Down And Dirty with Matthew Steele

By Hannah Caddell

2012 Alumnus Artist-in-Residence Matthew Steele’s latest work is just shy of being a complete departure from everything you’ve seen him create thus far: new medium, new dimensions, new location. 

In residence at Skyline, the now vacant Goodyear building holding down the corner of South Tryon and Stonewall Streets in uptown Charlotte, Steele is working with a material entirely unknown to him, and with far fewer resources. With the exception of the heat of the South in August, he loves every minute of it. 

Steele, also the current Manager of Creative Services at McColl Center for Art + Innovation, is almost entirely out of his comfort zone. “Being in residence at McColl Center was like having an armory; you get access to lots of things that you don’t normally have, resource-wise.” 

He’s approaching the Skyline residency with more focus on ingenuity and reusing materials than ever before. 

Installation day with @mtsteele at #skylineCLTarts #manofsteele

A photo posted by @sociallysusan on

Bigger And Better

Steele’s previous work has been constructed out of wood, mostly walnut, and his largest piece to date would be considered modest in scale. The piece that he’s creating at the empty former Goodyear building is crafted of steel. The piece is mammoth, measuring in at 70 feet long and 10 feet tall at its zenith. That’s almost the length of a professional basketball court. 

Seeing other artists in residence at McColl Center helped Steele see that he, too, could take on work that he’d never done before. “The pieces that Matt Horick and Ben Wolf made [while in residency] at McColl Center made me think bigger, outside of my typical work.”

All of the artwork that Steele has produced has a certain structural fascination; there are echoes of bridges and latticework throughout the wooden pieces he has created thus far. He’s grown from creating enticing wooden-only sculptures to adding a mirroring aspect to a piece, Monument to Regret, created in 2014. 

Steele also showed delicately faded prints of his renderings during exhibitions at CPCC and at McColl Center in April; they appeared like the anatomy of a ravaged city emerging from a dense fog. 

But Lure, the sculpture at Skyline, takes Steele’s work to another realm entirely. The structure resembles a pyramid, if that pyramid had been squashed from above and then stretched out before it was finally thrown, javelin-style, through the wall by a giant. 

When asked about the change in materials, Steele slips into waxing poetically, “Working with wood is more pleasurable, it’s a romantic thing. It smells nice. Metal is unyielding, it’s hot and heavy, dirty and loud. It’s stubborn. ” 

But all that steel was already in the Goodyear building, ready for taking. Without an armory of a traditional residency behind him, Steele made his own weapons. 

Tackling The Unknown

“To take on something totally different but in the same conversation is a huge step as an artist,” Steele admits. He wasn’t intentionally trying to break out, it just made the most sense. He didn’t enter the Skyline residency with a clear idea of what he would create. “I had notions,” he shares, “but no fully articulated ideas.” 

It wasn’t until he got into the space and was greeted by two rooms full of steel shelving left over from the building’s Goodyear days that the prospect of working in a new medium arose.

“This is like a big erector set that I’m bolting together,” he says. “I know I’m not a skilled enough welder, but I’m good enough at putting in bolts.” 

Repurposing the shelves and giving them a new identity, Steele climbed up the shelving and began dismantling it so that he could create Lure. The process took over a week of grappling with the steel shelving material, sometimes literally, using carabiners and cords thrown over the ceiling’s structural bars. He’s even reusing the bolts that held the shelving in place.

A Conversation With The Space

Steele is using every scrap that the space has to offer. Lure is constructed out of the shelves that formerly held Goodyear tires. The three-dimensional scalene triangle has been physically pushed through the wall from the garage-turned-studio that Steele currently occupies into the gallery overlooking Tryon Street, defying all boundaries of standard gallery spaces. 

What happens when the rules of traditional gallery showings change? “Gallery space is sacred to some degree, but that doesn’t apply here. There are no parents, no rules, so you create what you’d do without boundaries.” 

Steele has found himself inspired by Gordon Matta Clark’s Conical Intersect, which contributed to a much-needed dialogue on urban development and public art. Lure has the potential to contribute to Charlotte’s ever-developing artistic identity. 

I spent several hours in the former Goodyear building with Steele on a Panthers game day before Lure was completed, as it rested on wooden rigging while Steele bolted metal rods together. I was struck by how few people stuck their head in and asked what he was doing. 

“It looks like I’m doing something utilitarian, it’s not art yet,” Steele mused. He commented that people love to stop and take pictures of the graffiti – remnants of former Skyline resident John Hairston Jr. – but rarely approach him to talk about his art. 

“People ask to charge their cell phones, thinking it’s still a Goodyear, so sometimes I can have conversations about my work with people who wouldn’t normally interact with it.”  

Be Lured In

Lure pierces through the dimensions that we, as art viewers, have come to accept as the standard. However, it will only be exhibited until the building is demolished, slated for this coming winter, giving the culturally curious a short time to take advantage of Steele’s work.

Skyline will hold an opening on Friday, September 4, 2015 from 6-9 PM. Welcoming newcomers to Charlotte’s art experience, along with those well-versed in our cultural narrative, is an important part of the residency’s ethos. The openness of the building lends itself to anyone who feels confident enough to explore it. 

“This was like a down and dirty chance to try something new,” Steele observes. “I’ve drawn on everything I know for something I never thought I would do.”