Essay by Brian CatlingThe Anvil is absolute, fundamental and totally untransmutable. It is a cast block of solidity whose purpose is to not move, and to resist all energy that is brought upon it. It attempts anonymity in all of the processes in which it is involved; a hard shadow under the influence of the fluidity of fire. This is the pragmatic altar that Matthew Luck Galpin uses to re-shape and define his collected shards of the heavens.
The blacksmith’s forge is not a place normally associated with the often ephemeral nature of conceptual art. Indeed it could be argued that the haptic thinking at the heart of craft is the polar opposite of the organised conceits that shape and manufacture much contemporary art. The works discussed here stand outside that debate and conflict, because they demand we address more startling and imaginative issues first.
Galpin came to the art world after first serving an apprenticeship as a Blacksmith. The sculptures he made in his early career wrestled with and investigated the skills that he had learnt, and seeded the ambivalence that he still has towards any reliance on craft. His imaginative intellect is driven by a fascination with the reflection of perfection seen through a glass darkly. Enigma and the poetic metaphysics of calibrating the intangible and the impossible are at the core of many of his works. For example in Tropos 11 he has “taken the sound of light”. White noise received and recorded in Antarctica becomes an aural interpretation of the eternal bombardment of physical light on the magnetosphere; a constant ethereal bird song. Galpin harnesses this via a video projection that is pinned at a crossroads, at the intersection of empty institutional corridors. He has also made spinning tops of frozen ink and of acrid salt water collected at the Dead Sea, and set them in motion on sheets of paper and steel to write their trajectories of riddle in ephemeral stains and gnawing rust. In Numen, a shelf of unfolded paper cubes, that were once pinhole cameras show charts of breath collected from the dim utterance of trapped light in the mouth, staring out.
These are the instrumentation of paradox, a Borgesian domain, a long way from the matter of fact hearth of the ironworker. Or so it would seem. But other cultures have stridently different notions about the nature of those who shift shape with fire, muscle and cunning. In Tibetan societies blacksmiths were required to live on the very edge of the village, outside the boundaries of normal life and the safe conduct of materials, because what they did every day was considered to be far from ordinary. The transmutation of form and substance being an act akin to alchemy. Turning earth into blades and ploughshares, armour, locks and gongs.
The reverence of the forge and the anvil is also integral to the Japanese Kaji (master sword makers), where the conversion of a solid block of base metal into the folded intricacies of a razor sharp flexible blade are conducted through the process of repletion, strength and concentration.
The conceptual framework of Galpin’s art is nailed together with wonder and simplicity. The complex relationship between intention and manifestation is laid bare, all the Masonic secrets of craft and erudition unworshiped. They have been used to manufacture new enigmas. The Meteoric Mirrors are the pinnacle of this process; The Bride Stripped Bare. By finding the way to join both sides of his inventive mind he has eliminated all unnecessary narrative; cut away the frames and the mechanism of explanation. The material that makes these works is both substance and legend. The intangible idea and its exact matter occupying the same corporeal time and space. His intervention is to shape it again. To shift it beyond its pummelled splinter of iron that spun through the cold dark universe to fall ablaze 6,000 years ago in a massive impact shower of fifty megatonnes. The event was witnessed by local tribes who named the site ‘Cielo del Campo’. The field of heaven.
Only a trained metallurgist could reform one of these rough gems. Someone trained in the hand and eye of judging heat and feeling structure. Only an artist would need to. The again glowing nugget is removed from the forge and then consigned to the anvil, where its next manifestation will be exposed. The application of questioning force hammers it flat, exposing all its possible fissures and lines of inner stress. In this way the artist insists that it declares the signature of its concealed mapping. When cooled, Galpin locks it into a heavy limestone bed with a bleeding of bitumen. Once seated, he begins to polish its new surface. The tool for this is a heavy thick disc of steel called a ‘levigator’. Its circular motion grinding grit and water between its weight and the open face of the mirror. This operation is very alike the traditional techniques for hand grinding optical lenses. Eyes and mirrors for telescopes to see into the origins and habitat of meteors. The hand-operated action is rhythmic and orbital; a physical chant of an industrial prayer wheel whispering hard against the grain of the iron.
The final object is an irregular intimate plate of metal. Its contoured profile gives it a map-like appearance: a modeled island of ancient folded detail. There is also something vaguely anatomical in its familiar size, like a cross-section of an unnamed organ. But the true identity lies in the strangeness of its mirrored surface. It is a long way from the clarity of glass, and the imperfections and shadows that lurk and shudder in its surface are coloured with suggestion. What Galpin wants us to see in these numinous mirrors is unstated. The depth of their metaphoric reflection is prime and only made usable by the earthy process of construction. Perhaps the answer to their function is as direct as the power of their conspicuous contradiction. The mechanism for understanding the depth of the Universe and the properties of its inhabitants is the same as the glimmer of ourselves that cry in these smoothed metal plates and it is the same language of calibration that we find in all works of art: the echo of our own imaginations.