Michael Staniak

Michael Staniak Interview - By Steven Cox

Steven Cox: Let’s open up our interview by discussing your past and when you first got into making art. Would you say you had a creative childhood?

Michael Staniak: I actually had more of a sporting adolescence. I was brought up playing tennis everyday, which was a pursuit that turned professional in my early twenties. However, I did nurture a passion for art and industrial design through high school and once the tennis career ended with injury in my mid-twenties, I went straight to my old backyard studio and began working on a year long folio for entry into art college. The biggest early influence on my creativity was my dad, who himself graduated from an art and design university in Poland and was always involved in the graphic arts industry.

SC: You attended the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, to complete both your undergrad and MFA. I am interested to know about your early areas of interest and what caught your attention during your academic studies?  

MS: My academic experience towards art began in the United States, where I studied digital media communications. That groundwork informed my pursuits at the VCA. In essence, my art education was deeply focused on theory and concept, which in turn helped me explore many other avenues of creation separate to painting, but also complimented my painting pursuits in adventurous ways.

SC: What would you say was your first accomplished work that you created post-art school?

MS: Every work I made post-art school seemed accomplished at the time of completion. It is too difficult to pinpoint a particular work. The greatest change I made in my practice was going from representational painting to abstraction. It was a “hair-pulling” time but has proven to open unexpected avenues for my work. I feel as though my focus on the effects of digital media on painting are much better demonstrated through non-representational painting.

SC: Tell me a little bit about your current studio and working routine. Do you aim for set hours of being in your studio? Do you live close by your studio? Music on loud or do you prefer silence?

MS: My studio routine is pretty basic – I make art everyday, if I can, with maybe one day off a week. It’s what I love to do. I do live only about a quarter mile from my studio, so I can go in if I feel the sudden urge or “receive” a brilliant idea. That is a nice thing. Music is quite important to me. I have a band-grade sound system, so I can raise the volume to be heard down the street, if needed, but I also don’t mind working in silence. Occasionally, my ears could do with the rest.

SC: In your exhibition, Permanent Display, at Annarumma Gallery, Naples, you presented a new series of works that are a step forward from your vibrant works within the IMG Series. Can you discuss these new works for me and tell me a little about where the ideas for these works were first found?

MS: The departure for the new work lies in the visual content, which is more akin to cave painting, gestural carving and primitive code. The longevity of physical media, such as stone, canvas, metals and plastics, are important to me when exploring my new paintings. Initially, these paintings utilize digitally edited images of stone - a solid substance that is not easy to physically manipulate. Throughout history, stone has been used to store information for that very reason. In digital form, as an image, it’s easily mutable. When making the works, I am thinking about archival qualities of certain media and the permanence of information, which can be a major issue when using digital data.

SC: I find the works visual trickery very interesting, for the surfaces consist of engraved gestural marks that appear inscribed into solid marble-esque planes. Are you simultaneously commenting on the tactility of marble surfaces whilst toying with the idea of what if a human trace could be left in solid surfaces?

MS: The gestures in these new works emerged from observing ways we navigate screen technology. Nowadays, most screens use touch as the common form of navigation. Buttons outside of the screen are secondary. Varying single, dual or even triple finger motions, enable full control of what can be viewed on the screen and how it will be viewed. These similar gestures are repeated in my paintings, also with a purpose to inscribe a set of abstract markings that resemble ancient glyphs. These fleeting movements, similar to those when using digital technologies, have been permanently recorded and create symbols akin to a new subconscious language or an arcane set of seemingly ancient scribbles.

SC: Your contrast between stone and technology is interesting, would you say that these gestural finger-like movements we make on a daily basis upon the screens of tablets or computers will one day be equivalently primitive? Perhaps one day becoming as ancient as stone carvings? If this were the case, do you think there should be a method to de-code or archive the symbolism behinds these somewhat invisible navigational gestures?

MS: To a distant future generation, perhaps these movements will be understood as an ancient coded language. The stone carvings of cuneiform and hieroglyphs were considered the height of technology and language at the time. The movements we use now are ubiquitous, unlike ancient languages, which were reserved for the privileged. Therefor, I do not know how important it will be to archive our motions. However, the code that powers these motions is very exclusive and important. Programming code could become the ancient cuneiform of the future. It would be interesting to see how we may categorize and create a uniform language that is based on the gestures we use to navigate devices: for example double tap with two fingers will always be maximum zoom, two fingers sliding away from each other will be controlled zoom etc. As operating systems and apps multiply and become more complex, this may happen out of necessity.

SC: Your 2014 solo exhibition ‘Data Loss’ at NKN, Melbourne included a series of works where you pulverized dvd’s, commenting on their lack of value today due to the fact that they are perhaps considered obsolete. The exhibition itself plays with the idea of the break down of information and questioning the longevity of digital media.  In your own words, can you tell me about this exhibition and how this exhibition came into being? Can you tell me about the central installation that was also present?

MS: I don’t consider DVDs and M-Discs to be obsolete just yet. However, I have come across so many discs in my studio containing once “precious” information that are now basically scratched or broken. If discs are treated well and are not scratched, the chemical dyes degrade in most cheap CDWRs and USB sticks, and only come with around a five-year content guarantee. Even archival media have no unconditional guarantee against corruption. More people are using the Internet to store information via “the cloud”, however concerns over security and privacy do tend to deem this storage option potentially risky. By pulverizing DVDs and M-Discs into a grainy powder, I have almost made a pigment of these media. The discs now become a medium with which to paint. This immortalizes the storage media in the form of painting. Painting, as this unique, handmade, theoretically charged object, has perceived value that renders the medium indestructible. The idea behind a painting can endure beyond just the physical work, and can potentially be passed on through generations of cultural reproduction. In this way, the DVD paintings do not remain static works. They will be documented digitally and uploaded back onto the Internet. There, the simulation of the pulverized DVD paintings can be immortalized, forever multiplied and shared via the “cloud”. The central installation of the show demonstrates this cycle, where an image of one of the paintings from the exhibition was uploaded to a website and then displayed on multiple devices running off the WIFI in the gallery.

SC: Within this context, it would be interesting to discuss conservation in relation to these works, would it conceptually nullify the works if they were to be repaired or restored? I assume it would be most logical to accept the eventual disintegration of the works materiality?

MS: I do not doubt that conservation could apply to these paintings in the distant future, especially if they are highly valued for any number of reasons. I do not think it would be wrong to try to repair any physical degradation within these works. I just think that the crushed plastic of the CDs on canvas will far outlast the digital information they were originally intended to store. Ironically, these paintings are most likely to be archived in digital form, again asking the question of how this digital documentation will be stored and whether it would become more significant than the original artifact of the painting. Is it enough to have archived the painting digitally, if, for example, the original work was to be destroyed? What if this data became corrupted?

SC: Your PNG series consists of digitally printed code on top of your signature undulating surfaces. What is the significance of the code printed on the surfaces and can you discuss the process of making these works?

MS: A digitally documented image of one of my works found online is run through various programs that translate the image into an alphanumeric code: for example, binary code or ASCII. I sometimes manipulate or “paint” with the code, thus rendering the code useless if any attempt is made to reuse it. Viewing an image as packets of code embedded on the surface of another painting simply demonstrates the mutability of digital data. After uploading an image of a physical work onto the web or a device, it is no longer the actual work, just data as a sequence of code, which can be copied, transformed, clipped and corrupted.

SC: Your first museum solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis (CAMSTL) opens on the 1st May. The exhibition, IMG_, will be a survey of significant works from the past couple of years, with an additional 4 new works made especially for the exhibition. This is a fantastic opportunity to see the grouping of your works, and perhaps re-view certain works that you have not seen for several years. It is a great personal achievement and one where you can simultaneously review your own progress and look forward to the years ahead. Can you tell me about your preparations for this exhibition and the new works that you will present?

MS: Under the direction of Jeffrey Uslip, chief curator of CAMSTL, the exhibition IMG_ will showcase a survey of nine paintings from the last couple of years. Having amazingly helpful guidance and assistance from the museum staff has really made preparations for this show quite uncomplicated and a pleasure. It was also great to have the opportunity to make a few new pieces for the show.

SC: Due to the digital nature of your works, I am interested to know if the attendees to your IMG_ exhibition will be encouraged to photograph and share the images of your works online and through social media?

MS: I have no problem with people photographing my work and uploading their versions online. Most images of the work will circulate online, so the more versions of the work that are uploaded, whether good or bad, the better an understanding a viewer may have of seeing the work on the web. I also like the idea of someone standing in front of the painting and looking at the work via a screen in order to take a snap on his or her smartphone or tablet. I like the irony in that.

SC: Do you feel that this museum exhibition will present closure to some of past series of works

MS: I wonder whether it is possible to fully end a particular way of working or making a type of work. It does seem restricting. At times, I place old works in storage and think I would never come back to them, but occasionally an urge is reignited and working with older concepts or pieces can have interesting outcomes. I do think that the IMG_ exhibition will see the end of me exploring a few ideas but I may revisit some in a different way. That is the beauty of making art – I just don’t know. Right now I am focusing on making works that are quite different to what will be shown at CAMSTL, both in concept and method. The exciting context of the CAMSTL exhibition provides me with a nice opportunity to look back at what I have been doing to get to the point I am at in my practice now.

SC: I want to talk about the market in relation to how you view your own work once it leaves your studio. There is a lot of current media coverage online about flippers and bad dealers, both of which can have varying effects on the artist and the longevity of their careers. So far, you have had some incredible results through Philips, for instance your work ‘IMG_885 (Holographic) 2014, sold for £25,000 which was £20,250 over the high estimate. Or, perhaps more recently with IMG_853 (Internet Blue) which sold at twice the estimate. What do you think about these results? What is your opinion on the pretty fierce current market for contemporary art?

MS: I do not really pay much attention to the art market, especially as it relates to my work. As I said before, I spend a lot of time working hard in the studio and I love what I do because I simply have to make art. It is important for me never to get stuck making the one thing that seems “popular” with certain collectors. If you do this as an artist, you will just end up getting stale and running into a brick wall. I make work that thrives on experimentation and evolution of process and concept.

SC: What are the common issues you find in your own work? Do you encounter difficult moments in your process of completing a work?

MS: I would say the most cumbersome aspect of the studio practice is opening up to a new idea, committing to the labor and then finding that what you imagined would work has not eventuated as planned, at all. Trial and error is important, and often work does not come to fruition exactly as conceived. There comes a point when occasionally an idea is worth abandoning if it does not yield anywhere near the desired outcome. That is the toughest decision to make in the studio.

SC: Are there any specific artists that you would say have been inspirational to you?

MS: Right now - The artisans of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Antoni Tapies, Fritz Hartlauer, Huma Bhabha, Wade Guyton, Albert Oehlen, Johannes Vanderbeek, Sterling Ruby, Christopher Wool, Rudolf Stingel, Neil Beloufa– but this list chops and changes.

SC: You are the director of Paradise Hills, a gallery space in Melbourne that lies within the industrial heart of the inner city. Can you tell me about the beginnings of Paradise Hills, it’s evolution and where you see Paradise Hills going in the future?

MS: Paradise Hills began as a small studio complex I established inside an operating printing factory. As I renovated more spaces for studios, I found an area in the building that was appropriate for a gallery. This seemed like the logical next step for Paradise Hills, so, in 2010, the gallery was born to a massive reception. My good friend and fellow artist, Dean Thompson, had also been a big part of the establishment and running of the gallery. It is essentially a non-profit, run by artists for artists. However, I implemented a kind of commercial professionalism, which can provide a stepping-stone for an emerging artist with minimal exposure. The gallery offers a chance to be seen by good collectors, curators and commercial galleries. Another important aspect of Paradise Hills is the gallery’s ability to attract some more established artists to participate in exhibitions with some completely unknown artists. This breaks the ego barrier and has helped promote some emerging names as artists with a serious practice and exciting future. This year Paradise Hills will reduce its exhibiting space to a strictly solo, smaller project room, where artists, especially studio artists, can experiment within the “white cube” context. We have never been specifically focused on exhibiting studio artists, and we are still not strictly adhering to that, but it is a nice aspect on which to concentrate in the new project room.

SC: Can you tell me about some highlight exhibitions that have taken place at Paradise Hills?

MS: Paradise Hills played host to a fantastic two person show of Parker Ito and Ry David Bradley in 2010, a massive group show of emerging and established Australian painters that responded to the high-definition aspect of the screen in 2011 and a showing of young Melbourne fashion designers that made “Internet conscious” clothing as part of the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival in 2014. I cannot forget to mention all the great local bands, producers and DJs that have played at openings in our band room, which opened in 2011.

SC: What are your views on the current art world in Australia and how would you view the market’s interest in Australian art, perhaps in comparison to European or American Art? Would you say it is difficult for some to gain attention whilst being based in Australia?

MS: It is a tough question to answer in a condensed paragraph. Apart from writing a book on this topic, one thing I can say is that like breaking into or out of any art scene or market, I do not think that there is any magic formula. The “tyranny of distance” does mean that Australian artists may need to be more prolific on social media, just to be seen. However, in the end, it is the work that will speak volumes and hard work that ultimately reaps reward.

Images courtesy of Michael Staniak, Annarumma Gallery, Steve Turner, NKN Gallery

Michael Staniak