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Matthew Shlian at Tamarind

Catalogue essay | Thursday, Apr 26, 2018

Matthew Shlian at Tamarind

For illustrations see the complete catalogue…

Matthew Shlian remembers himself as a budding artist from the very start, as a kid growing up in small town Easton, Connecticut—drawing endless comic books, taking apart everything in sight and putting it all back together again, sort of—which was somewhat odd, since neither of his parents (his father a CPA, “a numbers guy,” his mother an educator of kids with special needs) evinced any particular artistic tendencies. Which rendered things all the more uncanny, he now says, when he and his family were cleaning out the attic, a few years back, and they came upon a box full of relics from his mother’s father: nickels sliced and joined into dodecahedron-like constructs, drawing machines rigged together out of countervailing pendulums… “He was clearly a serious tinkerer,” Matt observes, “and even though I never met him—he died before I was even born—nobody before that had ever made the connection. But it does make you wonder.”

“Wonder” being a word that comes up a lot in conversations with Shlian: wonder and wander and free-ranging curiosity, curiosity without agenda. (Also wonder at the pronunciation of his name, which is actually “shline,” though he’s amiably given up on correcting people: “It’s not their fault.”)

By high school, he says, he knew he was going to be an artist of some sort (“I had no back-up plan, there was no Plan B”) though he was dividing his time between visual arts and music: he was an avid drummer, played in all sorts of bands. But he hated the “constantly being adjudicated” aspect of music education (the recent film Whiplash was for him “an excruciating horror show”), savoring rather the nonjudgmental solitude of the studio. So he chose to attend Alfred University in Western New York, a veritable emporium of arts practices, to hear him tell it, all of which he in turn sampled: ceramics, sculpture, painting, printmaking, glass blowing …and by the end, paper-folding. (Though not so much origami, with its ever more elaborate foldings within the strict confines of a single page; rather, that practice’s cousin, kiragami, which favored cuts and combines of multiple sheets right alongside all the folding.)

“For me,” he likes to say, “it was never in any case just about the paper. It was about light, and form, and structure. All art embeds thought in material, but first you have to interrogate the material, and the great thing about paper as a material for that kind of inquiry is that it is not precious,” he pauses, “… not yet.”

Coming out of Alfred, he spent a few years applying his art, his craft, becoming, as he likes to characterize himself (to this day), “a paper engineer,” at an outfit called Structural Graphics in Essex CT, the sort of place that produced pop-up cards and booklets for industrial, promotional and greeting card purposes. “Now, the thing about that kind of work as a business proposition,” Shlian explains, “is that they are striving after the fewest possible ‘hand assembly points,’ as they call them, which is to say, places where human hands have to intervene in the mass production process in order to apply glue or jimmy a connection. Five such junctures was acceptable, maybe, or four, though three was optimum.” And he wasn’t half-bad at it: projects of his went on to win awards (for the commissioning advertising agencies, that is). But he just couldn’t stop his mind from wandering: “I kept coming up with grandiose schemes that required dozens, hundreds of assembly points.” For example, a compressed handful of collapsed surfaces that when released veritably exploded into a serpent of interconnecting polygonal volumes, several feet long: Way cool. “They’d say, What’s the point of that? That’s completely useless. Which is when I’d have to strangle myself to keep from quoting Ionesco at them.” Eugene Ionesco, that is, the great midcentury Romanian playwright:

The universal and modern man is the man in a rush, a man who has no time, who is a prisoner of necessity, who cannot understand that a thing might perhaps be without usefulness; nor does he understand that, at bottom, it is the useful that may be useless and a back-breaking burden. If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots.

After a while, having saved up enough money, he abandoned the slave-drudge world of commerce for graduate work at the Cranbrook Academy, outside Detroit, another center for “useless” studies, where once again Shlian shuffled happily between disciplines—ceramics again, architecture—always returning to paper. “The most fascinating thing about paper,” he says, “is that it is a material with a memory. When we crease it, it knows where to fold, and when unfolded comes back to its initial place. And once we begin to understand how this material behaves, we can start to work with it.” He’d arrived with a few handheld dazzlers; by the time he left, two years later, he was fashioning giant roomsize installations of kinetic, robotic structures, rising up out of flattened nests into jutting, jagged towers and then subsiding once again: Very way cool.

After graduating from Cranbrook, he moved to Ann Arbor to join his girlfriend (from back at Alfred), now his wife, Thea Augustina Eck (a multimedia artist whose work was rooted in research and memory and material investigation), who was completing her MFA at the University there. He figured he could always get jobs teaching at nearby art schools, and did (including at the University itself), but his real druthers was somehow to make connections with some of the great research campus’s science faculty (he’d recently come upon the MIT physicist Victor Weisskopf’s comments to the effect that science was more interested in questions than answers because “Science is the opposite of knowledge, science is curiosity” and he sensed a kindred culture). He bought himself a DVD burner and spewed out fifty DVDs of recent work, conjured up a fresh brace of folded marvels, and put together fifty packets which he sent to scientists all over campus, along with a note saying, “Hi, I’m Matt and I like to fold things. Maybe there is some crossover between your work and research and what I do. Wanna play?”

“Out of the fifty addressees,” he recalls, “six wrote back saying ‘Thanks for the paper things, I have no idea what I could possibly do with you.’ But one guy invited me to give a talk at the macro molecular science department. Which of course was completely crazy, because what did I know about macro-molecular science? But then again, what did they know about paper folding? So I went and presented, showed them various pleating patterns and artists books, and it was great, because they got it! They could see its pertinence to issues in some of their work.”

From there, Matt started getting invited to programs all over the university—groups working on protein folding (and misfolding) in biology, and nano-molecular arrays in materials science—taking on a position as visiting research scholar (“which is a glorified way of saying volunteer”) for the next several years. At first his paper foldings provided marvelous tools for illustrating scientific questions, but increasingly they became even better tools for helping to frame them. “One of the guys joked with me how I kept coming in with boxes full of answers to which they had to figure out the questions. And these people were amazing, they were all geniuses, MacArthur winners and so forth. The guy working on protein misfolding in Alzheimers: smartest guy I ever met. You know the saying, When you’re the smartest person in the room, it’s time to find a new room? Well, the opposite is even more true: when you’re the dumbest person, and I was and am by far the dumbest person in these rooms, hang around for as long as you possibly can, just stick in there, don’t let them catch you.” And thus far he’s managed to stick around for seven years, the last four of which as part of a team that was awarded a two million dollar grant from the National Science Foundations to pursue such practical folded material applications as novel ways of parallel-slicing into solar cell arrays in such a manner as to allow the matrices to torque when stretched, such that their cells follow the sun, like so many sunflowers, thereby increasing the array’s efficiency across the day (only to revert during the night, ready for the next morn).

Meanwhile, his own work has been blossoming almost as profusely. Along with his wife, he launched Eight Emperors, a quarterly subscription service offering handmade (often handheld) design objects of exquisite beauty (paper foldings, wood carvings and the like). (They also produced a wee empress of their own, their daughter Fjora, now five years old.) His own creations began gracing public and corporate spaces all around town and presently all over the country, especially hospitals (with whose often sterile venues he himself, as a longtime Crohn’s Disease sufferer, was alas intimately familiar). He likes to tell the story of one piece in particular in the children’s wing of a local hospital, a folded Tyvek arch anchored on two turntables, whose incurling rotations become downright mesemerizing, and whose glass casing is regularly getting smudged over with tiny little palmprints.

About ten years ago, a teaching colleague lent Shlian a book on the Topkapi Scrolls, brimming over with illustrations of intricate Islamic tessellations (“I was completely transfixed, I spent the rest of the semester trying to avoid her so I wouldn’t have to give the book back.”) His notebooks started becoming festooned with his own variations on such Islamic tilings, along with speculations about how he might adapt them into three-dimensional cut-and-foldings. (Had he been good at math in school? “In geometry yes, I’d always had a very strong spatial sense, good at pattern recognition and the like, but I was completely hopeless at algebra, almost dyslexic, and never went beyond the most rudimentary classes in that regard. But these were patterns the likes of which I’d never seen, and really, I couldn’t get enough of them.”) At one point, Queen Rania of Jordan heard of his resultant experiments and invited him to Amman to design that year’s royal greeting card—and he took advantage of the trip to visit some of the discipline’s most remarkable sites in person.

In 2010 he launched himself into his Ara series, variations on Islamic tessellations compounding across creasing folds and geometric bulges, each instance growing out of the one before. As with much of his work, the patterning might start with a rule but it only really took off with the mistakes, the failures to stick to the rule (“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries” Isaac Asimov once contended, “is not ‘Eureka’ but rather ‘Hunh…that’s funny.’”—Shlian for his own part says he prefers the Ara iterations, of which by now there have been several hundred, “that end with a question mark rather than a period.”)

And it was work of that sort—elaborately ramifying stiff white paper mindscapes—that first came to the attention of Diana Gaston when she was curating the Fidelity Investment’s corporate headquarters collection in Boston {yes?}, and then came back to her mind a few years later when, soon after being selected to head up the Tamarind Institute at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, she began pondering what sorts of new young artists might make a good fit with the master printers at the lithographic mecca.

* * * * * *

“Are you kidding?” Shlian recalls. “To be able to work at a place like that? with printers like those and a roster of past artists like that? Josef Albers!”

So, yeah, Shlian was excited to accept Gaston’s offer. He’d long been fascinated with printing processes, going back to his days at Alfred. But the Albers reference is also interesting, because until about five years ago, Shlian had been working almost exclusively with white (and occasionally black) paper sheets. His interest, he insists, was in light and structure and form, and he was suspicious of the easy blandishments of color. “You know the old saying from art school, how if the piece isn’t working, just make it big and make it red!” But recently he’d been relenting a bit in that regard, and willing to admit, or at least to entertain, to experiment with, the tonal possibilities of color. And it was with that in mind, and still in thrall to his tessellations, that he reported to Tamarind for the first time in the Fall of 2016.

“Actually, I had no particular idea what I was going to do: arriving, I had dozens of half-formed ideas, but they’re all such geniuses there, especially Valpuri Remling, the current master printer from Finland, that I was able to put myself in their hands, and together we forged a way.”

The thing of it is, Shlian is color blind. Not completely: he’s pretty good with blue, but his red-brown-green range is unreliable, and sketchy at best. Still, now he wanted to wallow in colors, and he even knew which ones (a few weeks before coming to Tamarind he’d become entranced with a Rachel Ruysch floral still life at a Dutch Golden Age show at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and he brought along posters and postcard reproduction of the piece, pointing to the petals and telling the printers, “These, these are the colors I’m going for”); and together (focusing on levels of saturation and changes in hue, which he could make out), he and the printers managed to fashion, as he was calling it, “a different sort of Ishihara Test” (the original being the exam, with subtly gradated color circles, that ophthalmologists use to test for color perception). They poured inks over the stone, drizzled washes over the inks, printed a few sheets (using the rollers to spread out the inks), and without cleaning the stones, added further inks and washes, emerging with dozens of variously mottled and marbled sheets in five different color progressions.

Shlian meanwhile developed a series of tessellated puzzle boards, as it were, in his gridded sketchbooks, rectangles full of Islamic-inspired tile shapes. Back home, he fed his drawings into his computer, further refining the exact dimensions of the various tiles by way of a CAD designing program, then fed those results into a 3D modeling program, which allowed him to raise some vertices and lower others and then spew out the shape and dimensions it would require (along with tabs and back panels) to eventually create each of the sixteen pieces (he’d decided on sixteen pieces) that would come to make up each of the completed rectangles. “It was a funny process,” he recalls, “starting out flat, becoming virtually 3D before becoming flat again and only then actually 3D.” The 3D program helped trace out which lines within the pieces would eventually need to be folded up, which ones perforated down, and so forth, and then mapped out the optimum placement of such 3D-ready puzzle pieces across the color sheets he’d brought home with him from Tamarind, and then fed the color sheets into a high quality plotter (one of his prize machines, complete with tiny titanium tipped blades for scoring but not necessarily slicing clean through the paper sheets, except that is where he wanted it to)—and from out of the machine emerged the flat paper units which he would now be able to fold and glue (by hand, at length, at considerable length) into the 3D tiles with which he’d be filling his rectangles.

The result was “The Other Ishihara Test,” made up of six rectangularly framed combines spread across five separate “color families”—“Winter” (blue-black); “Hell” (red-black), “Marble” (off-white, grey), “Sherbert” (yellow-orange), and “Murmur” (light purple-grey): thirty individually distinct monoprints, that is, no two alike.

On a return visit to Tamarind, in TK 2017, Shlian embarked upon a major wall piece to be exhibited, for starters, in the Institute’s tall and wide street-facing display window the following April. The idea was for an elaboration of a white and gold piece he’d first contrived for the 20th edition of Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival in 2017. This one, he realized, while out driving with Valpuri under the glorious northern New Mexico skies, he wanted to frame in the key of blue (a color whose subtlest gradations he actually could make out), and back at the shop, Valpuri and her colleagues helped Shlian to pull dozens and dozens of varyingly toned and marbled sheets, starting with the palest azures on out through the deepest midnight hues.

Back home he set to work, repeating the earlier process for generating the 3D flats. The underlying grid this time out was going to be simpler—an even splay of regular octagon shaped tiles interspersed with tiny square diagonals filling the interstices—but the jutting 3D assembly was going to be considerably more complex. He was going for an even swell-and-subsidence effect, like stroked fur or a wheat field ruffled by a breeze. “Earlier in my career,” he explained, “I’d dabbled in kinetic pieces, where the pieces themselves rose and fell or rotated on their axes: it was that movement I was after. But this time I wanted a stable, steady piece—no moving parts—which nevertheless seemed to move—as you, the viewer, that is, moved.” Modulating waves, pale dawn at the bottom phasing toward deepest night at the top. In order to achieve the effect, he came up with ten eight-sided pyramidal shapes, each one leaning further to the side than the one before (and each thus requiring a differently shaped seed tile)—and the same again with the narrower pyramids rising out of the smaller square slots. It took him weeks to assemble the pyramids, building up bagfuls of broad-based octagonal ones, and twos, and threes—and their needlelike square counterparts (these were going to be variations off sunrise/sunset colors). “I started back before Thanksgiving,” he told me when I reached him late in February at his studio, “and I’m still far from finished. Just fold and glue, fold and glue, endlessly.” In a couple months he was going to be reporting to Tamarind to lay in the piece, affixing each pyramid-follicle to the respectively numbered slot on the underlying base: 1,985 slots in all.

I asked him if he’d come up with a title for the piece, and he laughed, “Yeah, you’re going to like this. I’d wanted to call the one in Sharjah ‘Murmur’. So I looked the word up in an online Arabic-English dictionary, and it offered up a long translation, but just to make sure, I looked up that phrase, to see how it got translated back into English, and the English translation read, ‘The voice of the water, the hum of the bees, the sources of the murmur, the wind’—and I said to myself, ‘Now, that’s a title!’ And so that’s going to be the title.”

He paused for a moment. “That’s it sweetie you got it”—he was addressing his daughter who was apparently beavering away at his feet, “helping” with the folding, but mainly he subsequently told me, secretly signing her name to the interiors of some of the completed pyramids. “Now, try it this way.”

Returning, he recalled how he’d once been hesitant to use color, he’d been suspicious of its garishness. But that he’d grown increasingly comfortable with the way colors seemed to tap into deep emotions, adding dimension to the form and structure of his pieces, and profundities to their light.

How long ago, I asked him, had he said he started incorporating color into the pieces?

“About five years ago.”

And how old was his daughter?

“Hunh,” he said, at length, “that’s funny. I never thought of that.”

* * *