We are delighted to announce that Michael Staniak's debut solo show at Unit London is now open, the Private view will go ahead this evening (Thursday March 12th). If you would like to attend the event please click here for tickets.
In Natural Order, Staniak examines technology's capacity for organising and deciphering data, examining the subsequent effect the wide-spread adoption of such technologies has had on the human condition. These new HDF Paintings fuse elements of traditional and advanced artistic methods: Staniak uses screen-based software to form his shapes and lines that are applied to the compound surface using UV flatbed printing.
In anticipation of the show we sat down with Michael to discuss his practice, the theory behind the exhibition and the relationship between art and science.
UL To start with could you tell us a little bit about your practice?
MS Normally my practice is very hands on, my studio based process is quite experimental and although my aesthetic very much refers to a digital and screen based motif, everything I do is basically quite traditional in the sense that I don’t usually use digital technology. I feel like that’s really important for me because it connects some of my previous training which is based in figurative painting and then to be able to translate that into a screen-based aesthetic was something that I wanted to do. I wanted to achieve this without using technology per se, but to have that reference present in the work.
UL But these works are slightly different, they do use digital technology, what software do you use and how is it implemented?
MS The software is simply photoshop and illustrator based, it’s a graphic user interface. Normally I don’t design my paintings in any kind of software or pre-plan them, most of my work is very improvised and the result of gestures. I start my paintings using a compound I have developed over many years, it is a plaster based compound and I’ve added different sorts of glues to make it more plastic and less brittle and more rock like. Once this compound sets, which can take between 20 mins and an hour (it’s kind of like alchemy), you have to get used to the exact proportions of materials to get the right effect. So once that sets, I prime my compound and get it ready for painting, usually that involves me spraying layer after layer after layer of acrylic paint to give it a printed aesthetic. So even though the art works can look like digital prints it can have a screen-based feel to it, like a back-lit kind of feel. It’s all done by a slow process of spraying atomised acrylic paint on to the surface of the compound and so it creates kind of false shadows and a false lighting which therefore gives it the illusion of flatness when you see it in person or sometimes heightens the texture when you see it on a screen.
UL So the compound is what gives it texture? And then the acrylic spray-paint kind of gives it the shadow and gives it more depth?
MS Yeah well the acrylic spray paint gives it the illusion of shadow and the illusion of depth. Usually we see the work on the screen, so we have an expectation that the it will be quite textured and then when you see it in a certain light, in a certain physical context, and the expectation is subverted because the paint is applied in a way that creates different contours and different shadows that are unexpected for the eye when you see it in person. So by adding another layer to this with the digital print I’m again trying to subvert that expectation of whether these works are painted, whether they are hand-made or whether technology has been used from the beginning, the only elements in these works that are digitally produced are the black lines.
UL So those black lines are layered on afterward, so underneath those black lines was the shape less rigid?
MS No no, that’s a good question, once the compound has set and my software based design is complete, I send the work off to be flatbed printed, I don't have a flat bed printer that can support something like this. The idea is that these printers can print the image on to a textured surface, so normally they can be used for things like corrugated iron and cardboard and stuff like that, but in the case of my paintings the texture is quite irregular so they had to lift the printing heads higher than normal. There can be faults during this process, when the printer is not able to accurately read the texture you can get like shadowing from the ink as it’s being sprayed through the printing machine. But also, the other thing is that as soon as each layer of ink is sprayed on to the textured surface the UV light cures it instantly so there’s no chance of running, so any faults that happens: any oversprays or things like that are purely due to the printing heads being raised and the printer itself not being able to quite read the terrain that it’s working with because it’s so irregular.
UL So the flat-bed printer sprays the ink on, this is similar to what you do, it’s like a digital accompaniment to your own practice, very fitting…
MS Exactly yeah and the faults that occur in the actual digital printing process are something that I embrace because it adds that little extra element of the hand, at that stage it isn’t present from me but it’s present in the machine so there’s like a humanity present in the technology itself, it’s imperfect. So as perfect as I try to make my gradients and my sprayed layers to be - which is almost impossible anyway - the machine itself also struggles so it creates a nice conversation between the two methods.
UL You mentioned the word terrain, these works have been compared to cosmic terrains or satellite imagery or even microscopic surfaces being blown up to macro levels, do you have a scientific background?
MS I have no scientific background per se. I would say the most scientific part of my background is studying digital media and communications back in the year of 2000 to 2003 in the US. Art seems to be boxed into a category that separates it from the rest of what else is going on in the world and whenever art and science meet it seems like it’s two worlds colliding. The funny thing is I feel like when I’m working in the studio most of the time I’m experimenting, like I’m experimenting with new materials, there’s a process of trial and error going on, something you’re working towards, almost like a hypothesis but it’s just not that academic, it’s quite creative. But I think the scientific process is almost inherent in the artistic one, especially when trying to make work that’s using organic or traditional materials. I have been utilising more and more technology, I’ve used 3D scanning, 3D printing, 3D routing but I mixed that with the tradition of bronze casting and wax moulding so it’s one of these things where the two worlds do collide and I have an interest in it but I don’t have a specific scientific background.
UL I think the worlds of art and science are colliding more than ever, especially with topics such as climate change, and artists involvement with that and spreading awareness, do you think art has a place in the scientific world?
MS It can, and I think a lot of artists have taken new technology and pushed it in ways that someone who’s more academic or more trained in using a certain tool will not push, because they usually know what they want to do with that tool and they will tend to use it for a specific aim or a specific target. With art we take things and we break them apart and we put them back together and we don’t have a client who is expecting a certain result. For example, one of my favourite artists over the last decade is Wade Guyton: his works are purely printed, they’re run through Epson printers, he pushes that Epson printer to the limit by running canvas you’re not supposed to put through and it gets jammed and he pulls it out and it’s uncoded. It does all these amazing things that no printer in the world would even dare do. And the results: these paintings that are completely made by a machine but are somehow totally beautifully human because he’s been involved in taking that technology and pushing it to new levels that no one even understood or could have imagined was possible. Then when we’re talking about things like gene splicing and dna storage and virtual reality, that’s yet to be seen like how far we can go but I know there are artists out there that are experimenting with all sorts of things so there is a place for it of course, for the artist to do that yeah.
UL When we talk about the artist and technology and the human condition and technology, (because I guess art is almost always about the human condition), we’re sort of getting into the realms of what this show is about, so if you would like to talk about Natural Order as a title choice?
MS I think the title for this show came well before this work was developed and that’s because I’d already investigated this type of work - where I printed geometric shapes onto compound terrains - back in 2016 when I had a solo show in Los Angeles. I just hadn’t revisited this idea for a long time due to residencies and new ideas, but that’s the beauty of having a studio practice where you’re quite flexible with what you can do and you can pocket some ideas or shelve them for later and come back and revisit them. So Natural Order is definitely something that came naturally, before the work had even started. Originally when I started making these works I wanted to create textures that imitated digital filters like the ones you can find on Photoshop like ‘liquify’ and ‘ripple effect’. But the more I tried to create this texture - or pattern - the more people didn’t see a pattern, they started seeing images: alien landscapes, satellite imagery, microscopic imagery, close ups of skin, all sorts of things like that. At first I was resistant to it because I had an idea in my mind that was like “no no this is what I want, I want it to be this pattern”, but I realised that it didn’t matter how much I wanted to have no image reference people started to bring their own ideas and history and their brains would bring their own interpretation to the work. This is part of this ordering of abstraction that I’m interested in; it’s a natural thing for the human brain to take something that is so abstract and to give it context or meaning that is somehow manageable or to even give it a narrative. We do it all the time, there’s a phenomenon called ‘pareidolia’ which is where we can see faces in clouds or patterns or like ordered patterns in completely chaotic things, for example you can see things that aren’t there and it’s not that people are going crazy it’s that it’s just the way that the human mind helps us navigate complex terrain. We’ve been using technology for a long time to navigate our natural world using maps and different instruments and things like that and now the more we head into a digital landscape we’re using things like code and algorithms and different technologies that help us navigate a virtual world. In that sense, my paintings having a screen-based aesthetic, and being almost like an image that’s digitally inspired. I wanted to take that idea and create some kind of geometric patterning that gave it a new context, that gave the landscape that people are looking at new meaning, so often people say it looks like maps that have been chartered or separated by some kind of technological instrument, I mean the title HDF_ means hierarchical data format, that’s the file name used for satellite imagery when there’s different sets of meta-data that’s saved as part of that image (date taken, distance from planet etc), but also people have seen stained glass windows, they’ve seen flags and I actually sometimes call these the flag series.
UL What do you think of your hypothetical viewer who doesn’t see anything? The person who just sees this large abstract piece and doesn’t engage in the paradeloia?
MS I mean, I’m not sure because I haven’t come across that, I just think someone will always see something. It’s difficult to look at something and see nothing or not bring some kind of history to what you’re seeing, like even a brick pattern might remind you of something from your past so yeah I don’t know how the people who see nothing engage with the work, I’m sure there’s something that gets jolted when you see any image.
MS I don’t think that VR is something that’s going to be very ubiquitous anytime soon. I’m one of these people that’s very physically involved in the work that I make and I think that’s because maybe I came from a sports background so doing things physically is important for me. My works are heavy and the process is actually quite intense, like when working on the texture you know the limited time means that things have to be done quite quickly and you have to be somewhat athletic to get it done without ruining it, because once it sets it sets and then you have to start again or throw it away, so physical engagement for me is really important. However I do understand that people mainly engage with my work on a virtual level: in terms of seeing it on a screen more so than seeing it in a gallery or my studio, I would say 99% of my audience is virtual. The idea of physical engagement is important, for example one of the reasons touchscreen technology took off is because we get to use our fingers. When we explore, when we communicate and when we do our day to day chores on our phones we’re doing the same thing that we’ve done since we were infants. We explore with our fingers, having that kind of haptic connection between technology and our bodies is what allows us to feel like a phone is an extension of ourselves, it’s almost like a limb because we can touch it we can do things with it and that’s why in my work as well i’ve progressively used my hands more and more when creating my textures. I think there’s a direct relationship between the way we use our fingers to navigate our screen-based technology and the way we used our hands to paint, from the times of the cave paintings we’ve even sprayed pigments over our hands to put handprints on cave walls all the way through to fingerpainting when you’re a baby to even you know abstract expressionists who use the same methods and now a lot of the computer based drawing that we see is also done on Ipads.
UL There’s definitely something about these works that make you want to drag your hands down them, they seem as if they would be very tactile and there’s a tension about not being able to explore them through touch...
MS A lot of people do, I mean they want to, I try to catch them out. But. you know, a lot of people do want to touch it because it’s that whole thing of not knowing whether its a print or a painting, it brings about that doubting Thomas thing were we’re a bit unsure of what we want, what we see, but we want proof we want to touch and I guess that’s the power of artwork is that we’re not really allowed to so there’s sort of a separation between us and the work.
UL You mentioned the impossibility of viewing art without bringing something of yourself to it, then you mentioned your sporting background, I believe you were a tennis player? Now all I can see is clay tennis courts and tramlines coming through.
MS That’s really funny, you’re not the first person to mention this, someone else said this when they saw the work here! Not everyone knows that I have that sporting background, I played tennis for the best part of 18 years and I went on the tour and so there’s no doubt there might be a subconscious connection between this geometry and the way my hand and studio practice creates this evidence of activity, like a clay court, it’s really interesting. People used to be able to see how their opponents moved based on how much the court was worn out in one section or another, but to be honest it’s not something that I have directly thought about, it’s something that people bring to the work but maybe part of me, part of that history, could be influencing some of these works, for sure.