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Arts Good vibrations 

Artist and curator John Mata is 'just really excited about all the possibilities'

For San Antonio native John Mata, being a better artist might come down to good vibes. Leisurely smoking a hookah in his King William rental, the 28-year-old recounts with mild amazement the reactions he has received since he returned in January from a year-long jaunt to India and Southeast Asia. "I'm glad you're back. You've got really good energy," fellow artist Beto Gonzales told him, echoing a compliment that led to an impromptu residency in Singapore last year.

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Artist and curator John Mata in his King William home and studio, flanked by two paintings in his new superhero torsos series. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

It takes some considerable energy to rack up the resume Mata has compiled since he arrived home with no money in his bank account seven months ago. During Contemporary Art Month alone, his name pops up like dandelions in a freshly mowed field: With Kimberley Aubuchon he co-curated Are You With Me?, which opened at Medusa July 21; he organized the July 23 Artist Kite Flight; and his work appears in the supergroup lineup ¿Seis Who? at the Alameda, alongside new works by Jesse Amado, Chuck Ramirez, Juan Ramos, Andy Benavides, and Gonzales. Earlier in the spring, he and Aubuchon curated the second (and best) show at the shortlived Axtryx Gallery, and as soon as CAM is over, he will focus on his August show in Blue Star's Gallery Four, a November one-man show at Three Walls Gallery, and on the group show he and Aubuchon are taking to Chicago in September. Which is right about the time Aubuchon will move into the Stieren Street Compound house (adjacent to Sala Diaz) that will become Unit B, a San Antonio version of the Chicago art space she operated for two years. Mata will be the co-director.

Aubuchon met Mata in an art-history class in San Antonio College, but they weren't bosom buddies at first sight. "I couldn't stand him," she recalls, laughing. "`The class` was right before lunch. Just one minute before you could feel it closing `she mimes an eager student popping up his hand` ... and that boy can talk!"

"I think I intimidated a lot of people back then," says Mata, "and it was making me miserable." The recognition that he wants to connect with other artists, which requires him to be receptive and responsive, Mata believes, is at the core of the energy that Gonzales and others are drawn to. Being successfully involved in the art scene, he says, is "just getting out, being confident, trusting yourself, being aware."

"My grandfather was a machinist at Kelly, and he would make inventions ... pecan pickers, whirligigs, lazy susans ... and I was always there, lighting his cigarettes for him."

- John Mata

A large, colorful abstract painting hangs high on Mata's livingroom wall. It is inhabited primarily by large, orange, anthropomorphic blobs and slightly chubby stars that will resonate with fans of Dr. Seuss. On another canvas, the garishly outfitted lower torsos of superheroes struggle with each other, while stars burst from one waist, hearts from another. Like many artists of his generation, Mata's touchstones tend to come from late 20th-century visual culture, the elements of which become tools for irony and social commentary. His planned installation for Gallery Four, Fundamentalism Begins With the Right Accessories," includes two tanks made to resemble Luis Vuitton and Gucci bags.

"I think there's a sensibility about John's work that reminds me a little bit of mine," says Chuck Ramirez, who selected Mata for ¿Seis Who? and collaborated with him on a video for the show. "For instance, him finding art in a pile of rubbish on the side of the street on rubbish pickup day and my `photographs of` garbage bags: We're kind of in effect drawing inspiration from everybody's discarded crap."

The "rubbish" in question includes "Monster Box," found-art sculpture and star of the eponymous video installed in the lady's powder room of the Alameda for ¿Seis Who? On a small screen, "Monster Box" snarls and lunges its way through back-alley detritus, a performance that induces spontaneous guffaws in most viewers. The deus ex machina can be spied stage left in the form of a hand propelling the box. "I also really like the rawness and the edginess of his work," says Ramirez. "And also the process."

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For Mata, art-making is all about process. Almost three years ago, he says, he made himself so sick with anxiety that he ended up in the hospital. That episode was part of a transformation that included passing up an opportunity to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. "I just didn't feel it," he says. Instead he sold paintings out of a U-Haul truck that he parked in front of his sister Angelina Mata's Euphorium salon (then called Angelin di Carlo) and hung out at Robert Tatum's various art venues, where young urban artists, music, and performance were mixed liberally with a party scene.

While those experiences were the antidote to the sense he had growing up that "the art scene was hidden or designed for intellectuals," Mata decided that the large, multi-media happenings were ultimately detrimental to experiencing art. "You leave the place just fucked up, gone" he says. The gallery environment he hopes to create with Aubuchon is "really calm and subtle."

Aubuchon and Mata eventually bonded during SAC Art Guild meetings and when Aubuchon moved on to the Art Institute, Mata would visit. Aubuchon returned to San Antonio not long before Mata, and she quickly roped him into her curating gigs. "We have really wild conversations," she says, and they share an affinity for group shows and community. "He wants to be involved in all these different things, and that really goes back to that grassroots thing; you don't really know something until you experience it."

If Mata's soul is newly calm and subtle, his art-making is kinetic, jumping from T-shirts (he wore one, on which a smaller T-shirt is stitched cockeyed onto the front of another, to our interview) to video to sculpture, and back to painting. "I just want to really be excited about all the possibilities," he says. "I just want to make, and make, and make ..." It's an energy and eclecticism that can perhaps be traced back to long afternoons in his grandfather's garage. "`He was` a machinist at Kelly," says Mata, "and he would make inventions ... pecan pickers, whirligigs, lazy susans ... and I was always there, lighting his cigarettes for him." His grandmother would drink coffee and smoke cigarettes in the back yard, surrounded by old perfume bottles and other artifacts from her ersatz archeological digs.

When Mata wasn't at school or his grandparents', he was often at the family salon, an experience he credits with exposing him to the diversity of human permutations. During the installation of Are You With Me? at Medusa, a woman two or three cocktails into her evening wanders into the gallery lounge and asks artist Charlie Morris if the "art" is going to be projected on top of the mural that he's affixing to the wall. Mata, amused, patiently engages her in a conversation about the show until he feels they have come to an understanding. "A lot of people will say that making art is about me expressing myself, but it's not," Mata says. "It's about letting the other person express themselves, too, to engage with the work."

By Elaine Wolff

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