SHOW POSTPONED, ARTIST MATTHEW GALLAGHER GRAPPLES WITH THE IMPACT OF COVID – 19
As local art galleries began shutting their doors due to the pandemic, planned exhibitions slowly started to be cancelled or postponed for the foreseeable future. Working artists, whose entire livelihood could be tied to one significant show, watched aghast and with little recourse as Ohio’s stay-at-home orders were extended. As the summer issue of CAN went to press, the summer arts calendar was beginning to be impacted as well, and “back to normal” was looking like an increasingly distant reality. So what does this mean for local artists like Matthew Gallagher, whose April show at HEDGE Gallery in 78th Street Studios is postponed indefinitely? I spoke with Gallagher about how the COVID – 19 crisis has affected their practice in particular, and what the Cleveland arts scene might look like in the post-pandemic future.
The show that was to open April 17 is titled Research and Development, which sums up Gallagher’s oeuvre perfectly. It is an ongoing research project, a bit like a long-term scientific inquiry. Their work asks questions about how we perceive the universe around us, and how we think about natural forces that we encounter every day, but cannot see—think soundwaves or gravity. As they explain, “I am in the studio experimenting and playing with physics and chemical reactions that produce a visual arts-oriented outcome.” They were planning on featuring “different bodies of work in the show that elaborate on experiments with magnetism, mathematics, visualizing sound waves, chromatography/capillary action, metalwork, generative processes, and optical illusions.” Gallagher makes visible the invisible.
One of the most visually stunning examples of this kind of work is Gallagher’s series of precariously beautiful magnetic sculptures. Gallagher creates the unique shapes and graceful configurations by using natural magnetic forces to move the material: “For these pieces, I use strong rare earth magnets and home-brewed acrylic resin and iron filing mixture. The magnetic field is very strong and serves as an invisible armature for the sculpture to form to. I sculpt the material a little bit with my hands and other little tools to get different shapes and patterns. Then the pieces get baked with heat to harden the resin. I remove the magnet from the piece and add color and highlight different forms in the piece with an airbrush. I think of them as ‘magnetic field fossils’ because they trace the form of the magnetic field, but are no longer magnetized, revealing a force that was once there, was captured by material, but is no longer present.”
Fossil seems like an apt description, as the resulting work is surprisingly organic, calling to mind coral, plants, or some sort of—gasp—virus seen through a microscope. Fractals abound in these delicate sculptures; and despite their solidity, they look like a stiff breeze would completely take them out, the grains blown away like sand.
Other work planned for the show includes encaustic pieces that resemble brightly-colored mushrooms growing on a log, created by a long process of repetitively layering the material to generate the forms. Gallagher is captivated by repetitive processes that create organic forms, like cell division, molecular organization, and geological processes. His work in acrylic also demonstrates this interest. These compositions are created by repeatedly striking elastic bands coated in paint against the surface, propelling the paint by the vibrations of sound waves. The resulting work, built up with myriad layers of paint, literally gives the viewer the ability to see sound.
With an art studio that is more like a science laboratory, Gallagher’s materials are, perhaps unsurprisingly, not cheap. And while Gallagher’s freelance practice has been quite successful, and sales have been steady, those funds were invested almost entirely into this new exhibition. Gallagher explains, “I had an amazing year last year, but I spent everything I had saved on this exhibit, feeling confident I would make it back and then some. I just wasn’t expecting a global pandemic. So at the moment I have a ton of art assets that I created that are difficult to liquidate.” Gallagher has applied for the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency COVID – 19 Grant, and is trying to navigate the red tape of unemployment and other federal aid.
HEDGE Gallery has been incredibly supportive to Gallagher during this unsure time—sending their in-house photographer, Aireonna McCall, to get some stellar documentation of the work. These photos are being shared on social media once a week to let people know the work currently exists, is definitely for sale, and will eventually be shown at the gallery.
But Gallagher is cognizant of the limitations of viewing art, in particular his art, online: “I’m personally not a big fan of the streaming concerts and virtual exhibitions. The internet is amazing for memes and quick content like tweets or really striking images, but for things that require more than ten to thirty seconds of attention, I find it’s hard to give artistic formats the attention they deserve online.” Gallagher admits: “My art really needs to be seen in person. Even though I have a lot of pieces that hang on the wall, I consider all of it to be sculpture. Even my paper and ink pieces play a lot with three-dimensional space, even if the z dimension is only microns thick. The human eye is an incredible precision instrument and can perceive all of that stuff, so it just doesn’t translate very well to the internet. I do sell pieces through social media, but my work has to be seen in person for full effect.”
As this went to print, HEDGE did not have a date on the calendar for Gallagher’s show. While they are remaining optimistic, the reality is that this pandemic will forever change the Cleveland art world. But as Gallagher explains, maybe this is a moment, an opportunity for change: “I worry many different communities and small businesses and nonprofits may not survive this crisis. . . . In my heart I am optimistic, though. I truly hope that the Northeast Ohio art community will make some changes when this is over. I want the nonprofit arts institutions here to reexamine their priorities and feature more local artists, appoint more black and brown and queer people to leadership positions, and use their resources more effectively. We need to slow down, prioritize people over profits, and take excellent care of each other on a community and institutional scale.”