Operating in the hybrid zone between sculpture, craft, miniature making, and conceptual art, Matteo Bittant creates seven self-portraits that simultaneously appropriate and reconfigure a peculiar medium, toy cars. Published by CONCRETE PRESS on September 1, 2013, this limited edition book (100 copies) provides a visual and critical documentation of SMALLER THAN LIFE. It features Colleen Flaherty's photographs and a long conversation between Bittanti and Juan Carlos Quintana.
JCQ: Can you describe the process behind your new body of work?
MB: It was rather simple. My previous self-portraits series, GROWING AVATARS (2011) and THE PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A BOBBLEHEAD (2013), used 3D printing and photography for sculptural purposes. This time, however, I wanted to create a set of self-portraits that could simultaneously be more abstract and more detailed. For this specific project, I wanted to combine toys and small glass domes.
JCQ: All these sculptures use variations of the same toy car. Why?
MB: The self-portraits feature a FIAT 1500 Lesney Matchbox die-cast model. The 1500 was a large family car manufactured by FIAT between 1961 and 1976, which replaced the previous model, the 1200. Assembled in Yugoslavia and Germany, its design evoked the elegant lines of the streamlined Chevrolet Corvair. In 1965, British toy-maker Lesney introduced its 56th model, a miniature FIAT 1500 in aquamarine, equipped with a set of brown suitcases on its roof. Most of the FIAT 1500s in the SMALLER THAN LIFE series are customized, one-of-a-kind models, specifically created by British toy-car artist Jim Woodrow.
JCQ: Did you play with toy cars as a kid?
MB: No, not at all. I mostly played with toy soldiers, which I always loved for their ideological, propagandistic function. Boxes full of tiny plastic men still occupy my parents' attic, in Milan. But I have always been fond of toy cars as aesthetic objects. I have a particular curiosity. When I see things I like, I collect them, with no clear intention or without knowing what to do with them. I just keep them, because they trigger something in my mind. A couple of years later, maybe even a decade later, these things may reappear and lead to a new body of work. There’s no straight line or logical, conscious scheme of collecting, and eventually re-purposing the objects. Things just click, sometimes. Or they don't.
JCQ: Does your process revolve around creating an aura of uniqueness through the appropriation and reconfiguration of mass produced objects like toys?
MB: I am more interested in the process of toy-making than art-making, to be honest. Art is collateral damage. A side effect. I started thinking about SMALLER THAN LIFE after reading a series of essays written by Walter Benjamin on play in the late 1920s, specifically, “Old Toys” (1928), “The Cultural History of Toys” (1928), “Toys and Play. Marginal Notes of a Monumental Work” (1928), and “Russian Toys” (1929). There is a passage in the latter piece that I found particularly fascinating: "The toys of all cultures were, initially, of a cottage industry. The stock of primitive forms in use by the lower groups in society, the peasants and the artisans, provided the sure foundation for the development of children's toys up to the present" (123). Unless we are talking about pop stars like Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, most artists are, first and foremost, artisans. Toy-makers are among the greatest artists but their craft is mostly devoid of glamour and gravitas. Their artworks are not displayed in galleries and museums, but sold in toy stores.
Juan Carlos Quintana is a painter and a sculptor living in Oakland, California. His paintings explore issues related to identity, both political and personal. Taking iconography from his American and Cuban background, Quintana uses political cartoons, popular comic strips, and children books to explore the world around him.