The Arizona Republic | 2012
The Arizona Republic: “Artist farmer: Matthew Moore’s fields are his canvas”
By Richard Nilsen
“You haven’t asked me the inevitable question: Am I an artist or am I a farmer?”
Matthew Moore has a show up at the Phoenix Art Museum. He also has a farm in the West Valley, under the shadow of the White Tank Mountains. There, he grows an industrial crop of carrots and parsnips, among other things.
“I guess I’m a farmer.”
He is also one of the most interesting artists to come along in Arizona for quite a while.
Many artists have had day jobs, I remind him. The real question is whether the physical contact with the dirt informs his art.
“That’s the foundation of my identity,” he says. “There’s that saying, once you get dirt under your fingernails, you can’t get it out.
“I truly do feel I have this permanent connection with the land because it made me who I am today, and it also informs my whole dialogue of the loss and the land.”
His family has farmed that particular piece of land for four generations; yet, like most of the farms in the area, it is slowly being eaten up by housing developments.
It would be easy to be angry about that loss, but Moore takes a longer, more historical look at the issue.
“I’m always on both sides of this,” he says. “I hate to lose the land, but at the same time, 253 homes get plopped on that land, and I realized these are homes and these are families that are moving in here and living on property that we’ve had to ourselves for 70 years. But how can that be a bad thing?
“Yeah, the model is bad, and the sense of place is wrong. But those are different questions than just saying suburbia is bad.
“Just stopping the development isn’t going to solve the human condition.”
His art is about this long look. It contrasts the need to feed people with the need to house them.
“Suburbia sucks,” he says. “But you don’t just stop it. You have to come up with a model that makes sense for the transition.”
Transition to what?
“Something more sustainable, maybe.”
Have human beings ever done anything sustainable?
“Good point,” he says. “We’re not really great at it.”
Moore is best known for the art he made on his farm. Actually, art he made from his farm.
In 2005, he took a 35-acre chunk of his land and planted wheat and sorghum in alternating areas in a design that echoed the street plans of the surrounding housing development. From the air, it looked very like the tract housing.
In an earlier piece, he created a giant floor plan of a tract home by weeding lines out of a wheat field.
So, he knows how to make a crop circle?
“I do. Give me a stake and a rope and I’ll make you a really good one.”
He went to California’s Santa Clara University in 1994 to be an econ major, he says.
“I thought I was going to take over the farm. But I couldn’t keep awake; it was terrifying how bad I was. I recorded the lectures, but I fell asleep to my recordings.”
Instead, Moore, 36, found art and art history.
“I called up my dad and told him that econ thing wasn’t working out, and he said, ‘There’s nothing you could learn in school that you couldn’t learn on the farm.'”
The farm had begun with his great-grand-uncle, who raised his grandfather. His father was an aerospace engineer who looked for work in California but didn’t want to work in a cubicle, so he came back to the farm.
“We have a few hundred acres that the family owns, but we have rented up to 1,200 acres. Farming is a full-time job. You have to be out there. My dad is still around, but the farm now falls to me. The best thing about a family farm is you can’t get fired so easy,” Moore says.
One of his concerns is that most Americans are so alienated from the land that they have little sense of where their food comes from and how it is made.
“I’m fascinated by the disconnection with that whole idea,” he says. “I’m not really interested in the pastoral idea of being a farmer, but the logistics of it.
“I grow food. So I grow 200 acres of carrots and harvest 2,000 50-pound bags five days a week from Jan.15 to July15. That’s 50 tons of carrots a day. And when you go to the grocery store, do you actually see my carrots?
“How long does it take to grow a carrot? I did a film about it at Sundance last year, and when I asked, I got all kinds of answers. ‘Thirty days?’ It takes me 160 days to grow a carrot. When you’re at the store, it’s just a commodity, but start peeling back that onion and it’s endless. You sit there and think about 160 days. How much water, how much labor? Organic or non-organic, food grows in the ground and it takes time.
“If you stand in the market and think that it took half a year to grow this, will you throw it out as quickly?
“That’s a level of my artistic mission, to change the viewer’s perspective on how he views his life.
“You’re never always successful, but it’s always a good thing to try.”
The new show at the art museum is a different direction for him. He has filled up two galleries in the museum with work that explores the relationship between the current economic crisis and the Great Depression.
“You look at ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and it’s like we’re now suffering the same kind of xenophobia, the same sense of constant impending doom. The dust storms to them were an act of God, but they were self-created. It was our own farming practice and this greed, this overproduction of the land, that created the situation.
“Now we look at the stock market, and the Dow is our duster. What the hell does this mean? We don’t know, but it’s in control of everything. It’s the man behind the curtain. Here comes the storm, but it’s of our own making.
“Turn on the radio and you’ll feel like crap in five minutes, because everything’s coming to an end. That’s the moment we’re living in, except that, in fact, we’ll persist.
“Phoenix loves to be the world’s most unsustainable city, and in some respects, we are. But we’re humans. We’re going to figure it out. Or we won’t.
“There’s a diary from this woman in the Dust Bowl; she kept it for four years. Everyone’s left, she writes. Every day there’s a duster. She’s living under the pressure of always sweeping away the dust and always losing the crops. And it sounds like NPR every morning: People are dying here. And at the same time, every now and then, there’s this drop of persistence. One day, it’s, ‘Let’s pack our bags, the soil’s gone’ and the next, it’s, ‘The day is beautiful, the sun is out, I would never leave this land.’
“That’s why we live in Phoenix.”
There is the moment of realization, Moore says.
“It’s like when Kurtz dies (in Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness’), and he says, ‘The horror. The horror.’ And you don’t know if it’s the evil he did or the human condition. That’s how I feel sometimes.
“Phoenix is such an interesting place, because if you get up just 40 feet, the view is amazing. And at a thousand feet, it’s abstracted to beauty.”
And so, I say, you are in between, there’s ugliness at the ground level and beauty when you step back and give it a little perspective. That makes it hard to take simple political stands, doesn’t it?
“There are so many different ways of telling us how screwed we are, but that’s low-hanging fruit. And in this political climate, it’s easier to be ‘I’m all organic’ or ‘I’m all conventional.’ ‘I’m Republican’ or ‘I’m a Democrat.’ There’s no conversation happening. And art creates this platform to explore these issues.
“There is an environmentalist who has my work on his wall, and there is a developer who has it on his wall, and they both love the work for their own reasons.”
This combination of horror and beauty is traditionally called the sublime.
“There is room for the sublime in contemporary art,” Moore says.
The sublime engenders awe. It is dangerous. It can kill you.
“But don’t ever say, ‘I want to achieve the sublime.’ In art school, you don’t want to say that. Don’t ever use the words sublime or beauty.”
He’s being ironic: Both beauty and the sublime are at the heart of Moore’s work.
Go to Morenci, I tell him. The great open-pit copper mine is utterly beautiful, yet it is also a horror.
“Right,” he says.
We’ve made our own Grand Canyon with shovels and trucks.
“But it’s beautiful. Technicolor.”
And the giant trucks are impressive.
“And how the hell do they change one of those tires?”
Moore cannot live in one place or the other alone. It is the combination that keeps his art alive.
“There was this special moment for me,” he says. He had finished his project with the wheat-and-sorghum tract-housing patterns and had hired a man to harvest the crop. They drove the harvester up and down the “roads” of wheat.
“His grandson was on the harvester. He had on overalls and a huge chew on his lip. And there’s this cellphone in his middle pocket with chew spit going down his front. He was an old, hard-living farmer guy from Buckeye, the type who might cut his finger off and keep on working. Tough as nails.
“There’s his grandson pulling into this conceptual cul-de-sac and backing out. It’s absurd.
“‘What are you doing?’ he asks, and I explained it to him, the exact same spiel I would give anyone.
“He looked it over and spit on the ground and goes, ‘I like it.'”