A Short History of Time: Matthew Gallagher at HEDGE
“This is a sculpture show,” Matthew Gallagher says of his mini-retrospective exhibit at Hedge Gallery. “Everything is sculpture. There’s no such thing as the second dimension.” He insists on this point (which is perhaps debatable – literally a matter of perspective) because much of what he does as an artist ends up hanging on a wall, yet is more akin to the busts and bas reliefs of classical sculpture than any pictorial art. Even when it looks like drawing, like innovative and very beautiful line-making, it isn’t meant to be quite that, and does more. Gallagher makes objects which provide an account of how they are made. They’re examples of process directed by creative play. Whether such an activity succeeds (a primary question about any traditional art object) is a question that needs asking in a new way, and at a different remove from the work.
Gallagher’s work is process-oriented to the point of being like very cool, highly aesthetic science. The solo show’s title is, after all, “Research and Development.” Even his most conventional-looking paintings (though even those are far from conventional) are experimental in the special sense that they’re generative, formed as the gradual or instantaneous result of a chemical reaction, in illustration of physical laws, or as the aftermath of one large gesture, or sometimes as the exposition of a mathematical concept. He uses several magnets to cause mini-tsunamis in a flow of pigmented iron filings, for instance. These works, which Gallagher reports captured the most interest on opening night at Hedge, are scattered around the gallery rooms at intervals atop slim pedestals. “People say they look like explosions, but they’re actually implosions.” The twisting, jagged clouds of iron dust pull toward the magnetic nodes that draw them to the sides of Plexiglas boxes, crowding closer and closer together, as if braiding, combing and pressing the constituent atoms together. They’re like storms in a bottle, the storms of another world.
“Eight Cell,” which is a large acrylic painting on panel and introduces the exhibition, is essentially a painting inspired by the mathematical concept of a tesseract, representing a four dimensional figure extended in time. According to Wikipedia, “In geometry the tesseract is the four-dimensional analogue of the cube; the tesseract is to the cube as cube is to the square.” To make this complex representation Gallagher painted lines, radiating from eight points around the perimeter of his (square) panel. In all, 2500 lines crisscross the surface, like a flattened ball of yarn, or more poetically, like refracted starlight. Shades of red and gray, blue, yellow and brown vibrate against one another, the strings of a rainbow shredded across time. The painting is a vision of effort and mental concentration, of duration and the persistence of form.
At the far end of the large factory-floor gallery at Hedge hangs another, even larger work that could be mistaken for a relatively normal painting. Called “Impulse,” it resembles what I imagine an “event horizon” near a black hole might look like. Starting with a basic over-all black, Gallagher loaded a long stretchable, narrow band with paint, stretched it back about twenty feet, and let go. A mighty thwack, if not a big bang, ensued. So did the painting. When we first walked over to the four by eight foot work Gallagher told me, “This took a fraction of a second.” But it certainly looks as if it might have taken much longer – an eternity, even. The deep black background sinking behind and around the explosive force of Gallagher’s line is enlivened with numerous white or whiteish yellow spatters that look like stars. The central line of paint, also white with touches of yellow and red, almost seems to move, shaking and vibrating, beating against the void. It could be a supernova, or a galaxy. But perhaps it’s best understood as a remarkably vivid experiment in tension and release. Like other works here, “Impulse” teases the imagination and toys with aesthetic qualities, but in the end insists on more rigorous perception. Gallagher’s objects are essays in appreciation of natural process, asking the viewer to look more closely at them, to ask about them, and to recognize their vibrato and apparent bravado not as the qualities of stories or mere pretty things, but as aspects of action, evolution, decision.
By contrast the small “Growth Mantras” are cumulative, though they do depend for their configuration and detail on layer upon layer of very quick physical events. Each is a few inches square and a fraction of an inch high. They’re all either jade or slime colored, depending on how you look at it – tan-gray to pale-green. They look organic, like nodular intestinal growths, or seaweed, or fungi, or maybe moss. Gallagher makes them by spreading hot encaustic wax on a small metal plate. It dries there very quickly, beading up like a skim of water in a hot frying pan. He does this over and over again, dozens of times, in a repetitive, meditative process. Mounted horizontally behind Plexiglas they resemble many nubby, furry, rocky things — or they can be understood as evocations of elementary, opposing characteristics of matter such as those listed long ago by early Greek philosophers: moist and dry, hot and cold, etc. As with Gallagher’s other research objects at Hedge, they explore the syntax of matter with elegance and a sort of scientific grace.