Jess Van Nostrand
Exhibitions Curator, Cornish College of the Arts
I first saw Michael Schultheis’ paintings in 2003 when I had just moved to Seattle. He kindly offered to show me his studio while working on a new body of work featuring a pale blue palette that pulsed with what I could only then describe as mysterious notations and symbols. I was immediately taken by the elegance of these marks; gestures that were sometimes partially erased, indicating that there was much to discover. Moments later, I was immersed in Michael’s world of math, physics, and history, and discovered his passion for these critical elements of his work that are the driving force behind the success of his paintings.
Michael exercises a powerful commitment to his subject matter. To study his process is to understand how this dedication unfolds to reveal an astonishingly cohesive method and subject. In other words, he may show the viewer a familiar form—in this series, the pinecone—but that is merely part of the journey on which he takes the viewer. Ellsworth Kelly’s sculpture, Curve XXIV (1981), on view at the Seattle Olympic Sculpture Park ignited Schulthies’ interest in the curved form and tangent. This led to his study of the work of Apollonius (ca. 262 BC– ca. 190 BC), the Greek geometer noted for his conic treatise. This, in turn, influenced the full-bodied palette of reds and blues inspired by mosaics from the era of Apollonius.
Michael sometimes orients his canvases horizontally like a chalkboard, perhaps in homage to his mathematics education, and even uses a pine tree branch to make some of his marks on the canvas. And, like all of his artistic decisions, nothing is casual about his brushstroke; each one can be examined in great detail to reveal other notations glancing shyly through sumptuous layers of paint.
His artistic commitment extends beyond the studio as well, his discovery of a pinecone during a run around Seattle’s Greenlake being a critical moment in the development of this body of work. I imagine him like a mad scientist, exclaiming “Eureka!” as he runs back to his house with a pinecone jammed in his pocket. Perhaps this is overdramatic, but it exemplifies Michael’s artistic honesty, indicating that nothing was omitted from his exploration of the subject matter.
A striking parallel between subject and practice is found in what happens to the pinecone in these paintings. While Michael deconstructs the pinecone form and plays with the variations, he moves from one painting to another and back again, responding to the equations that command his attention. As one can imagine, each aspect of the pinecone presents to his eye a new equation. The movement of his brushwork and his movement between works illustrates a rhythm not unlike how Michael described to me the opening and closing of the pinecone during the fertilization process.
Michael’s artistic contribution has many parts, but perhaps the most notable is this: Michael convinces us that there is beauty in mathematics. This is perhaps one definition of a true artistic voice—he believes in the beauty of mathematics, and he convinces me to join him.