Born Pittsburgh, 1945 / Studies in Industrial Design, College for Creative Studies, Detroit / Lives in Detroit
What does Matt Corbin’s performance piece GYMSHOELIFESTYLE, in which he periodically wore size 22 gym shoes to the high school class he taught, have in common with the found object assemblages he has been making for nearly four decades? Actually more than you might think. For a start, they both emerge from a philosophy of first understanding, and then working with, what’s already there. In the case of the performance piece, Corbin builds from the footwear fixation of his students to make a gently humorous point about the absurdity of consumer society, and how to subvert this to carry your own message. With his found object sculptures he examines, then recycles, the detritus of a disposable culture to construct works that he hopes may outlive all of us. With Corbin, clearly it is pointless to try to separate his life, his educational mission, and his art.
Corbin’s trajectory into art education was circuitous. His father, a Tuskegee Airman, instilled a lifelong interest in drawing, transportation and exploiting the learning potential of every situation. Graduating from Cass Tech, Corbin studied industrial design at CCS, but sensed that the racial climate of the late 1960s, and his disdain for convention, would make the car industry a difficult work environment. Instead he took a job creating window displays for Hudson’s department store, a position that provided him with freedom, resources, and the endless new challenges he desired. Later he worked at the Children’s Museum, creating exhibits, displays, and lesson plans. This led to an offer to teach art in Detroit Public Schools, and eventually the dream job of teaching twice daily open-ended studio classes in Commercial Art to creatively gifted kids from throughout the city.
While studying design at CCS, Corbin was also paying close attention to the contemporary artists in the DIA’s collection. Louise Nevelson’s large monochrome sculptural wall piece “Homage to the World,” with its use of everyday found objects within a consciously designed modular structure, was particularly influential. In the 1970s Corbin started work on his own series of found object assemblages. This led to the solo show “Afro-Urban Fetishes” at Detroit’s Museum of African American History in 1979, in which Corbin convinced the museum director to cover the gallery floor with sand, and subsequent shows at George N’Namdi’s early gallery space in Detroit’s Whitney Building. Representative pieces from this era, such as The Taskmaster and Bird Brain, show wall-mounted sculptures that reference African masks, popular culture, and autobiographical elements. The Taskmaster is based on Corbin’s steel-worker grandfather, but the eponymous figure’s aura of formidable creative energy, and thoughtful attention to matters-at-hand, might just as well refer to the artist himself. David’s Rising, from 1988, is a large work that was constructed as a meditation on mortality, and a tribute to Corbin’s brother-in-law. It is a transitional piece in which Corbin started to investigate the greater flexibility of displaying his work on floor-mounted frames.
Corbin’s magnum opus is the collection of large-scale art projects he has been building around his home at Clairmount and Woodward. On the south side of Clairmount stand the imposing obelisk, pyramid and sundial inspired forms of the 30 foot tall metal sculpture Geome Tree. The 1987 work was a collaboration with fellow artist Richard Bennett, whose earlier visit to Egypt provided the inspiration for much of the piece’s content. It was commissioned under the remarkable condition that it had to be finished within two weeks. Across the street is Spectra-Gate, a growing collection of floor-mounted monochrome sculptural reliefs. The “Gate” in the title is a nod to Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s expansive site-specific work in New York’s Central park, but Corbin’s work situates it firmly in a Detroit ethos of design, manufacturing, and the use of material at hand.
If Geome Tree and Spectra-Gate are the public part of Corbin’s project, its hidden beating heart is Mir, the home/art-work he has been modifying since the late 1960s. The name refers to the former Russian space station, which famously survived, and continued to evolve, despite the cataclysmic break-up of the Soviet Union. In Corbin’s usage it implies a psychological and physical environment that’s connected to the world, but equally out there in orbit; a space where anything is possible, but only with the resources that come from within.
Copyright 2015 Essay’d
Steve Panton, August 2015