Lisa Matthias at the Birch Contemporary

It is easy to get swept up in the intricate patterns and organic forms that dance across Lisa Matthias’ prints, featured in her solo exhibition Ecological Constructs, at the Birch Contemporary. The exhibition features fourteen of Matthias’ large woodcut prints—all in striking black ink—which explore the natural world at different scales. The prints demonstrate how Matthias’ work as an ecologist is integral to her artistic practice, which begins with examining organisms through a microscope, then abstracting and magnifying them. The resulting prints draw viewers into a unique, chaotic, and often whimsical, representation of the natural world.

Installation views of Lisa Matthias, Ecological Constructs, at Birch Contemporary. Photo: Jennifer Boothby

Matthias’ craftsmanship is evident in the prints, and it further evokes the natural world. The black backgrounds are patchy, textured, and give the prints an earthy quality. Rough parallel hatching resembles tree bark. Translucent paper makes the prints appear more organic.

This earthy-quality is evident in Matthias’ Stem Leaves and Hyaline Cells, which is one of the largest, and most engaging, pieces in the exhibition. Examining the piece close-up viewers can see the texture of the woodblock used, and the coarse hatching throughout the print. It also demonstrates Matthias’ interest in portraying nature at different scales. The top of the artwork features amorphous shapes that resemble the hyaline—transparent or translucent—cells referred to in the print’s title. Under these shapes, an intricate network of lines draws the viewer’s eye up and through the composition. As I stepped back and examined the print as a whole, I saw the individual elements come together in a type of abstract landscape. I could imagine animals emerging from foliage. The cells on the upper left resemble a bird-like shape, while others seem to depict tangled reeds.

Lisa Matthias, Stem Leaves and Hyaline Cells, 2021, woodblock print, 60” x 96”. Courtesy of Birch Contemporary

As I walked through Ecological Constructs, I was struck by the tension between technological and natural themes in Matthias’ work. Nowhere is this more evident than in her series of Diatom Construction, which explore microscopic views of diatoms—single-celled algae. The exhibit contains five of the Diatom Constructions, which simultaneously capture the chaos of nature and the modern world. Walking through the exhibit clockwise, visitors first encounter Diatom Construction 3, that features an extremely intricate network of lines and chain-link forms. From close-up the forms resemble something out of a biology textbook—like overlapping translucent cells, each containing several minuscule parts. I could imagine Matthias translating and abstracting her microscopic views of diatoms. Despite this basis in ecology, however, the print also evokes something distinctly technological. Examining the print from farther back, it begins to resemble a city-scape. I could imagine the vertically-oriented ‘cells’ as high-rises; the lines as street networks with cars whizzing past.

Lisa Matthias, Diatom Construction 3, 2021, woodblock print, 52” x 35”. Courtesy of Birch Contemporary

Just before exiting the exhibit, viewers encounter two more Diatom Constructions side-by-side. Like Diatom Construction 3, Diatom Construction 1 evokes the interaction (and perhaps clash) between nature and the modern world. While the print is still grounded in Matthias’ microscopic views of diatoms, the throughout coarse cross hatching and minute shapes made me think of wires or computer chip components.

Diatom Construction 1 features less of the rounded or swirling forms that populate many of the other works in the exhibit. Instead, it stands out due to its larger, more angular, shapes and solid white areas interspersed among the minute details. It is also particularly engaging due to the visual movement created through the repeated use of patterns. For example, the checkerboard pattern at the upper left, creates a visual rhythm that bounces the viewer’s eye around the print. The hatching in the upper right reminds rain in the wind.

Lisa Matthias, Diatom Construction 1, (left) & Diatom Construction 2, (right), both 2021, woodblock print, 52” x 35”. Courtesy of Birch Contemporary

Ecological Constructs provides a unique representation of nature at different scales, beginning with the microscopic. Each of Matthias’ prints provide a new world of intricate shapes and lines for viewers to get lost in, and encourages them to think about the interactions between humans, the natural world, and technology.

Jennifer Boothby

*Exhibition information: Lisa Matthias, Ecological Constructs, September 9 – October 16, 2021, Birch Contemporary, 129 Tecumseth Street, Toronto.

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