Purple Magazine
— The Paris Issue #31 S/S 2019

mathias kiss

mathias kiss

interview and photography by OLIVIER ZAHM
portraits by GIASCO BERTOLI

pushing the french decorative
tradition toward abstraction and
contemporary art

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you from Paris originally?
MATHIAS KISS — Yes, I am Parisian.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s your relationship to the city? Do you like Paris?
MATHIAS KISS — I have a symbiotic relation with Paris. Paris leads me back to the cultural and historical dimensions that are obviously part of my work. I began working when I was 14, with all the trauma that entails. I trained as a painter-glazier. I was doing restoration for historical monuments. From 14 on, I worked at the Comédie-Française, the Opéra Garnier, the Louvre, the Council of State, the Constitutional Council…

OLIVIER ZAHM — What exactly were you doing there?
MATHIAS KISS — I was restoring moldings, walls, and architectural elements. At the Louvre, for instance, there was a damaged and tarnished 300-year-old molding. It had to be restored, coated, and gilded again to make it flashy. Then it had to be dirtied again so it could match the browning of the adjacent molding. I’ll admit I used to play hide-and-seek in the museum, throw sponges around. I was 16, and I had the whole Louvre to myself. I’d do handstands, goof around the scaffolds! I’d mess around, climb on the roof, befriend the guards so they’d let me into the basements at the Louvre… I would go down into the bowels of the city. It was incredible.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were trained to restore the “riches of the Republic,” as they say. And you gained expertise in restoring historical monuments in the styles that fashioned the history of ornament.
MATHIAS KISS — Exactly. With a historical, old-fashioned, and traditional thrust. Restoration is the opposite of creation. But I owe everything to the Compagnons [a craftworkers’ guild that trains young people in manual trades]. And I’m glad to have learned from their expertise — it’s cultural and traditional know-how that is disappearing today. Granted, I’m totally against that tradition. But Paris is still my primary source material. Its decorative system, dust, skies, roofs, museums, townhouses, the French Republic’s buildings, with their romanticism, too. But when you’re a kid, bored at the Louvre, redecorating a 500-foot-long molding, you ask yourself: “Is this for real? How long do I have to keep doing this?”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it a very disciplined world? Was the training difficult?
MATHIAS KISS — When you become a Compagnon, you enter the fraternity as a young person, and you’re isolated from the outside world. It’s a clan, a family. And it’s only men… There’s a spirit of solidarity. It’s very corporatist. People grow together. And there’s a very particular language. For example, they’d say: “Ah, well, you’re all out of luck. You’re the mortician today!” You’d have to go represent the company at the Père Lachaise cemetery, wearing a Compagnon uniform, to take care of the old Compagnons’ tombs. It was crazy! And people drank a lot in that group. And there were no real safety standards — someone would die each day in the building, and every night some guy wouldn’t come home. You’d ask where the bathroom was, and it was just a plastic bag at the back of the construction site. With the Compagnons, first you’d learn how to sweep, and once you knew how to sweep, you’d learn to collect the trash, etc. You wouldn’t get your start gilding at the Louvre!

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you join this artisanal apprenticeship? Because of trouble at school? Or was it something you wanted to do?
MATHIAS KISS — Because I was socially marginalized. Because of family problems. I screwed around a little in school… They put me in juvenile detention in fifth grade. I got kicked out of school in the middle of eighth grade because of my bad behavior. Schools didn’t want me. I had to appear in front of a committee for troubled youth. They steered me toward apprenticeship.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This was during the 1980s, that kind of hip moment — I’m sure it wasn’t easy for a young Parisian…
MATHIAS KISS — In the 1980s, the Minitel was just gearing up. All my friends wanted to go into advertising, or fashion, or graphic design. They wanted to make magazines. No one was really interested in manual work anymore. And painting buildings was the most denigrated job.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Today, artisanal work has become fashionable.
MATHIAS KISS — It interests people, but it’s all a lot of talk. In reality, no one is really doing anything to preserve these professions. Say you’ve had a neighborhood upholsterer for the past 10 years. One day, someone tells me, “It’s too bad, the upholsterer closed, now it’s a Zadig & Voltaire shop.” I should have given him some business. Artisanal work is reassuring during moments of crisis — it’s a little bit folksy, romantic. But in reality, no one lifts a finger for their neighborhood artisan.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In hindsight, are you pleased with your training?
MATHIAS KISS — At the time, I didn’t have much of a choice. I was very angry, and I found it unfair. I had five weeks of vacation a year. It was like watching people my age through a window, and I couldn’t access it. It was impossible to meet a girl. I was never invited to anything, I never went to a party, I was completely marginalized. That’s when I started competitive boxing. It was a real palliative.

OLIVIER ZAHM — To free yourself?
MATHIAS KISS — Yes, and for my self-esteem, so I could shine. I started in 1987. Boxing was a way of existing in the short term. It was a kind of fantasy, a way to have an audience.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you go on to become a serious boxer?
MATHIAS KISS — I was very, very good! I won all the time! That was another life. I could have become a professional. But at a certain point, my real job took over from sports. I recently did a performance with Patrice Quarteron, who is a world champion. Look at this photo — that’s me in the blue shorts. And this was in Bangkok, I was 25 years old. Crazy, no? I would go boxing there a lot.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But those difficult apprenticeship years were actually your artistic formation, your art school?
MATHIAS KISS — I worked in an environment that was at once historical and completely decorative. Inevitably, I had to confront the power of history, of heritage. And very quickly, I wanted to do everything. To learn everything. My first desire was to be free, not to have a boss, to be independent. There are building painters, and there are decorative painters, who gild, paint trompe l’oeil skies, faux marble, etc. I moved from one job to the other. I also did varnishing, wiring. I wanted to learn to do everything. They would send us to work in embassies abroad. I went to Portugal, for instance, to the Santos Palace, which is the French Embassy. Whenever the least thing happened, they needed people who could coat, paint, gild, and then varnish. And because I knew how to do everything, rather than send four guys, they’d send me. I was a free electron!

OLIVIER ZAHM — You ended up rejecting this technical and aesthetic dogma, which insists on renovating and maintaining tradition.
MATHIAS KISS — I am a rebel at heart. But actually, I understood the value of this heritage relatively quickly — without knowing what I was going to do with it. As long as I was in it, what interested me was to gain this expertise because I knew it was on the verge of disappearing. I would visit all these old guys, bottle in hand. I wanted to know their secrets. I wanted to know everything, I wrote everything down. When it was decided for me that I would become a painter, I felt I had been sentenced, so my revenge was to become the best there was. I knew that there was something rare about it — like in Japan, where they designate living people as national treasures. I knew I wouldn’t have any competitors in my generation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you become an artist? Did you just throw it all away at some point?
MATHIAS KISS — I quit! Though none of the Compagnons ever really quit. You know, it’s a completely different world. It’s like the 19th century! At a certain point, I was working under the table on construction sites in the morning, and then at 8 AM, I’d go meet up with the Compagnons, then I’d go boxing, and then I’d go home and add a layer of coating. I built a small parallel clientele. I knew that I’d have to leave one day or another.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Today, you are an artist in your own right, working in a kind of unconventional position between decoration and object design. How do you describe yourself?
MATHIAS KISS — I don’t feel like a designer at all because design is associated with functionality, and everything I do is intended to free itself from function. When I make a creased mirror, it’s not at all functional. It’s like a crumpled-up piece of paper, which already evokes a violent gesture. I’ve worked on the distortion of the mirror, which is a rigid and flat material. It’s a reaction against the decorative tradition I was trained in.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And your moldings don’t follow the contours of the room. They zigzag. They’re out of control.
MATHIAS KISS — What is a molding, really? It connects the ceiling to the wall. A molding, by definition, traces the perimeter of the room. If you ask an artisan to create a molding, he’ll make a frame — that’s what society tells him to do. But the artist is free to ask himself some questions: “Why not lower the molding a bit? Let it go sideways?” Classicism, aesthetic rules, harmony, equilibrium, all those ideologies — they’re very French, very Parisian. I take pleasure in disobeying the rules I learned by blasting open French decorative codes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it the gesture of disobedience itself that interests you?
MATHIAS KISS — Yes. Even though I still make moldings and gold-leafing, they’re not decorative. It’s a gesture — a gesture that has a certain freedom, a certain gratuity.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Now, you also make exhibitions, with very radical works.
MATHIAS KISS — I had an exhibition with [Galerie Alain] Gutharc, one of my dealers, where I made a floor completely covered in gold. I wanted the gallery to be empty, but the floor to be made of gold and the walls painted white. People entered and without paying attention, they’d look around for the main attraction, not realizing they were walking on gold. And gold is a sacred material, a material signifying power and finance, but also religious and political power — and it’s linked to the power of seduction. Wars were waged for gold. And when you walk on gold, it’s a little intimidating. This gesture of trampling gold, this act of transgression, it’s exactly what I was after. At the Louvre, back when there wasn’t good lighting, paintings were framed in gold because it attracted light and projected back onto the canvas, illuminating the paintings.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you moving toward more abstract gestures?
MATHIAS KISS — Not necessarily abstract, though they are aiming toward pure experience. And there is a dimension that is close to performance, when people traced paths across the floor. Kids even drew on the gold with their keys. I thought it was great.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you haven’t lost this love for Paris, for townhouses, for aristocratic Paris.
MATHIAS KISS — Right. I don’t like Haussmann. Haussmann is an instance of normalization — it’s the long corridor that leads to the kitchen in the back, it’s rather depressing, standardized. There is no hallway in my apartment — it’s nothing but squares. You move from one room to the next in a line. But I haven’t lost my love of Paris. Definitely not aesthetically, at least, though the city really does weigh you down. In a way, I might be a 19th-century Compagnon. In my own modest way, I try to valorize Paris so that it continues to shine.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you explain your success today?
MATHIAS KISS — It’s a surprise! In the ’90s, I was the devil incarnate. Just think, I was making trompe l’oeil skies and gilding. No one understood. Today, people are tired of the constant acceleration that results from consumerism, from technology. I’d like to tell designers: “Stop making chairs. We’re already all sitting down!”

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think your work is perceived as particularly French?
MATHIAS KISS — Yes, it fascinates foreigners, which is strange because in France, on the other hand, it’s modernity’s wet dream. I think that for the French, there’s something too French about it, which scares them. It’s too beautiful, too rich.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There is a certain brutality in the work, too.
MATHIAS KISS — Everything is based on angles, so it’s not very ergonomic. It can prick you.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is there an artist in particular who influenced you?
MATHIAS KISS — You know, I don’t have a “father,” the way some would in photography or painting. The young historical building painter that I was could talk about the Italian artist Felice Varini because of the scale of his work and its simplicity. When I discovered his work at age 25, I thought it was great.

OLIVIER ZAHM — His paintings on architectural buildings form shattered geometries that recombine into one form when you look at them from a specific angle…
MATHIAS KISS — It’s contemporary trompe l’oeil. I love that immersive aspect.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And what’s remarkable is that you do it all yourself. There’s an uncommon physical dimension in your work that we haven’t discussed — you work really hard!
MATHIAS KISS — Yes, I really go all the way. At the Palais de Tokyo, those 300-foot linear moldings — I did them all myself. I placed the entire gold-leaf floor. What interests me is precisely the fact of doing it myself. Otherwise it’s a drag, I feel like I’m an artistic director. The Palais de Tokyo was so much work. All that gold leaf isn’t just gold-colored paint — it’s heavy!

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’re still attached to this manual dimension in your work, to doing things yourself, even though I imagine you must have assistants. MATHIAS KISS — Yes. You saw the exhibition at Gutharc and my paper mosaics. I could have made a 3 x 3-foot poster, but instead I cut it all up by hand. It’s made up of 7,500 hand-pasted pieces of paper so it’s obviously a little clumsy, all those pieces pasted one by one, you can imagine. I was watching the clock all of August so I wouldn’t fall behind — because there were 7,500 pieces to place! It was horrible.

OLIVIER ZAHM — People were looking for you at your own opening. 
MATHIAS KISS — I have to admit I didn’t go to the opening because I couldn’t even look at it anymore. I was so tired. I didn’t have the energy to answer questions. The gallery was a little disappointed. I told the gallerist: “Listen, my job is to make the artwork, and your job is to sell it and talk about it. You can tell them my back is sore.”



[Table of contents]

The Paris Issue #31 S/S 2019

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