Philadelphia-based artist Matthew Shelley has been exploring the use of the grid in two-dimensional work, drawing on its use as a tool for laying out compositions, which applies to both 2D and 3D design. The colors and spatial qualities of his paintings brought to mind an early stage of digital design or virtual reality, like a scene out of Tron, or a 1980s computer interface. But more specific to these pieces, the emphasis on the grid brings the surface and our understanding of its flatness into question. What we know to be paintings on flat paper or panel can also be interpreted as containers, where the grid suggests 3D layers through the use of hard-edged shadows and perspective.
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YS: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from? Where are you based now?
MS: I grew up in Eugene, Oregon and studied art at University of Oregon. In 2008, I moved out to Washington DC to work on my MFA. After I finished the program, I moved to New York and worked up there for a while. In late 2014, I moved to Philadelphia, which is where I’m based now.
Your work is minimal and geometric, hinting at an early era of digital art. When or how did you start using the grid?
Initially, I started using the grid for it’s simplicity. It’s a very familiar device, so it kind of disappears into the work. The grid has a long history, especially in abstraction, so I suppose it could be a loaded element, but I try to handle it in very basic terms. I was just interested in what it could do to the image. It also neutralizes a lot of the things I was trained to do as a painter. The first part of my education was in representational painting, and some of that stuff is still with me, so the grid is a counterpoint to those impulses. It can undermine something like pictorial depth, but it can also re-enforce it. It all depends on how it’s positioned.
The kind of space the grid communicates is really shallow, which is why it shows up so often in my work. There’s a sense of space in the picture, not naturalistic space, but more of a designed space. It has a tendency to defuse the illusion of light and kind of locks everything into static space. The feeling is artificial, which is probably where the digital associations come from. I think there’s a sense of dimension, but not true space, at least not in any way that’s really convincing.
Who or what are some of your major influences?
I read a lot about 20th century abstraction, which definitely influences my thinking. I look at a wide range of modern stuff that doesn't necessarily influence my work, but maybe has qualities that I appreciate. The woodcuts that Josef Albers did also have a big impact on my recent work.
Artists like Ed Ruscha, Jackie Winsor, and Rebecca Morris are some of my favorites at the moment.
There are also a lot of artists working in my vicinity that I really admire. People like Dustin London, Christian Little, Anthony Iacono, Micah Danges, and Alex Ebstein. Lots of respect for all those people.
You work in a mix of media on paper and panel; do you have a favorite? What first drew you to this style or media?
I flip back an forth between the two. I really appreciate working with paper because it can be folded easily. I started folding the paper because it was a way to sculpt without changing my materials too much. With the folding, I could bring some of my spatial interests to life. It seemed like a good way to create a tension between illusion and physical reality.
The panels are a good challenge because I have to work within a rectangular format, which after a period of working on paper, can be a struggle. It’s a compositional challenge, and the steps are totally different than the work on paper. If forces me to think differently about my process, which is good. It’s also a little more rugged than paper, so if I’m planning on applying a lot of paint, or if color is the focal point, I might opt for panel.
What is your process like? How do you get started?
I repeat the same compositions a lot in my studio, so it feels like one piece bleeds into the next. I’m always working with the same elements, so it rarely feels like I’m starting form scratch. I don’t do any preliminary work. I usually just jump into whatever I was woking on the night before.
How long does a piece typically take to complete?
On average probably 20 - 30 hours. A lot depends on scale.
What is your studio setup like?
My girlfriend Lily and I split a live / work space. We decided to combine studios here so we could work more, without traveling back and forth across Philadelphia. With the exception of a bedroom, the whole loft is a dedicated work space.
I have a long stainless steel work table in the middle of the space. I work on things flat, so that ’s usually big enough to hold the piece, and doubles as a palette. Outside of that, there’s two freestanding shop lamps that I move around depending on where I need light. There are two 8 foot windows along one brick wall, so I use that space for extra materials, tools, and a desk.
Any routines or rituals you follow pretty regularly?
I do most of my work at night. I work 5 nights a week, usually starting around 7pm and working until 3 or 4am. I try to keep the space pretty organized when I work, so if I didn’t get a chance to clean the night before, that’s how I get started. If the space is good to go, then I mix colors, or tape off sections of the painting until I’m ready to start.
If I’m doing work on paper, then the routines are a little different, but the pace is always the same. For me, most studio activity is planned ahead of time, so it’s all about following the steps I set up earlier in the day.
You earned your MFA from the American University in DC. What do you know now that you wish you would have known as a beginning art student?
Probably just to be patient and let the work develop naturally. I think making good things requires a clear mind, and that’s hard to find if you’re constantly rushing. I don’t think you can force the work to be good, it just takes time.
What do you find that you need most as an artist? What is your biggest challenge?
Time for sure. Studio time is something that I’ll force into my schedule, but it can get pretty exhausting trying to keep everything going.
What do you view as your biggest accomplishment thus far?
I think just hanging in there and still making work is the main thing. Circumstances are constantly changing, and you always have to find ways to keep working, so I think I’m just glad to still be practicing. I think it’s probably that way for most of us. There’s accomplishments along the way that make you feel good, but for the most part, I’m just glad to still be involved.
Any upcoming exhibitions/projects?
I’ll be putting work in a WPA show in Washington D.C. this November, and I’ll have some stuff featured in a group show at Tiger Strikes Asteroid in New York this December.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Thanks to Lily, my friends, and family… and thanks for having me on to talk about my work.
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Find more examples of Matthew's work as well as more information at matthewgshelley.com.