Melissa Walter has talked at length about the effect of science and her work as a graphic designer on her fine art practice and, unsurprisingly, those two sides of her life have been cast as opposing instead of intertwined. When one seeks to know the unknown, grasp the ungraspable, and name the unnamed, it is rarely seen as an artist’s quest. Those are more commonly the pursuits of scientists, maybe philosophers. But when we yearn to explore, what do we do? We investigate, experiment, we try, we fail, we change, we fail again. Is the scientific method so separate then from the creative process? While the ideas and science behind them that springboard Walter’s practice are new, her work connects to a mode of making as old as the Renaissance: the artist as explorer and experimenter.
I’ve been aware of Melissa’s work for quite a while, in addition to being highly skilled she is also incredibly active in the San Diego art community. Throughout my time in Walter’s studio in early August of 2018, I was taken with the breadth and growth in her work over the last two years. I was especially excited by her paper works, that range from larger than life to the impossibly small. Melissa uses meticulous attention to detail and repetitive action to make art that leads the viewer to reexamine materiality, space, and labor with a new curious gaze.
One outstanding work to play with material is Gravitational Lensing, a sculptural installation made up of multiple large panels of thick white paper. Each sheet is split through the middle with multiple parallel slits running nearly the length of the page. The center of the paper is cut to ribbons, allowing it to shift in billowing curves. The result resembles a distorted loom: all warp and no weft connected by a few inches of uncut paper at either end. The panels are held to the wall with magnets along both short edges and the middle is allowed to drape in response to gravity. The title is a reference to the effects of supermassive cosmic bodies on the light in the universe, bending light passing by them to dramatic effects.
I was intrigued by this work before Melissa’s explanation; its balance of precision and seemingly effortless flow invites you in to investigate the repeated curves and folds. I learned this was not her first work to break with the flat surface of the wall and into the third dimension, but it was the first where I had witnessed this specific balance between a deceptively effortless sweeping gesture and an achingly human investment of time and energy. I’ve seen Gravitational Lensing many times since my tour of Bread & Salt when I first met Walter, and it’s mutability also interests me. The idea that a work can be simultaneously complete and changeable, depending on how many panels are used and how they are installed, challenges the concept of the art object as a static complete action and opens the playing field for successive revisions and continuous growth.
Walter’s work is at its best when it challenges ideas of art, history, and motivations around art-making. It often does this through her restrictive use of materials and repetitive action. Many of her works are not traditionally drawn and do not use applied color as one would expect a painter to. Sometimes the surface may be merely touched as is the case with her hand-embossed paper works shown in “Geometric Milk”, a show at Vivid Space, San Diego, in May of 2018. One layered paperwork, Wormhole, toes this line between the simple and sophisticated. Gazing into the work the viewer sees a clean square cut through a wide white matte. Inside it is another slightly smaller square window cut through a piece of paper through which one sees more layered squares, teetering on different axes receding back into the sliver of space between the glass and backing of the frame. The depth of this space is almost non-existent and still, Walter plays within it letting the viewer sink back and around the corner in this twisting square corridor. Once attention is drawn to those squares, the viewer can also pull back into the room following the squares of the matte, the inner and outer edges of the frame and the wall the work hangs on, all without a stroke of paint or the mark of a pencil.
Protons Collide, another small hand embossed paperwork from the same show, exemplifies the repetitive action that Walter has become known for. In this radial composition, two wedged-shaped fields of scattered dots meet at a point in the center of the page. Both shapes start as a seemingly random collection of pinpricks that become more and more dense as they move towards the collision point. Separated by a thin band of undisturbed paper, more mounds, this time neatly organized into straight lines, radiate outwards like a shockwave. When protons collide in reality they release a burst of energy and can create a mass of new particles, some of which only existed immediately after the Big Bang! Here again, Walter plays with a tiny sliver of space, the thickness of a single page of paper. By pushing from the back of the page to raise sections and create depth she fractures the assumption of paper as the ground for artwork and draws attention to the paper as a medium, not just the vehicle for the pencil, pen or paintbrush.
Instead of seducing the viewer from afar, these works depend on close reading to notice their subtleties. Walter creates shape, movement, and depth by layering, cutting and stamping sheets of paper. The finished pieces are largely dependent on the lighting in the gallery and shifting ambient light of the space to expose Walter’s interventions. Walter admits that she likes the challenge of her work. “The viewer really needs to be engaged with it or it’s nothing.” These are more works that, even without the clear associations to science in their titles, allude to a system of organization that keeps me coming back to them. Their small scale makes them feel personal and brings an intimate connection to the labor of making that larger works can unintentionally drown out. In fact, I didn’t realize until our studio visit that I had seen some of these quieter works before, on the same night Gravitational Lensing caught my attention at Bread and Salt!
The most rewarding portion of our meeting was when we started to talk about her process in all it’s imperfect and frustrating glory. I was impressed with her honesty about the self-doubt she experiences in the studio, another part of the artistic process that is often glossed over. The clean aesthetic across all of Walter’s work brings up the term perfectionism over and over again. This is a mischaracterization as far as I’m concerned. Perfectionism is an affliction, not a choice. Her work is meticulous, clean, precise but anybody familiar with the creative process knows that it is, by nature, imperfect and riddled with failure. In theory, does the artist know at the onset what the work will look like? Sometimes. They can plan and prep but when push comes to shove in the studio some days are not ideal. Sometimes lines get smudged, calculations come out wrong, materials don’t cooperate; in short, shit happens. Calling her practice perfectionist erases the labor of going to the studio each day and getting to work. Ultimately it’s the choices we make in those hard moments that define us, and it’s the mistakes that are made there that urge us to do better and learn more in the future.
When I’m in front of these works I think about being in the studio, pressing and manipulating the pages. Knowing that each of these works was touched and held despite their clean appearance marks their precision as a hard-won battle, not a miracle. For all their cleanliness, the work is never sterile. Visually the works are situated between Sol Lewitt and Eva Hesse’s minimalism and Agnes Martin’s conceptualism with a few caveats. They are restrictive but do not obscure the hand of the artist. The works allude to larger ideas but are not about the elimination of the art object in favor of those ideas. Rather, they seek to use simple materials to illustrate and explore complex issues about the forces that govern our universe on an interplanetary and sub-atomic scale.
Melissa applies the same determination of her methodical paperwork to the practical legwork of being an artist. Applying for residencies, writing proposals, promoting projects and keeping a website current are not the parts of life as an artist that we have romantic associations with, but for those who want to make a living out of their practice, they are unavoidable. It’s clear to me as a viewer and fellow artist that Walter is where she is in her career and our local community because of the hard work that she chooses to do. Her experience in graphic design and remote work shines here. She has been building a practice in the art of showing up and getting to work for years. Now that that energy is focused on her own projects the results are predictably impressive. I’m sure we will all be watching Melissa’s star rise for years to come.
Written in conjunction with the Rising Art’s Leaders of San Diego’s Live Studio Visit program 8/25/18
Keep up with the Rising Arts Leaders of San Diego HERE