Songs for the Living – an Interview With Eric Standley

Eric Standley, Omnia (detail), 2021, Cut paper, wood, pins, gold leaf, watercolor, 36 x 38 x 14 in (91.4 x 96.5 x 35.6 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Dinner Gallery

Dinner Gallery (formerly VICTORI + MO) in Chelsea, New York City, is excited to celebrate some new art in 2021. On February 2, 2021, the gallery opened its doors to art patrons who are eager to experience Eric Standley’s newest exhibition: “Songs for the Living.” The show is scheduled to run through March 20th.

Standley is known for his fascinating and intricate multimedia projects, which he describes as “artifacts.”

Eric Standley, Verum Object 2, 2020, Cut paper, wood, pins, gold leaf, 15 x 10 x 3 in (38.1 x 25.4 x 7.6 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Dinner Gallery

His process is painstakingly detailed and has been likened to that of an archaeologist. Each artifact is created by arranging multiple layers of laser-cut paper, all strategically placed to conceal and reveal an array of colors, lines, and forms.

Eric Standley, Ceulen, 2020, Cut paper, wood, gold leaf, 25 x 25 x 5 in (63.5 x 63.5 x 12.7 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Dinner Gallery
Eric Standley, Verum Object 3, 2020, Cut paper, wood, pins, gold leaf, 13 x 13 x 6 in (33 x 33 x 15.2 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Dinner Gallery

In a statement about the upcoming exhibition, Dinner Gallery compared Standley’s work to a “collection of good songs” and explained that the artifacts invoke feelings of familiarity while also offering glimpses at what the future may hold, particularly if we as a people are willing to commit to values like tolerance and “reverence for complexity.”

Installation view of Eric Standley: Songs for the Living at Dinner Gallery on view February 2 – March 20, 2021, Courtesy of the artist and Dinner Gallery

Eric Standley ((b. 1968) received a B.F.A. from the Massachusetts College of Art as well as an M.F.A. from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He currently lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, and works as a Professor of Studio Art for the School of Visual Arts at Virginia Tech.

He has shown off his work in solo exhibitions throughout the world, include at the Sharjah Museum of Art in the United Arab Emirates. His artifacts have also been featured in the CODA Museum in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, and at the Scherenschnitt (Shear Cutting) Museum in Vreden, Germany.

“Songs for the Living” is Standley’s first solo exhibition with Dinner Gallery, but it surely will not be his last.

Those who want to check out the exhibition for themselves can schedule a viewing appointment online through this link. Each viewing appointment lasts for 60 minutes, and masks are required for all guests.

Interview With the Artist

How would you describe “Songs for the Living” exhibition to someone who has never seen it?

“Songs for the Living” includes seven artifacts that function as nuclei for contemplation and reflection. The physical objects consist of hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of intricately cut and layered paper supported by wood structures. My process for a single artwork can take months and sometimes years to complete. Drawing is at the core of my practice, starting in my sketchbooks as a series of “events” in the vein of key-framing. The accumulated events become digital vector drawings where they can be cut into paper using CNC lasers. The consciously woven spaces are assembled by hand but retain a meticulous accuracy that could only be achieved using the technologically advanced fabrication tools available at this moment in history.

How did you choose the title of the exhibit?

A good song for me is a composition that sounds as if it always existed. It can be relied upon to transcend uncontrollable patterns of thought and is capable of magnifying, augmenting, and consoling emotions, ultimately leading to some form of healing.

What inspired “Songs for the Living” exhibition?

Absurdity has always had a place alongside creativity for me, which has interestingly uncovered some profound questions about my purpose as an artist. About 15 years ago, I started cutting paper with lasers to achieve overly detailed compositions that were informed by Gothic and Islamic architectural ornamentation. I am not an algebraic thinker, so quickly, I began building my own geometric language that gradually evolved into a focus on the materiality of paper and conceptual considerations of my uniquely personal thought processes.

I am dyslexic and instinctively process thought as organized, visual patterns that occupy imagined space. The conceptual motivation for my artwork utilizes my automatic process of mapping specific paradoxes into spatial geometry, detailed tessellations, and color. The paradoxes I work with come from literature, mythology, philosophy, theology, and stories about the human condition. The geometric patterns and fractals that emerge from my paradox visualizations, I believe, trigger a base familiarity prior to sign recognition in the form of archetypes.

What does it aim to say?

The artifacts I make are more like sounding boards as opposed to delivering a specific narrative. My intentions are a necessity for me to conceptually occupy my process. The resulting artworks are not intended to convey those motivations onto a viewer, rather they become a platform for someone to engage by way of exploration, discovery, and contemplation. It is my hope that the artifacts function as sanctuaries of unity and universal familiarity; places where coexisting intersections meet.

What role does the artist have in society?

For me, there is no higher calling than being an artist. Just like I imagine a surgeon would understand their calling to be unparalleled. Each person’s purpose in life is equally important to the fabric of human existence. Finding our purpose is a measure of faith in ourselves as well as an obligation to the species.

I think of individual purpose as a form of neurodiversity. All forms of diversity are a necessity for a species to survive as a whole. If our bodies all reacted to COVID-19 (or any virus) the exact same way, humanity would cease to exist. It would be the same if we all had the exact same expertise in one area of knowledge or all believed in a singular code of ethics. Conformity will condemn us. Unified acceptance and compassion will galvanize prosperity.

How did you start making art? What was the strongest influence you had when you were growing up?

I started drawing and making things about the same time I was learning to walk and talk. My mom likes to tell a story of how she brought me to a slip-painting tent at a craft fair when I was about five years old, and how it took me an hour to finish one 6″ x 6″ square ceramic tile. The ceramicist who was running the tent took my mother aside and said, “typically, kids take maybe five to ten minutes to paint a tile… he needs to go to art school.” Thankfully my mom listened and enrolled me in art classes throughout my childhood.

I grew up in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and spent a lot of my time along the coast at the beaches and marshes of the Ipswich bay. From season to season, it was a place of constant change. The Ipswich river, the sand, the creeks, and the marshland would change in many ways during the winter and had to be rediscovered each summer; always different but always familiar. The ocean was the agent of change to the land. There was no localized permanence to the details of the environment, but the overall landscape remained the same. From year to year, I lived in a place that was familiar and newly discovered all at once. Unpredictability and uncertainty were the constants for me growing up in this space.

Your process is similar to an archeologist as they uncover objects. Please elaborate.

To be more accurate, I am an archeologist that uncovers archetypes. The artifacts I bring to fruition are created through a flow-state process of discovery in the acts of writing, drawing, cutting, and assembling. The compositional discoveries I make early on while writing and drawing speak to me as if they already exist but have yet to be seen in our world. Once I become aware of this, I have to carefully balance a mindset of preservation and determination. To let the composition grow into its own is like an archeological engagement of uncovering and preserving a pre-existing artifact. At the same time, there are interventions of determination where I make compositional decisions that sometimes include math, philosophy, color selections, and a general artistic sensibility. Too much determination can destroy an archetype. Too much preservation can cause me to abandon the project all together.

How is your personality reflected in your work?

I am an optimist and idealist that never really grew up. I see the beauty of the world in meticulous detail and hear it in a wave of unified, holistic totality. The artifacts I make are acts of purpose in my life and expressions of hope.

What adjectives would you use to describe your work?

I always liked how writers have described my work as “otherworldly,” “existentially provocative,” and “transdoctrine”. I would be less comfortable making those claims myself as it puts too much critical intention into a viewer’s personal relationship to the work. I believe visual cognition precedes language for many artists. The poetry my mind conjures takes form in the visual cues of the work I create.

If your artwork were music, what would it sound like?

Wow! I think their “music” would be an audible sense of space, or “otherness.” This is like asking what light sounds like… really different places on the electromagnetic spectrum, but it’s a question I will carry around with me for a while (thanks for that!). I am very sensitive to music in that it really alters the context in which I think, feel or see something at any given moment. I cannot listen to music while I am working in the studio for much of my process because it would be like listening to music while writing new music. As physical songs, each artifact alters a context, thought, or feeling, but these static objects are more like spaces where context and sentiment are brought to them by the viewer, changing in specific melody, measure and mood depending on the person or the moment. They are platforms for dynamic contemplation in the same way music is, only place-oriented.

If this exhibition could travel anywhere in the world, where would it go? Why?

I like that the work has been appreciated in different communities of culture and faith. It would be remarkable to have the work tour diverse religious venues around the world to bring attention to the unifying custom of human faith. We are in need of rituals that remind us of the fragility of life and the joy and compassion we are capable of as a global community. The loss of life during this pandemic has left the living with conflicting emotions of sorrow, thankfulness, distress, and benevolence – We do not need distractions from these things, we need time and spaces to examine their cohesion.

If you could steal credit for any great piece of art, which one would you claim?

One of the Maple trees in my yard fell in an ice storm years ago. My kids climbed this tree because the giant trunk was leaning enough that they could kind of walk up to it and get to the lower boughs and jump off into the sandbox I built around it. After cutting up the trunk, I was mesmerized by the cross-cut tree rings. The concentric rings told a story of coexistence. Every ring thickness, every undulating layer was an adaptation to the environment at that time in this tree’s life. It was a story of fragility. I realized I was looking at one of the most profound acts of drawing I had ever witnessed! I want to draw the same way a tree grows… to create as a form of discovery out of a necessity to exist.