Today marks the close of London Frieze Week, the internationally renowned art fair now celebrating its 20th anniversary. We had the good fortune of chatting with one of the fair’s most captivating young artists, Mattia Guarnera-MacCarthy.
Mattia’s health journey fundamentally intertwines with his creative trajectory. His battle with leukaemia as a teenager taught him to respect pain as an honest emotion, and one that he (often playfully) interrogates on the canvas.
K: This past summer, you went through an intense training programme and competed in a boxing tournament that raised money for cancer research. Can you tell us about what inspired you to do that?
M: So, when I was 16, I had leukaemia. I used to box a little bit when I was younger, and I don't know if I would have continued it, but my illness definitely inhibited me from having the option to do so, just being so unwell and weak at that age.
I think having that illness definitely taught me how to deal with adversity, with challenges in general. So when I saw the boxing tournament, my mentality was very much like, I'll just sign up. It’s two months of training. And before I know it, I've already had the fight.
My illness taught me a massive lesson in life’s ups and downs. They're so momentary. Going back to my art— I'm touching on it slightly less now, but in my earlier works, which were more sports-related, a lot of them touched on these fleeting moments of pain.
So like, it would be a ball hitting a player’s face with blood spurting out, with titles such as ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’— somewhat playful, ironic titles, which relate to this idea of pain being momentary.
And also, pain being a very true emotion; in a sense, one of the most unanimously true emotions. Happiness, or concern, could be kind of fake. But pain, I think, unless you're masochistic (laughs), is pretty unanimously the same.
K: Yeah, it’s kind of culturally universal.
M: Yeah, which is why sports is the perfect metaphor for life. There is pain, but that’s just part of life. I guess, to me, sports embraces this notion, because that's just part of the game. You might come out battered and bruised. But it's kind of the beauty of it as well.
K: Do you think your health journey led you to becoming an artist?
M: I think it's quite hard sometimes to believe in meaning and spiritualism, especially living in a city like London with the hustle and bustle of it all. But when I was younger, this coincidence happened. On the day of my art exam — which was the first and only GCSE that I had taken at the time — that same evening, I was diagnosed with leukaemia. The reason why I mentioned spiritualism is because it's crazy that, in a sense, I was left with no choice but to do art.
It felt predetermined, and I always wanted to do art, but that was when it was like a sign from the universe. And it literally just forced me into who I am now.
K: It's kind of reminding you that life can be very short, so you have to do what you love, because you may not be able to get to it later.
So, as an artist, how would say art impacts our wellness— whether we’re practising it, or observing it? Whether we’d consider ourselves artists or not?
M: I don't know if this necessarily relates to only art, but just having personal interests is so key as a human. It doesn’t have to be over the top, you don't have to be an art encyclopaedia or anything, but finding what you like and exploring that is super important for yourself, for your happiness.
And then for artists themselves, or people that like to create in any capacity, it's definitely an outlet for your emotions and your feelings. It’s a form of meditation. I've always seen it as that— I sometimes don't have enough time, or don't make enough time, to meditate or do those things to keep myself in check. But at the same time, I do feel like, even without having done so, just doing my art alone keeps me mentally stable. And again, maybe that's not exclusive to art, but having a real passion that drives you is super important.
Mattia’s work was featured at Frieze this week at booth H24 with Harlesden High Street gallery alongside fellow artist Maiye, curated by Brooke Wilson.
Follow his work on socials: @mattia.guarnera