Art and the New Los Alamos

I wrote this piece for the catalogue of the opening of Matt’s Peace Angels.  I wrote it to remember the man.

This is not an academic paper.
Not biography.
It is, I suppose,…
A story.

A story about the need to find truths beneath the skin of our existence, to see, to think, to act, beyond the ordinary, however extraordinary that ordinary is. It is a story informed by an understanding of death, a deep knowledge of the processes of the undertaker, of international trade and of the many faces of grief and grieving. It is about a man who undertook to bury mobsters without question, Cardinals in pomp and firemen for free.

It is a story about dying, about a belief and a sentience that stretched far beyond mortality in a man who saw mortality in others and knew his own. Who spoke of having lived three lives and found through those experiences, that sense of the fragility of our connection with the purely mortal, a need to tell stories…. in acrylic, oil, canvas, metal, wood. It is a story of a man who abandoned place and connection for a new world, to find a new language, a new way of being, and in doing so exposed himself to the possibilities of failure and ridicule. A very biblical story, then, in shape and structure but of the modern world.

I use the word story because Matt could speak, and did, with all the fire of his Irish ancestry – with loquacity and punch and a heady love of the rough and tumble of a tale well told that a conventional schooling rarely leaves us with.

About Matt Lamb, who had the romantic conviction that the world was changeable and, as he changed himself, set out to change the world.

I met Matt for the second time in September 2011.  Our first meeting was in Mumtaz restaurant in Bradford the year before and we had a shared few words but he was tired and the company we were in was large and disparate – a coming together of a lot of people from his art and peace work, from America and England, family, friends, from within the University of Bradford and without. I had seen him speak with passion and impishness at the University earlier about his peace work rather than his art. I got a sense of the man, no more. He certainly had an aura, could hold a room, his paintings hang in the University Richmond Building Atrium, big, vibrant, narrative and dense.

Matt was an artist, peacemaker, business man, Papal Knight twice over. Connected, powerfully connected, to the worlds of real politique and the higher echelons of the art world, his work lionised by the keepers of Picasso’s memory.

Owen, our cameraman, and I flew out from Leeds/Bradford Airport to Cork with some questions but no real expectations of what we were going to do, what we would film.  Matt had been ill, had come close to dying on his flight from America to Ireland and been in hospital. Our visit was in some doubt for a while and I was, in truth, nervous about how Matt would react to our intrusion. We were, I suppose, beginning to deal with legacy, to capture something for posterity, to knowingly create something with post-mortem meaning. I didn’t know how Matt would react to that knowledge.

We were met by Sheila and Michael and Michael and whisked to the Jameson’s Distillery in Cork and treated to a tour and a lunch with that mixture of bonhomie, ease and seriousness of intent that seems peculiar to Americans.  Michael Guidry talked of Matt’s Peace Angels and the exhibition they had planned at Jameson’s both on camera and off, his excitement palpable, his belief in the power of the work and what the exhibition could do in terms of disseminating a message of peace impressive.

Matt was on the terrace outside his house, on a deckchair in the September afternoon sun and looked very frail as he looked over the bay. A frailty belied by the conviction with which he spoke.

“… the human race has been given a deed. So when this happened (Hitler’s death) everyone in power said ‘we want a weapon that’s going to kill everybody, we want the ultimate weapon of destruction’ and people, especially the Germans that were working on it, said ‘we’re close to it but we’re not positive that it’s going to happen’ and they didn’t put them in jail, they put them in Los Alamos, New Mexico. They had a consensus that it couldn’t be done, possible but really impossible. So the powers that be said ‘You have all the power, you have anything you want, do it. Do the impossible’ so they did. So we are left with this choice:  Will we be the first species in the universe to blow ourselves up? Or will we learn that there is only one thing and that’s love…”

Seemingly gaining strength with each sentence, each new iteration of the possibility of the seeming impossible. About the need for “ A new Los Alamos”, how the seemingly impossible was happening all around us, how in his youth mobile technologies were hardly dreamt of and yet here he could sit in the garden of his house in Ireland and in his pocket was a devise with which he could contact Africa at will, how if these things were possible why not a space where we could all come together? I asked him what that might look like, he said “I have no idea.” I asked if he was doing what he was doing with any idea as to what it might be? “No. It will emerge as it’s supposed to emerge” and turned to his painting for an analogy.

“I just finished four paintings that I do, I call them ‘Spirit Paintings’, I start them months before, lines come in and then I get real up close and try to get to my other dimension and just make lines and then after that I leave them for a week or so then I come back and get up and just get going.  I just finished them, now, four of them, which really will tell of the power a group can have that they have no idea of, cos there are all kinds of hidden powers”.

I wondered if, maybe, we think that a ‘New Los Alamos’ is impossible precisely because we try to imagine it, that we fail to believe in a world at peace because of the failure of our own imaginations to see beyond what we currently know.

“Well, it’s unknown to us, but it exists. I am a douser, so when I was putting a well in here, I had a dousing rod and it went (indicates the rod being pulled down), down it went and I couldn’t pull it away. Dig here. I went down about, I don’t know how far……..and there’s a river that runs right through here and there’s all this magnetic force.

I will go through my manifestations. I am in what I call the empty room. So, what is the empty room?  You go into an empty room and you can’t see anything. You say, ‘It’s empty, there’s nothing in here’ but then, all of a sudden, the telephone rings and the radio, the radio’s playing and here’s the television.  So what else is in here?  You open the window, the wind comes in, you can’t see anything. And you thought there was nothing in here.  So what do you learn from the empty room? You learn that all of the limitations you put on yourself, is in yourself.”

These ideas of revelation, of things emerging, being allowed to emerge, were ones that we came back to again and again and are shaped, I believe, in profound ways by Lamb’s process of making his work.

The following day we filmed him in his studio, saw as figures appeared on his canvas, an eye here, the shape of a head there – deft or heavy daubs of a brush or a finger or a tube of paint seemingly freeing figures from inside the canvas.  Always, it seemed, in conversation or relationship with others that emerged too, creating an ongoing struggle of power and influence within the painting with one figure then another assuming a primacy that is finally superseded by the dominant figure appearing last.

I was fascinated by this, by watching the painter so short of breath that he had to sit for long periods, break off from the seeming struggle within the canvas to gasp for oxygen and just watch, muted by lung capacity, the paintings he had been talking to, coaxing, swearing at, hitting with his walking stick earlier.  It was painful to watch, yet one of the most powerful expressions of creativity I have ever seen, made manifest on canvas.

Canvasses which are prepared – are burned, exposed to the elements for months, covered in oil and paint, scraped and scratched before he goes to work so that they reveal shapes and creases and coruscations that he would work around.  Canvasses that have through a process of time and impact and corrosion begun their revelation, their process of translation.

“This is the material and this is the spiritual (holds hands apart) so what I want to do is see if I can coax some of these spirits over here. To help me in this so I don’t have to do a lot of work. I’ll be the arms and legs but you’ve got to bring your message. Therefore I work abstract, semi-abstract, figurative. I start what I call ‘the dip’ where I throw ten strong colours – I had a friend of mine whose whole world was colour and he was a genius – so he made these colours because he said ‘You really, really abuse the materials.’ I throw em in the ocean, I use blow torches, I run cars over them.  They say I torture my paintings but I really don’t, I challenge them.”

I had seen how ill Matt was earlier, had seen him on his oxygen and was aware through my father’s death, through the fact that Matt had nearly died but days before how close he was to his end before he ever spoke of it.

But he talked openly of death and of the two ‘death’s’ that came before, of his ‘death’ at 46 where he “died but forgot to get buried”, the event that made him make the break from the world of big business, really big business, into the world of art and peacemaking.

Of his ‘death’ but days before, where his oxygen levels had fallen so low that he should have died, tended back to life in an Irish hospital by friends and found himself, to his wry amusement, on a bed made by the company of his earliest business mentor.

Processes, connections, dialogues that formed part, I suspect for Matt, of the ongoing revelation.

Dialogues with angels in his sleep who told him what to paint, and how, the next day.

Dialogues with the victims and the orphans of a violence that we all saw and yet fail to comprehend

Dialogues with world and spiritual leaders that led to changes big and small in how we talk to each other, what we allow in that.

Dialogues with his friend, Cardinal Bernadine of Chicago “ So when I told him I was an artist he sia ‘Well Lamb, I’ve come to your studio.  Have you lost your mind?’ He said ‘You’ve buried Cardinals and Presidents and Governors, you are the best funeral director according to the National Funeral Directors Association, now you’re doing all this?’ He said ‘Are you crazy?’ I said ‘No I’m in the spirit’, he said ‘Well fine but everybody else thinks you’re crazy, I didn’t want to tell you, I’m just bringing a message’ So anyway we were going out for a walk, as we did many times, and he comes into the apartment and he’s sitting here and I’m sitting there, and he’s now dying of cancer, and we’re talking about a lot of things and I said ‘Joe, Cardinal Joseph Bernadine, What did you learn about dying, now that you’re dying?’ and he says ‘The time for posturing is over’.

I think that, for Matt, the time for posturing ceased on his first ‘death’, his first translation, when he realised that all wealth, all position, was temporal.  On the deckchair, that first afternoon he told me a story which revealed a lot about his attitude.

“Anyway he got killed and, according to the Russians and other people that they interviewed, he never allowed smoking around.  So he was taken out and burned in an unmarked grave and the people that did it, as soon as he was burned they lit up cigarettes. So that shows you what power is.”

Remember that this is a man that knew power in a way that few can dream of.  Knew the power of big business, knew the power of political connections at the heart of the greatest superpower the world has ever known, knew the power of money, knew the temporal power of the Catholic Church,.

“About sixty years ago a cousin of mine, he was an architect and he was living in Rome with the founder of the Opus Dei movement, Jose Maria Escrivar, and I was there and I met him and he gave me this medal and he’s now a saint… so he said “Take this and wear it” and it’s very rarely taken off… now when I was travelling, all the dictatators were Opus Deii, Salazar, Generalissimo Franco, I forget the others but all that group were Opus Dei.  Now Opus Dei is one of the most powerful groups.  So I’m over in Morocco with the kids and we were all dressed like hippies and we looked like the kind of thing that would smuggle drugs into Spain, we were living in Spain at that time.  So they take us off the boat, they take the kids into one row and me into another and I met this crazy with a hat on and they are just verbally beating the shit out of me.  They had one guy speaking English, broken, and four other big guys.  So I said “Who is in charge of this? I want him to come here right now.”  They said ‘Why?’ I said ‘ I’ve got a message for him, I want him to know something’.  They bring this guy in.  A mountain of a man, a big black coat and a huge black hat and he just played the role of the inforcer. ‘You wanna see me?’ ‘I have a message for you.’ ‘ What is it?’ ‘You see this?’ ‘ Yes’ ‘Know what it is?’ ‘ No.’ ‘This was given to me by the founder, Jose Maria Escrivar, the founder of Opus Deii.  Let me tell you this Salazar is Opus Deii, they are like this (crosses fingers).  One phone call from me, they are going to take your balls off and shove them up your ass’

He knew power but chose to be crazy, as Cardinal Bernadine would have it, to be an artist.

He talked to me of his early struggle to learn how to paint, the years of working out the hows. “So now I know what everything is going to do, it’s taken me five years of study.  So then I thought, ok, I’ve gone from not being the artist to being the artist, from there to being the investigator and now what am I going to do with all this information?”

He spoke of his move from investigator to conductor – where all his paintings are the members of the orchestra and it was his job to draw all the notes together to make a whole. He then spoke of becoming the agitator in conversations with his paintings “Morning ass-wipe, what have you got for us today?” throwing materials on the ceiling and enjoying the chaos “Hey, I really fucked you guys up” and the translation to the empty room, the place where he was at that point, and the search for the hidden, the not immediately obvious. The place where one has to listen to the silence to finally appreciate that it is peopled with sounds that we cannot hear because, maybe, we choose not too or because we are so inured to the constant babble of the now, the everyday, the purely mortal that those other resonances are lost to us, will always be lost to us.

And yet. And yet. Here was the businessman as well, the man who understood (and stood in opposition to) the economics of the art world, the drip, drip, drip of supply and demand.

“Picasso… what made, what made him was that he was unique, he did exactly what he thought he should do regardless of what you said, or you said or anyone else said. He had his restrictions of how he goes based upon exactly what I believe in.  I have a talent that was given as a gift and I can have you, or you, or anyone else say ‘Lamb, I’m the greatest gallery person in the world and I’m going to sell this painting for a hundred million bucks.  Now all you have to do is that you follow what I do.  Now you make sixty thousand paintings, it would be much better if you made ten and I’ll tell you what ten to make and what to do.” And Picasso would say ‘You know, fuck you, get out. I will never make that painting again.’

A man to whom the drip, drip, drip was antithetical, for whom painting was an explosion of creativity and so painted in number.

A man with studios around the world, Ireland, Wisconsin, Florida, crammed to the brim, top full of work that numbers tens of thousands.

A business man who, through long years in business, understood the business of logistics, the economics of scale and international trade, who knew that systems are needed to make that move in number.  In his studio he pointed out a picture, pointed out it’s number.

“There’s a code on em. This one for example was the one hundred and eighty first picture I did in Florida in 2007 and it’s been photographed, it’s on inventory and that’s who it is.  It’s not named, it’ll be named by however adopts it. This is our control inventory, we can track it anywhere in the world…. This (Ireland) became our main studio because The United States charge us a two hundred and sixty percent tax on Chinese canvasses coming in… So I had five thousand canvasses coming in to Florida, Ireland, Wisconsin, Chicago.  I got a call saying ‘We need a cheque for about a hundred thousand Dollars sent to the U.S. government’.  So I said ‘Get em over to Ireland’.  It cost me eight thousand to get them to Ireland, so now they’re all Irish.  We set up the systems and the systems work.  How do they get from here to there?  Don’t know and don’t care, I know we have a system. Before I was an artist I was in business, working with international business, shipping stuff all over the world.  How do we get it from here to there the most reasonable way? What type, boat, truck?  So I have people that I know and say ‘We want to do this.’ And they go boom, boom, boom.”

We live in a world, an arts world I mean, that has been, still is, shaped in it’s thinking by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  By the Age of Reason and The Romantics, that is, in essence, agnostic because it fetishizes humankind as the maker of its own destiny and the artist as ‘onlie begetter’ of work wrung from the soul.  We question industry, we question work produced in quantity, we struggle to comprehend a man who talks to angels.  We struggle with the seeming contradictions of a man who could and did do both.

And yet. 

And yet.

And yet there seems something particularly of our times, a world shaped by the intentions, the needs, of corporations, a world that has arguably moved beyond the nation state and despite, maybe because of, that that seeks out the spiritual, turns to something else.

If one thinks back to the sixties, to the Beatles and the Maharishi one also sees the linkage between an exploration of faith, of seeking a meaning beyond the obvious, the here and now and a business that famously described itself as ‘bigger than Jesus’ and sold millions of ‘units’ worldwide and those units were art.

It is the place of artists to explore, to deal with, the world in which they live and if that exploration takes on the shape and form, makes use of, plays games with, that it sees….  Is that not the place of art, the job of artists?

And is it not the place of artists to try to change the world, to make us see, to think, to hear things differently, to create, in ways small and large the ‘new Los Alamos’?

And so, with some finality, now that Matt has gone, I turn to what confused me in the first instance, the thing as I saw as an add on to his work as artist but came to see, having met and talked to the man, having wrestled with my own perceptions and conceptions about what art is, as the thing I have come to consider as his largest piece of art. The piece that is at once most intimate and huge in conceptual scale.  His peacemaking.

I will not write here at any length about Matt’s ‘Umbrella’s for Peace’ project, it is too well documented elsewhere, except to say that there is something very much of the man about the interconnectedness of his various lives, his ‘manifestations’ if you like, that it was his connections into the higher echelons of American political power that led the ‘Umbrellas Project’ to work with the orphans of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

“It started with, like everything else in the world, it started with friends.  Somebody said ‘I need a hand’ and somebody said ‘Well, my husbands the Secretary of Defence in the Cabinet and we’re here to say here’s what do you need.  We know him (Matt Lamb) and we’ll call him, call him beforehand and then go through your event together and see if that’s what you want and if you do we’ll make sure he comes.”

It is this very interconnectedness that allowed him the access to offer children who not only lost parents but even more obscenely lost them in the full glare of a watching world, an event that almost took their grieving away from them.  That allowed him the chance to offer them the opportunity to write their hopes and fears on a simple umbrella and in a parade show the world who they were, to reclaim the loss and the effect of that loss as theirs.

It was that access, his status as Papal Knight, that allowed Lamb to gather all the religious leaders in Jerusalem – Moslem, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, Protestant – to meet for the first time in the most contested city in history, fought over by empires and religions for centuries, and talk peace, talk of ways forward, take steps towards ‘the impossible.

This story ends with Matt and Sheila and his ‘Peace Wave’, both art and an idea, a hope, a step towards the ‘new Los Alamos’.

“I envision that we are a Tsunami, we’re a mindless wave, we know we’re going that way but where are we going?  ‘I’ve no idea’, ‘Why are you here?’, ‘I love the turmoil, I love to ride on things where I know I’m going the right way.’, ‘Well what are you doing as you come along?’, ‘Well I’m a big wave’ and a wave picks up shit and a wave picks up diamonds so I’m surrounded by shit and diamonds… and this is how I see our programme, as we go we’re picking up everybody.  Where are we going?  Into the Promised Land but I don’t know where it is but we’re on this damned thing, let’s see if it takes us there.  What is the ultimate goal?  World Peace.  That’s honest, what else should we be on, a rocket ship to the moon? What use is peace on the moon, there’s nobody there… and this has all the power of the wave, it takes everybody, it doesn’t say ‘I don’t want to take you, I don’t like you’, it takes everybody and that’s what we’re looking for, something that takes everybody, so it’s a great analogy. I know I’m in it and I’m surrounded by all kinds of things and I think that nothing happens by happenstance, it happens by design and so.. How did this start? Don’t know and frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. Where’s it going to end? Don’t know and frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. Why are you in it?  Because I love it…. Right now I have a piece of art that I have called ‘The Path to Peace’, I’ve called it ‘The Peace Wave’, I called it something else that I can’t even remember but now I’m back with ‘The Peace Wave’. It is a hundred and seventy six feet long and it’s ten feet high.  It’s made up of concrete and it’s made up of panels…. It was maybe going to be used at the Chinese Olympics but they didn’t know where it was going to go afterwards and I said ‘No, I need to know where it’s going to end up’ and then it was supposed to go to that big station in Berlin, that collapsed, it was supposed to go there, in the middle, and the trains would ride by and I said ‘Who’s going to see the damn thing on a train? No it’s not going to go there.. but now I hear it’s going to Spain, to Sheila’s group in Alicante’.

Sheila took up the story.

“I think, right now it’s going to go in front of a military castle that overlooks the town.. and what going to happen is that it will be interactive art so you will be able to sign the back with anything peaceful that you want to write, or anything that you want to write at all and then when you’ve done that you go into the castle, you’re going to input what you wrote, where you wrote it on there and the date. So that will be archived and when the back is completely done it will be polyeurathened over and will be much like a book and much like The Wailing Wall, also, in Jerusalem, so that people will be able to look at it and say ‘Oh, my Mum was here in say 2011 and she wrote Peace be to God in the left top corner of the third panel’

It seemed right to leave this story with Sheila.  Now that Matt has gone it is she who has taken up the mantel, she who will take forward the mission, she who will ride the tsunami.

Matt touched many people and he did it in a totally unique way, he was a man of seeming contradictions.

I left him, however, understanding that what seems is not what is that everything he was and did added up to a whole, that there was both a rigour and a coherence to everything he did, everything he made.

I left him believing, as many, many others have done, in the possibility of the ‘new Los Alamos’, believing more in the power of the human spirit to make a difference and that is as fine a legacy I can think of.

Iain Bloomfield
Head of Arts
University of Bradford
April 2012