Eric Standley

Interview by Thomas Hendricks
Issue 46 • December 2016 • Blacksburg

Using the latest in CNC fabrication technology, this highly-trained sculptor builds minuscule paper worlds filled with seemingly infinite architectural detail.

Above: Detail from Daphne, Eric Standley’s piece in the Greater Reston Arts Center's CUT exhibit.

Look inside a work by Eric Standley and you’ll see a world unto itself. His meticulous sculptures, embedding rooms on top of rooms and spaces within spaces, are both enchantingly vast and frustratingly compact. Each made from hundreds of layers of intricately carved paper, these pieces reward those who linger a little longer as the eye slowly digests what lies within. The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “The principle of Gothic architecture is infinity made imaginable.” It is this ethos which inspires Standley's offerings in the CUT exhibit opening on December 9 at the Greater Reston Arts Center.

“I come from a generation that didn’t have ADHD, but that’s probably where I would have been at,” joked Eric Standley. “My mom would put a pencil in my hand and I’d be gone for hours.” His artistic compulsion started at an early age. At six, he began attending Notre Dame Extension School for gifted young artists and spent several years immersed in classical art education, including nude figure studies. After earning a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art, he secluded himself to a cabin in the woods to “live like Thoreau for a bit.” He eventually found employment at a sign-making shop in Charlottesville working with CNC laser cutting machines.

Things were generally going well in life for Standley. He was checking off all the boxes encouraged by society: get a good job, build practical skills, save for retirement—but one day a realization hit. This wasn’t really what he wanted to be doing. What happened to that hyperactive little kid? What happened to that compulsion to create? He made the decision to plunge into his art and fully commit to creative work. “It’s not a choice. It is what I am supposed to do. Why should I compromise this calling just to be comfortable?” asked Standley, adding, “To go against that is a life unfulfilled.” Not long after, Standley entered graduate school at Savannah College of Art and Design, determined to pursue his art in earnest and “guard it as something precious.”

“Why should I compromise this calling just to be comfortable?” asked Standley, adding, “To go against that is a life unfulfilled.”

In grad school, Standley was able to connect with his original drive to make and to create. This mixed with his innate contrarian spirit in interesting ways. “I had a motivation of sarcasm in my art,” said Standley half-jokingly. For an example of this, look no further than his grad school thesis. A painting major, Standley specialized in creating classical high art pieces. He would spend hours and hours in the studio painting intricate Renaissance style compositions. Once finished, he did what any normal person would do: cut them up and sew them into a pair of slippers.

While the absurdity of this process brings a certain level of irreverent joy to the viewer, his vision runs deeper than mere high-concept sarcasm. As Standley explained, “Art is what cushions us from the world, it’s a buffer between our subjective response and the rawness of culture.” Continuing, he said, “It’s a way to enter into culture and to understand something without being so vulnerable.” With his thesis project, Standley took that philosophical perspective literally and puts art between the body and the world. The results were comedic yet poetic, and certainly set a lofty goal for casual footwear.

After earning his MFA in 2004, Standley went looking for a job in academia. Fortuitously for him, the Art Department at Virginia Tech had recently invested in a couple of laser cutters but was having trouble finding appropriate projects for which they could be employed. When he arrived for his job interview, Standley saw the cutters and said, “These things are awesome. Let’s fire them up!” This impromptu demonstration of machining skills made the decision to hire him an easy one.

With a teaching job in hand, Standley began to focus his attention on laser cutting as an artistic medium. Describing his first impressions of the machine’s potential, Standley said, “It’s an answer waiting for a problem.” Standley’s first foray began by designing highly ornate line art and cutting them into cereal boxes, another nod to his sarcastic inclinations. The series, entitled AM Wisdom, was about “raising the banal. It was a pretty straightforward thing.”

One day, Standley happened to stack up a bunch of practice cuts and the depth of the layers spoke to him. That’s when it all clicked. He started experimenting with projects involving compound cuts, built up in layers, spending several years before he became comfortable with the approach. Drawn on a matrix, the designs create an intimate architecture between the hundreds of layers of paper.

Another unexpected thing happened during this period of discovery: the sarcasm disappeared from his work and was replaced by a playful paradox. Standley welcomed the change as a challenge. “Paradox for me is a kind of meditative cycle,” he explained. In particular, he became interested in the paradoxes that came with working with precision cut paper. All of his works are as time consuming and high tech as they are delicate and ephemeral. It’s the dance of the substantial and the fragile.

One of the greatest examples of his work is Daphne, a 17-foot-long red oak tree embedded with a landscape of intricately carved paper temples. The piece is inspired by the Greek myth wherein the naiad Daphne, being chased by the god Apollo, pleads with her river god father to transform her into a laurel just in time to escape his advances. The piece is an effort to frame Daphne not as a victim, but as triumphant, gaining immortality in her laurel form, safely hidden from the harassment of the gods.

The tree trunk in the piece was from Standley’s own backyard—removing it was a favor to his wife. Daphne is Standley’s first freestanding piece, allowing patrons to view it from all sides. Best experienced up close, Standley made the decision not to put a buffer zone between the viewer and the delicate details. “We can’t rope this off. I need to have people be able to get inches away and we have to take that risk.”

The process behind Standley’s art is time consuming and the margin of error is miniscule, but the impact of the final result is undeniable. Much like a James Joyce novel, the consciousness of the work is present on many levels and must be seen from all angles. The finished pieces certainly leave a lasting impression, although that is not Standley’s top concern. “I’m not too concerned with the viewer. I would still make these things if they just ended up in my closet.”

Eric Standley’s work will be featured at the Greater Reston Arts Center in their CUT exhibit. Opening reception to be held on Friday, December 9 from 6–8 PM. To see more of Standley’s work, visit eric-standley.com.

Photography provided by Greater Reston Arts Center

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