Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer

Contemporary Art, With An Ancient Past: Interview With Matt Leak – Mosaics Artist

Mosaic art is one of the oldest and most impressively dextrous manifestations of mankind’s aesthetic creativity and our ideological paradigms. Its ancient roots can be traced to eighth century floor mosaics found in the city of Gordion in Asia Minor. Mosaics appeared in Greece around the sixth century BCE, flourishing and eventually garlanding opulent buildings as hugely venerated architectural ornament.

The Roman empire, ever eager to consolidate its status as the acme of cultural taste, embraced this Greek tradition, mastering it in the process and propagating the form throughout its vast territory. Mosaic masterpieces became the apogee of artistic expression, profoundly valued as paintings in stone. Geometric, floral, figural, mythological and historical motifs decorated the floors of grand private villas throughout Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and parts of Northern Africa.

These works were statements of vast wealth and cultural buttresses supporting Rome’s ideological and economic dominance throughout the lands it had rapaciously conquered. However, with the fall of the empire in the fifth century CE, the mosaic tradition withered.

Resurgence came in the form of the early Christians adorning their churches with religiously-themed mosaics, later becoming the major pictorial medium in Byzantine art. Fast forward a couple of millennia, and we can once again find artisan creatives employing this ancient art form as a vibrant and visceral response to our own epoch and anthropological issues at the core of its quintessence.

Matt Leak is one such creative, though he’d never associate himself with any of the pompous waffle above ! Unpretentious and grittily- grounded, if not iconoclastic, then rebelliously independent in both spirit and outlook, Matt’s stunningly bold work caught my attention. Matt appeared to have taken a medium used to preserve establishment hegemony in ancient times, and incongruently repurposed it as an outspoken, untrammelled contemporary voice. An interview with its creator for our readers beckoned ….

Having explored the roots of the mosaic form, I wanted to explore Leak’s own background, discovering it to be the origin of his no-nonsense character and mind-boggling work ethic: ‘I was born and raised in Wensleydale by Mancunian parents. I’m a hybrid Yorkshire/Mancunian, a mongrel of sorts that doesn’t quite sound Yorkshire or Mancunian, just very Northern. Money was tight during my childhood. I come from an old-school, working-class family.’

‘I came out of school with little more to show than a ‘could have done better’ report and entered the world of work rather than university. I have had various jobs from mushroom farm picker to powder coater, security guard to Bang & Olufsen Salesman. I made my way into what is now my sixth year of running a relatively successful recruitment business’.

Leak’s artistic yearnings survived banausic imperatives: ‘For a period before I stuck down my first piece of tile, I had converted our spare room into an abstract paint throwing room. I was an unhappy person, years of hedonistic living had taken a toll, I was dissatisfied in my job, and my aspirations to do something with music had passed by. I had put the guitar down and was seeking a new creative outlet’.

‘I was fascinated with the mosaics that I had seen around Manchester and online, mostly they were music/pop culture related too and this appealed to me at that time. I noticed that none of the mosaics I saw used another medium in the creative process. Each were either all ceramic tile or another material such as broken vinyl records’.

‘I spotted an opportunity to create mosaics that would stand out and be different by using an additional medium and my first mosaic was an image of Frank Zappa, using domestic wallpaper as a background and with spray painted lyrics. It was awful in fairness but conceptually I knew I was on to something and it paved the way for what I do now’.

The Manchester Northern Quarter art scene became his canvas: ‘I would get up around 4am and head into town to stick a mosaic on the wall under the cover of darkness. One of my mosaics, of Kylie Minogue, which I strategically placed near Canal Street, ended up being retweeted by Kylie herself which gave me excellent exposure and an interview in the Manchester Evening News. I did ask Kylie out for a drink, but I am still waiting for a response.’

Clandestine creativity was not limited to the streets of Manchester ….‘Another piece I put up on the streets, in London this time, was of Mark Zuckerberg with the Orwell quote “Who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the present, controls the past” spray painted in the background. My most insightful and prophetic piece of work to date. It was removed within days’.

Leak’s colossal images can require over three hundred hours of his time to make, and consist of over four thousand individual pieces. I wanted to understand the causative factors motivating him to tackle such eye-wateringly arduous labours.

‘I do not want to create a piece of art that someone might walk past without noticing. I want my work to stop people in their tracks and grab their attention. I want people to look, take stock and be intrigued …I want people to say, “How the hell has he done that?”’

Leak loathes intellectual sophistry, bristles at faux-esotericism and renounces the contrivance of meaning where there is none. As for celebrating art simply because of its maker’s celebrity, Leak takes no prisoners : ‘The phrase “Art is subjective” has so much to answer for; I don’t mind Jackson Pollock, but if he stepped into a time machine and travelled back to the Renaissance Period Sistine Chapel splashing his paint around, Michelangelo would throw him out on to the piazza before he could mutter the words “art is subjec….”’.

Leak’s early work saw him cutting his teeth, as well as his tiles: ‘I made a conscious decision to stop creating pop culture pieces. I love music and it just seemed like the obvious thing to do at the time, but after my third George Michael commission I thought something had to give. I wanted to set myself apart from the other contemporary mosaic artists in the UK. David Bowie once said, “never play to the crowd” which is ironic really, given that his face is the most replicated image in the pop culture art scene’.

So, what underpins his artistic responses now ? ‘I am constantly thinking of new ideas and going through design processes, some work, some don’t. I try not to think too much about whether it will sell, and run with the belief that if I like it, other people will too’.

‘Right now I have found a groove with the high gloss automotive paint in the background, it makes the mosaics really pop and I believe my pieces are genuinely unique. I will continue with this for now, but I have no intention of standing still, there must always be evolution and experimentation’.

‘I recently created a piece called Mankind; it centres on a human body surrounded by a collage of illuminated manuscripts from Ancient Greece through to Anglo Saxon Britain. The idea behind the piece came from being acutely aware of the grip that technology has on the world and how we crave content, photographing everything and posting it online, the endless scrolling through images. It is not hard to see that this is reshaping the way humans interact and how we fundamentally live and behave. It is terrifying really’.

‘Our ancestors produced content through illuminated manuscripts, telling stories of love, life, and death. We have an inherent need to document the world around us, it has always been there. It is just unfortunate that it has become something far less beautiful, and something quite destructive. Songbook is the working title of my next series of mosaics. I have several large pieces planned in the same theme, they will be big, bold and my most detailed work to date’.

Leak is self-aware and brutally honest, much like his work: ‘I am not sure where I fit in to the contemporary art scene, I am a little blinkered. I do not have an art degree, I have no formal training, I do not read art books or biographies’.

‘My aspirations are to become a full-time working artist and to be able to quit my day job. That is the dream…getting paid to do something that you love. But I am realistic, there is a long way to go before that might happen. For now, I am proud as hell to even have my work in a prestigious gallery next to some of the art world’s biggest names. For a lad from Wensleydale like me, I will take that’.

Leak’s dazzlingly provocative and creatively unfettered work can be found via Instagram @leakymosaics, and at the George Thornton Art gallery in Nottingham, alongside works by Damien Hirst, Banksy and Erik Salin. The gallery recently opened a Manchester shop showcasing local artist’s work…fittingly, Leak’s bold, beautiful work leads the charge !