Memory External: Matthew Gallagher and Mike Lombardy at Waterloo Arts
Art is always about a relationship with the world. Sometimes that means trying to explain it, or re-interpret it, or document it, or comment on it, but sometimes it is simply a way of understanding how the world works. In Memory External—works of Matthew Gallagher and Mike Lombardy, on view now at Waterloo Arts—the key to understanding the works is the process by which they came into being.
Matthew Gallagher’s works in the show are about the use and enjoyment of natural forces. “The visualization of unseen physical forces drives the exploration of this work,” Gallagher writes. “Electromagnetic, Sonic, gravitational, and chemical processes exist around us that are constantly experienced but remain invisible. My mission is to deliver representations of these forces as art objects.”
That sounds very heady. In looking at the work itself, and asking the artist questions about it, I would translate: this is about playing with stuff in some very specific, controlled, and thoughtful ways, and showing the effects of physics and chemistry through beautiful objects.
One series involves exceedingly detailed sculptural forms, on pedestals under small plexiglass vitrines. Their shapes are somewhere between flowers and crystals, between flickering flames and tentacular coral growths. The substance they are made from—a homogenized mix of fine iron filings (which Gallagher collected from a machine shop) with acrylic paint—is only the vehicle for the story. The forms themselves are the result of powerful earth magnets that pull the stuff into these finely detailed blooms. In several of them, magnets were attached on different facets of the vitrines to pull the material in different directions. From the outside, those spots look like the underbellies of snails, attached to the inside of an aquarium. From the inside, they are magnetic forces captured in solid form. The shapes are a direct result of the filings fitting together along the lines of the magnetic fields, following the path of least resistance until they lock into space. You’ve seen this idea in toys, perhaps at Big Fun: the little hand held plastic bubble, attached to a card with a blank face on it, and iron filings inside you can manipulate with a magnet to give the face hair, or a beard with limitless variation. Gallagher’s works are not about novelty and cute drawings, of course, but a celebration of invisible forces by representing them in objects.
On the wall behind those are a couple of drawings, also all about the behavior of material. In these cases, on paper perhaps 15 feet long by 4 feet wide, Gallagher has drawn with a ballpoint pen and then doused the drawing with isopropyl alcohol. The alcohol reacts with the ink, blurring the lines to varying degrees—sometimes just enough to make a fine line look like it was done with a fat crayon or marker, and in other cases enough to make it look like a watercolor puddle. The other effect is that it breaks out colors from the ballpoint ink. Gallagher said he was surprised to find that the black ink of his pen came apart in a spectrum of different colors.
Finally, a series of encaustic paintings—accumulations of wax nubs that look like moldy growths blown up a million times, or maybe like taste buds on the surface of your tongue, blown up not quite so much. Gallagher made them by painting dots of wax, one on top of the next, spending hours building up layers like drips forming fields of stalactites. The immediate, obvious question is, “how did you do that?” but they are no less marvelous once you have that answer. He could have told me they were made by drips falling down in the opposite direction, like dipping candles, and I’d have believed them. But something about the shape of each encaustic nub leads correctly to the suspicion that this is gravity acting in the opposite way. It’s the low temperature at which wax melts and quickly solidifies that makes these forms possible.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the gallery, Mike Lombardy’s experimentation uses different tools, and explores a different kind of energy. His process involves the exploration of Jungian ideas of universal symbols as expressed through an original type font.
Lombardy, trained as a printmaker at the Cleveland Institute of Art and now interning at Zygote Press, used the laser tools at CWRU’s ThinkBox to create what look like ancient and exceedingly fine printing blocks on plank wood. Lasers have burned all the wood away, leaving only the fine-lined forms of Lombardy’s own alphabet. In case you don’t have enough reasons to marvel at technology, consider the fine-ness of these letters, and the precision it takes to burn away everything surrounding such tiny lines, yet to leave each detail of each character intact.
Anyone who has seen images burned in wood that way knows the process forms a burnt brown image. Lombardy stained these black with ink, making them imposing and mysterious, creating just a bit of distance from the mode of manufacture, and also connecting them to the idea of printing. Lombardy says he hasn’t printed these blocks, but is in the process of making some new ones which he does plan to print and emboss.
But the objects are just a manifestation of all that has gone into them, and in this case that means the development of a font which Lombardy can type on a computer keyboard. There are programs to help you assign characters to each key on a keyboard, including normal, shift, and alt options for each. In this case, Lombardy says he has assigned one character to each letter and numeral in its normal mode, and another for each in its “shift” mode.
If the characters look like heiroglyphics, or if cultural perspective causes the viewer to want to connect them to sounds, like vowels and consanants, or fragments of meaning, like in an Asian alphabet, neither of those is quite right. Lombardy says the characters are each representative of energy.
Lombardy created the characters out of primal shapes—squares, circles, triangles, lines. “It was my intent to create a symbolic language that represents primal energy in a way that speaks in a universal manner.” He says his practice of writing out the symbols originated as a meditation on these ideas. In the way that Buddhist monks make colorful, intricately detailed sand mandalas by tapping out one grain at a time, one can imagine lines upon lines of such characters as the manifestation of peace, or at least the pursuit of it. The results look like streams of heiroglyphics. In case you wonder, the examples in the show are already sold.