Songs for the Living: Interview with Artist Eric Standley
Yellow spires resembling alien suns, striking detail, a cacophony of colors, this is what one sees when they look upon the art of Eric Standley. His incredibly intricate labor-intensive laser cut-paper sculptures are referred to as “artifacts.” His upcoming exhibition titled “Songs for the Living” will be on view at Dinner Gallery (formally VICTORI + MO) from February 2 — March 20, 2021.
Standley hails from a family of engineers and this greatly influenced his practice. All of his artworks are inspired by paradoxes identified in mythology, mathematicians and philosophical ideas regarding culture, religion, and politics. The complex shapes tend to resemble Gothic cathedrals and Muslim prayer niches; they are both contemplative and enigmas of design that aim to convey tolerance, compassion, and reverence of truths. His latest series of “Verum” objects (the Latin word for truth) were created as an act of detoxification from the emptiness of a virtual existence during the early months of the pandemic in 2020. The work enables exploration and discovery of absolute truth while exposing the fragility of paper cut to nearly impossibly thin strands.
Eric Standley earned a B.F.A. from the Massachusetts College of Art and a M.F.A. from Savannah College of Art and Design. He is a Professor of Studio Art for the School of Visual Arts at Virginia Tech. “Songs for the Living” is his first exhibition with the Dinner Gallery, a contemporary gallery in New York that is dedicated to promoting emerging artists.
Eric recently discussed his art and career via an exclusive interview.
MM: How did you get interested in artwork and how did you develop your three-dimensional style?
Eric Standley (ES): I never had a choice really. Drawing and making things was just what I did when I was young, and thankfully I had a supportive family that encouraged my artistic pursuits. My father was an engineer, and my grandmother was a concert pianist, both of which influenced me deeply from different ends of an interesting creative spectrum.
I started cutting paper with a laser in 2004 and developed a technique that included drawing on a matrix and layering cut paper strategically. This evolved into compositions that occupied hundreds of sheets of paper and complicated negative space relationships that were 1 to 2 inches deep. In 2019 I began to break out of the frame — or more accurately move the frame to the inside, so that the vulnerability of the paper was elevated. It’s an act of trust really — to allow someone to occupy the same space as the work and have them become aware of their own physicality in relation to the fragility of the compositions.
MM: How did you break into the art world and establish yourself?
ES: At some point early on I realized I would not be a happy person unless I maintained a studio practice with or without any reception of the work I created. My artwork is my purpose while I’m on the planet, and I am thankful that the things I make are received positively, but my motivation comes from somewhere else. It’s as strong as the devotion we feel when we are in love, the obligation and loyalty we hold toward family, or the assurances of a religious faith. I had a professor in a class called Art and Philosophy years ago that would challenge us with “thinking problems” every 2 weeks or so; one of which was “if you were all alone and had everything you needed on a remote island to do anything you wanted, what would you do? Would you actually be an artist?” I am established by purpose, and thankfully I’ve worked with great people who believe in what I do and connect my work with those who want to see it. I do not have a specific Cinderella story on how I got to where I am, I just have stories about prioritizing creativity in my life.
MM: Your pieces are so intricate! On average, how long does it take you to complete a piece?
ES: Despite the technology I use I am slow, obsessive and object-oriented. Each artifact I create is unique and often blends the use of tools made for prototyping or mass-production with old-school studio practices such as drawing and gold leaf. A single composition takes months to produce. Omnia took over 2 years to complete.
MM: What inspired the “Verum” series?
ES: Creating Verum Objects began as an act of detoxification. I’m using the word “verum” here as an antonym for “virtual”, inspired by thoughts about phenomenology during isolation and physical distancing in 2020. The physicality of our existence, of our bodies in dimensional space, our relationship to tangible objects, and the sense memory abilities we possess for being in a lived environment had a heightened value during the early days of the pandemic. A semi-virtual existence narrowed what was seen and heard, mapping too conveniently onto political strategies to miss-inform, manipulate, and re-interpret events. Mediation inherently dissolves truth. Truth in turn becomes a measure of subjective belief. Verum Objects were made as antibodies to an existential void. Building these fragile artifacts provided me with a way to experience the purity of undeniable truth as physical objects, with a suspicion they could do the same for others.
MM: How does religion and politics inspire your work?
ES: The theological and cultural signifiers seen in my artworks are unintended. I do not illustrate from life, or represent thoughts metaphorically or symbolically. Archetypes have the potential to be recognizable across all religions, cultures, or histories. I’m like an archeologist carefully uncovering artifacts that are simultaneously newly discovered and familiar. My sensibility plays a part in the process by walking a careful line between preservation and determination mirrored by faith and doubt. These values and challenges are shared across many religions, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism. The artifacts I bring into existence are expressions of hope.
MM: How did you find out about the Dinner Gallery and secure an exhibition with them?
ES: I have been working with Celine Mo and Ed Victori for several years after meeting at my exhibition “In Depth” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Virginia Beach. They believed in my work and I believed in them. Being equally determined in what we were doing, we had been planning on an exhibition of my work for a while which was originally scheduled for June 2020. I am grateful to be working with them both at the Dinner Gallery now!
MM: Out of all your pieces, do you have any particular favorites? If so, which ones and why?
ES: I usually answer this question by saying my next project is my favorite, but right now my heart goes out to Omnia featured in this show. Omnia is the result of a commission that was proposed over two years ago, conceptually based on paradoxes relating to quintessence, elements, the expansion of the universe, and human existence. The project evolved so gracefully from its original form it was as if it knew what it wanted to be and I just happen to be the one who was around to do it. Many of the other artworks in the exhibit were created to inform different aspects of Omnia.
MM: What has been the most memorable feedback that people have given you about your artwork?
ES: I am moved by the positive reception of my exhibit Quintessence does not Wait at the Sharjah Museum of Art during the 2019 Islamic Arts Festival in the UAE. The people I met and worked with there are like family to me now. I have a deep respect for the beauty of the Muslim religion the and values I share with Islamic culture. Some of the same artwork from that exhibit was also exhibited at the Southwell Minster Cathedral in the UK. The work was equally appreciated and I had many conversations about theology at that show. Being a part of these spaces in a spiritual way through the artifacts I create has shown me the compassion we possess as a global society, and the significance of celebrating the range of diverse beliefs currently in existence.
MM: Are you currently working on any new pieces?
ES: I have several new proposals and projects that I am working on. There are always overlaps from project to project, and the strong survive. My sketchbook is about 5 years ahead of me, so I’m eager to get some of those concepts started.
MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
Extending trust to someone can sometimes be hard to do, but receiving it is fantastic. Having someone witness the vulnerability of my work in person is an extension of trust and faith. I mean its just cut paper. That’s not what makes seeing my work anything special… it’s the viewer.
To see the exhibition, visit the Dinner Galley at 242 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011. Eric can also be followed on Instagram via @eric.standley