Los Angeles is a city of highways and enclaves, once described as 72 suburbs in search of a city, to paraphrase Aldous Huxley. It doesn’t adhere to our expectations of a major metropolis – it has no real central hub, like you would find in London or New York, and rather than building upwards as a response to urban overcrowding, LA has sprawled outwards, as you might lazily do poolside. Some might view this as a lack of any real city planning. However, artist Matt Martin saw this as an opportunity, as a jump-off point for exploring the non-places that LA has in abundance – the tangle of overlapping highways, the strip malls and nothingness in between; places that exist but that people only ever really pass through.
I didn’t have a driving license at that point, so I was walking everywhere. What built up was this sense of a weird no-man’s land that you get between the gaps of places in LA.
“I didn’t have a driving license at that point, so I was walking everywhere,” he says of his time spent creating work for American Xerography. “What built up was this sense of a weird no-man’s land that you get between the gaps of places in LA. Between the coffee shops and the stores, there are a good two miles. Everyone drives; there’s no one on the street. The only people on the street are homeless dudes.” Simultaneously, as a cultural capital of the world, our movies, our music, even our porn is almost entirely made here. It’s that desolate dichotomy that inspired Martin. “I wanted to build on this idea of America, if there weren’t any people in it,” he says, fittingly creating images reminiscent of an abandoned film set.
“The project started in the city, but then grew into also looking at the national parks and how these amazing spaces had been designed for people, with roads leading you right to the point of interest. It's interesting how these spaces have been changed by us, to suit us… There would be cars [in some of the shots], but they could have been taken at any time as there were no modern cars included,” explains Martin. “This became about documenting landscape and infrastructure, looking at how America has been built, and [then] imagining if it was just left.”
Informed by a sense of timelessness, rather than post-apocalyptic destruction, the work sought to explore the unique vastness of LA and surrounding West Coast areas. “I was really into Kelvin and Hobbes as a kid. It was this comic book about a kid and his imaginary tiger. They lived in a similar place, in that it was a white picket fence with a house and a garden, which goes into a wood which goes on forever. I always liked that about America, having so much space where you can go off and explore.
Carhartt WIP x Matt Martin
Martin’s Xerox-style printing method recurs throughout his work, but here he says it was also to accentuate the idea of an empty America. “I like stuff that feels like you can’t really place it. With these images, they were made in such a way that they could be pages taken straight out the history book.” He was inspired by the likes of JR and Ari Marcopoulos, both of whom have a similar approach to documenting subcultures. There’s also a practicality underpinning Martin’s lo-fi practice: Xerox is instant and impactful. It’s also cheap – therefore, accessible.
In 2011, Martin launched Photocopy Club – a series of pop-up exhibitions in which anyone is welcome to exhibit work, intended to remove nearly all of the costs associated with hosting such events. This was also a way to allow his peers – young and by no means wealthy – the opportunity to buy art for the price of little more than a can of Coke. “People could come to the show for one night only, and be like: ‘I love that picture!’, take it straight off the wall, pay five pounds and that money would go towards making a zine from the show or funding the next one,” explains Martin.
I like stuff that feels like you can’t really place it. With these images, they were made in such a way that they could be pages taken straight out the history book.
This ethos also informs his work at London’s Doomed Gallery, which has become a space for the city’s young creatives to exhibit their work, whether it’s print-based art, magazines, or fashion. It’s owned by Ken Flaherty (“an old punk, whose girlfriend used to steal cars with Lemmy from Motörhead”), who along with Martin has set about creating a space “that’s affordable for young people, whether they’re just starting out or are semi-established.” Martin says it’s partly their response to living and working in a densely populated city like London, with the rising costs and hierarchical systems in place there. But also, in a way, an explanation for an enduring obsession with LA’s expansive “nothingness.”