Rita Matos, What We Feel Like

What is art? What is design? What is a poster? Big questions, and pertinent ones too—with one designer boldly attempting to solve them (or at least, open up a big old discussion about them.) That brave person is Rita Matos, who’s based in Lisbon, Portugal, and recently held an exhibition of her personal work in order to root around in such tricky conundrums.

The show, held at the tail end of 2017 at the gallery FOCO, was curated by fellow Lisbonian Joana Portela, who describes it as “part of the desire to bond the universe of design with contemporary art, and to test the boundaries of typography into a more artistic purpose.”  It marked Matos’ first solo show in a contemporary art gallery, and features more than 20 unique posters, in which she “has been searching and developing in an experimental way, as a freelancer and in collaboration with musicians and other designers close to her personal and professional circuit,” Portela says.

But why do we need to be examining such questions? From what Matos tells me, the exploration seems particularly pertinent in her home city, where she feels there’s a more pronounced divide between the worlds of art and design than there perhaps is elsewhere. “I’m not starting a movement or anything, but it does feel unusual to see a graphic design exhibition in this kind of contemporary art space in Lisbon,” says Matos. “Maybe in other places it wouldn’t be so unusual, but here it seems a little more odd, so I thought it would be fun.

“I also wanted to use the exhibition to make a statement, that it doesn’t always have to be about the same sort of artists, work, and moods. It was interesting to see a lot of people coming to the show, because suddenly you have a room with all the design people I work with, and my design friends; and also the people who are used to going to that gallery to see paintings and sculptures or something more ‘traditional.’ It was interesting to see these people in the same space, talking about whether it’s art or not. It was our intention to create that discourse.”

Matos’ work is typically bold, heavily typographic, and often rendered in a brutal kind of monochrome. Naturally, the priority given to type rather than, say, geometries or illustrated elements make it feel like a very direct form of messaging. But as the designer hints, can’t messaging be art too?

There’s a rich lineage of fine art canon folk working with type—Laurence Weiner, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer, to name just a few—so why, when a designer makes a type-based work, which serves no other purpose than to exist (that is, outside of a formal client brief), do we still view that as a discipline totally separate?

“In my work people always recognize a very strong visual component,” says Matos. “They might not understand what’s written, but they see a very similar approach [across the work.] Some objects in the show were purely ‘design’ as they were work for clients, but the idea of the exhibition was also questioning what a poster can be. They’re solving a problem: as a designer, you can use the same tools to express yourself in other ways, that don’t just answer a specific question. Sometimes they can be just for the sake of experimentation.”

Rita Matos, xxiibeats work

It’s pretty impressive that Matos has not only created the works, and used them as a site for asking pertinent and valuable questions about the nature of design; but that she’s made all this happen alongside a five day a week day job at studio silvadesigners, and working on some very strong, 3D-leaning graphics, art direction projects, and moving image pieces for xxiiibeats, a platform based in Porto, Portugal, for “future beats and underground sounds.”

That’s not to mention her numerous freelance projects, including some excellent art direction for Berlin-based electronic music magazine Borshch. Matos got involved with xxiii having met one of the founders in Barcelona, and later being brought on to create video teasers, social media imagery, and merchandise alongside a series of posters. “It’s been great working with them as I have basically been doing what I want,” says Matos. “We like the same music and have the same sort of style, so there’s been very much a shared vision for the project. We do these sick parties, and it’s lots of fun.”

It’s a relief that it’s not all work and no play, with Matos seemingly working on so many things that you wonder if she’s snuck a few extra hours into the day than the rest of us. How does she do it? “It’s actually pretty crazy,” she says. “I think it’s about knowing how much I can do in a specific time. I’m a pretty fast worker, what takes the time is thinking about the idea. Of course I’ve sacrificed a weekend or night out, and a little bit of my personal life too. But then, I think talking things through with friends, or taking a walk in the park mean you see things and think about things differently. The freedom I have in my personal practice also helps in that it feeds into my other work too and gives me new perspectives.

“It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible.”