That Great Rock Mass Is Called the Earth at the Carnegie Art Museum

by Emily Dodi
emilydodi@gmail.com

That Great Rock Mass Is Called the Earth, Luke Matjas’s first solo show at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard, showcases bold digital prints that intricately and colorfully depict California wildlife, plants and nacho cheese. Wait. Nacho cheese?p-18-84x39

“Nacho cheese is like a modern day La Brea Tar Pits,” says Matjas, associate professor of art and chair of art and performing arts at California State University Channel Islands. As Matjas explains in the exhibition’s catalog, “The prospect of being human has always been based on ‘civilizing’ and separating from the wilds of nature. This cheese sauce is a twisted miracle of chemistry that transcends nature. Yet no matter what we do, humans will always be of nature. I’d make the case that the cheese is this oozing presence — an allusion to the primordial tar pits that famously lured prehistoric beasts to their demise. It asks whether we are circling the drain as a society, but, you know, in a funny and tasty way!”

Matjas’s humor belies his serious devotion to the environment which stems from his deep California roots. Wherever he looks, Matjas sees the natural and the manmade world coexisting, from the California poppies he once found growing under a U-Haul trailer to a dilapidated chair he spied on Potrero Canyon Road.

The nasty yellow ooze (no offense to fans of the stuff) coexisting with a bear is pure fantasy, but the sheer mass of manmade stuff that Matjas depicts, regrettably, is not. Thinking about all the garbage we produce can be depressing, for sure. And yet, Matjas’s work is hopeful. Amidst all the junk are animals going about their business. A badger nests in an old chair. Plants sprout up through debris. Rocks, literally, take flight. “All the trash we throw at it and still, nature finds a way,” Matjas says. “I like to think [the pieces] are optimistic in that nature perseveres.”

He hopes this exhibit will inspire people “to be sensitive to their surroundings, even surroundings that seem mundane.” Matjas finds inspiration everywhere — from wildflowers in an urban landscape to the rocks and trees in the ragged wilds of Joshua Tree, where he recently spent time as an artist in residency. “Joshua Tree is this fantastic, inspiring place. I spent three weeks alone in this cabin tucked into a mountain. I was the only one living in the park. I’d watch the sun come up over these big volcanic rocks. It was an incredible, immersive experience.”

The rocks in his prints are inspired by those he saw in Joshua Tree. He depicts them floating in the air, “as if these preserved little ecosystems are being pulled away and saved.” Matjas’s prints, outsized and bursting with color, depict fantastical situations but at their core, he says, there is “a real sense of how the world is. There is no pure wilderness anymore. And there’s no such thing as a sterile manmade world. This is how the world really is.”

Some of Matjas’s other sources of inspiration, including personal items and sketches, are also on display in the exhibit. They include clippings of newspaper articles about P-18, a mountain lion that was killed crossing the 101 Freeway. The print, “Study of Landscape Connectivity in Urban Island Environments (P-18),” is an homage to the big cat. With its California poppies and a tree jutting through rock, it manages to be hopeful while sending the message that sometimes nature doesn’t survive what man has wrought.

“Somehow we must be reminded that, hey, this thing we’re on is the Earth, and we’re all connected to it and made up of the same components,” Matjas says when asked what inspired him to name the exhibit, That Great Rock Mass Is Called the Earth. “I’d say there’s some humor to [the title]. It points to the sense of distance we have from our environment. It’s where we came from and it’s also where we’re going.” In the best of both worlds, the natural and the manmade, we’ll all get there together. Hopefully, nacho cheese won’t have anything to do with it. 

That Great Rock Mass Is Called the Earth is on exhibit through May 22 at the Carnegie Art Museum, 424 S. C St., Oxnard. For more information call 385-8158 or go to www.carnegieam.org.