I Didn't Want to Like This Show
Micheal Schultheis’s mathematical paintings quietly challenged my view of the world
My love for the arts and humanities is so complete, so consuming, that I’ve developed an enormous chip on my shoulder in regard to other more analytical disciplines. Only the arts can capture the ineffable and harness the infinite to describe the universe and reveal the soul. By contrast, rationalism1 and materialism2 offer us discrete, reductionist, quantitative (read: masculine) views of the world that dismiss the more intuitive, holistic, and perceptual ways of understanding.
So, when I learned that all the paintings in Micheal Schultheis’s exhibition at Froelick Gallery were based on mathematics, I expected to be unmoved. If I’m being honest with myself, I went to the show to reinforce my worldview. I wanted to be able to say See! Told ya so! You can’t create something transcendent using math. Only art can do that.
In the gallery3, Schultheis’s large-scale paintings line the back wall and two side walls, wrapping the viewer in a color palette that is so harmonious as to have a calming effect on the nervous system. I know precious little about color theory, but I reckon this is the body’s natural response to such a virtuosic use of complementary and analogous colors. Everything feels in balance.
The palette is also remarkable because it’s so narrow. The artist works primarily with pigments from the Hellenistic Period (323 BCE - 33 BCE)—the era of Archimedes, whose influence pervades this work (more on that later)—so the canvases all speak to each other through red vermilion, lapis blue, and the grounded earth tones of ochre. It’s like attending a dinner party where each person makes unique and nuanced points about a subject that everyone agrees on.
At a distance, many of the compositions read as abstract landscapes—some idyllic, some apocalyptic—and the connection to math isn’t immediately apparent. As you get closer to the canvases, though, what appeared from afar to be the artist’s furious mark making turns out to be a constellation of equations scrawled with a tiny brush and a steady hand, the signature of an artist whose first obsession was mathematics.
Schultheis grew up queer in a small agricultural town in Eastern Washington. One of his teachers, recognizing an early aptitude in him, told him that math could be his ticket out of there. He went on to advanced degrees in math, economics, and econometrics before working as a programmer for Microsoft where he and a team helped develop Excel and other mapping software.
One day while commuting to work, he caught Terry Gross on the radio interviewing an artist who said, ‘You have to paint what you know.’ This called to Schultheis. He knew math, so that’s what he would paint. He quit Microsoft to become a self-taught artist. I swear that’s a true story.
Each of Schultheis’s paintings is a work of translation between two languages—the visual and the mathematical. If you can read the math, which I cannot, you will know that the equations describe the visual elements in the composition. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the visual elements are Schultheis’s effort to imperfectly and tangibly render something that is conceptually, mathematically perfect. According to the artist, “We can tell stories through math that are exceedingly more visual than anything in the physical realm."4
This is the moment, for me, when the needle scratches the record, when my understanding of the world gets turned upside down.
In Schultheis’s practice, which he calls analytical expressionism, the visual representation is the more discrete and finite language. The equations allow people who speak the language of mathematics to be able to see in their own minds a much more expansive and different version of the visuals that he has painted. For example, if he paints concentric circles and includes a mathematical notation of infinity, those concentric circles—for anyone who can read that language—now extend far beyond the canvas, beyond the gallery, beyond the city or the country or the planet that the viewer is standing on. In this way, the art is limiting. It’s the math that will set you free.
Okay, let’s all take a moment to breathe and let go of our anger at our math teachers for depriving us of this. Then, we dive back in to the upside down:
Standing in front of certain paintings in this series (like the two above) was an emotional and encompassing experience. I felt as though I was looking up into the firmament, getting a glimpse of something eternal. Even though I couldn’t read the math, I could feel something beyond what was physically rendered.
I noted to myself that it was distinctly similar to the feeling I have whenever I stand in any of the great cathedrals, abbeys, or basilicas—the sensation of being dwarfed by something far greater than oneself (for some it’s god, for others it’s the limitlessness of possibility or the interconnectedness of all things). It made me think of the shift in perspective that astronauts report having as soon as they are far enough into space to see the curvature of the earth.
It wasn’t until I got home and started researching Schultheis that I discovered something I hadn’t noticed in the gallery. At the top of all of his canvases, he paints a sphere with an oculus (you can see it best in the painting above), a nod to the geometry and architecture of the Pantheon, which is based on a discovery by Archimedes.
From the interviews that I’ve watched of Schultheis, I’ve learned that he uses math to describe human entanglement, the way we overlap with one another, and the relationship between the internal and the external selves. I get the impression that he considers a person’s inability to read math a distinct limitation and perhaps even—he never said this explicitly, so I may be wrong—a hindrance to the complete appreciation of his work. So I don’t know what he would make of my theory of a synergistic effect between the art and the math that creates a transcendental experience—even for folks like me who can’t read an equation to save their life—that wouldn’t be possible if only one were present.
All I know is this: without understanding or consciously perceiving the Archimedean geometry, it still managed to transport me inside of the Pantheon. And without being able to read a single one of Schultheis’s equations, I still questioned my place in the universe, my connection to myself, and my interconnectedness with others.
If that isn’t an argument for how blurred the line is between the finite and the infinite, the physical and the conceptual, I don’t know what is. It’s also a reminder to seek out art that we’re convinced we won’t like because, you never know, it might just change your worldview.
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Rationalism - the philosophy that reason is the chief source of knowledge, superior to and independent of sense perception.
Materialism - the philosophy that physical matter is the only reality and that all phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter.
Bless the wonderful folks at Froelick Gallery for taking Covid precautions so seriously. I’m in a pod with someone who is immunosuppressed, so this is only the third gallery show that I’ve been able to see since the beginning of the pandemic (!!!) because it hasn’t felt safe for me. The gallery let me make an appointment to limit my exposure to other visitors; they have a glass barrier between the front desk and the rest of the space; and the associate director, Wilder, who met me for my appointment, was double masked and always mindful of the distance between us (though I was so happy to be in a gallery, feeling safe and seeing art, that I had to stifle the urge to hug him many times).