sutton’s thinking through why and how he wants to do this.”
“I have a loose list, a nebulous list of things—Montaigne essays, Conrad shorts,” Sutton says of his plans for the project. “I did Madison’s ‘Federalist 47’ and Roland Barthes’ ‘Plastic’ from Mythologies. It could be any kind of text.” Sutton considers text to be a “binding concern” in his works, though he shies away from “the preciousness of text, through the formal fetishization of the word object—the artifice involved in generating it and fabricating it. With me, it’s language more than instances of text, the way the mind relates to the world.”
Most of his works still exist in text form—that is, as notes to himself or instructions for future projects. “Your own mental architecture—how do you approach the problem? How do I remember, itemize, create a taxonomy for this experience? The actual permutation of it is a monster,” Sutton says. “The CVS notebook was just as satisfying to me as a concept before I even sat down and did it.”
But capturing a concept on paper doesn’t necessarily make it go away. “I forgot Altoids—how did I forget that?” the artist says, exasperated. “Cinnamon, regular. I could keep adding to that.”