Reconstructing domestic pieces towards abstraction
Built upon the pillars of domestic furniture, including aluminium ladders, Scandinavian glass vases, 1960’s stacking stools, kitchen steps, and Isku chairs, Michael Samuels‘s choice of materials indicates his drive to use mediums that reflect the world outside the studio, perhaps in people’s homes, “I was looking for something more domestic; without the baggage that it looked like it wanted to be in a museum or gallery” says Samuels, “I am always looking for new materials and ways to include them within my practice. It keeps me interested.” That said, Samuels’ practice is as assorted as his use of mediums, and his latest works include a cast concrete sausage barely leaning in a roller stand, a mid century record cabinet pierced by LED light, or a dismantled, dissected, and reconfigured cabinet with no signals of functionality. A couple of summer’s ago, the artist provided access to his working process and modes of thought in his solo show at Rokeby Gallery, London. He has also assembled installations for Dover Street Market, London and Tokyo. This year, Samuels has started working on an 8 meters long (or longer) piece for an exhibition called “Ngorongoro”, which opens at Lehderstrasse 34 in Berlin over Berlin Gallery weekend. For the unveiling of Samuel’s latest piece, we stumbled across the artist at his Hackney-based studio, to speak about tension, looking, and spending more time undoing things he has made rather than constructing them to get to the end result.
Michael Samuels (b. Liverpool, UK) graduated from the Royal College of Art (2000). He has exhibited at Collyer Bristow Gallery, London; Marion de Canniere Gallery, Antwerp; Poldi Pezzoli Museum, Milan; ROKEBY, London; Spinnerei, Leipzig; Art Cologne; Spacex, Exeter; The Armory, NYC, Villa du Parc Centre d’art Contemporain, Annemasse; Taché-Levy, Brussels; Klara Wallner, Berlin; Architectural Association, London, amongst others. He has been nominated for the Jerwood Contemporary Painters prize. Michael is currently living and working in London.
You graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2000, MA Sculpture. Why did you decide to specialise in sculpture?
I’ve always preferred to make 3 dimensional objects. I find it frustrating working with 2 dimensions or constantly working with the same medium (i.e. paint). I need to be able to work with an array of mediums that keep me interested.
You mention that you started using furniture to replace the traditional plinth. What is it about the plinth’s historical baggage, and why doesn’t it link in your practice?
I was always looking for a device to show work on when my work had more of a narrative content. So, it seemed obvious to place it on domestic furniture. Then the furniture became the work. History has dictated that if you place something on a plinth it became sculpture, and everything that was on a plinth was sculpture. It’s like an art world default setting. I was looking for something more domestic; without the baggage that it looked like it wanted to be in a museum or gallery.
Your family’s background is related to health-care. At a first glance, this doesn’t relate to your practice, yet you are interested in surgical materials along with the process of assembling and reassembling, composing and decomposing, very much connected to that of a doctor’s laboratory. Do you think your roots indirectly come through in your practice?
You are not the first person to recognise this, but it honestly never occurred to me until it was mentioned. I guess there is always some innate things you do recognise in yourself, or don’t want to, but other people do. I really don’t think about where my work comes from, I leave that to other people to contextualise it.
In what ways is your process of sculpture-making more akin to that of a painter?
I have always believed, whether it’s true or not, that my practice is more like a painter. It’s because I don’t really draw as a rule, or plan, I work straight in the medium, immediately and instinctively. It’s very much about ‘looking’ and making decisions quickly. I spend more time undoing things I have made than constructing them to get to the end result.
Your work is very intuitive, yet you deliberately plan to use very precise materials such as 1960’s Stacking Stools and Isku Chairs, or Scandinavian Glass Vases amongst others. Why are you interested in using such specific items? What is the balance between conscious decisions and intuitive ones?
I guess they are just objects that I am drawn to. As an artist I want to use materials that you would not really find in an artists studio, materials that reflect the world outside the studio, perhaps in your home, so I use furniture or DIY products. I like domestic things that anyone could be surrounded by. I never want to be in the position of having to go into an art shop to buy materials. The 1960’s furniture is just something I am drawn to as a modernist marker; its history, aesthetic, and scale. Yes, I am quite picky as to what I use, but I never really know what I will use it for. This happens later, when I have sat with it in the studio for a while. So, I absolutely make a conscious decision with my materials, but the work is intuitive.
Aesthetic choices remain essential. Do you use certain items such as vivid plastic bridles due to their utility or due to their colour? How important is it to have stability between functional materials and visual ones?
I am always looking for new materials and ways to include them within my practice. It keeps me interested. I am not cut out to use the same materials on a daily basis. Sometimes, the choice of material can be successful, sometimes it is not, but I absolutely need to include new materials. Things change on a slow basis, gradually over a year or so, but change is constant. I hope people can see the way that the work has developed and not remained static. The plastic bridles (cable ties) you mentioned are definitely chosen for utility, but then comes research to find what I consider a combination of functionality and aesthetics. I have constantly used cable ties and clamps to achieve something or aid construction, as the results are more immediate.
Do you consider your pieces independently of their associations or attributes? How significant is the use of abstraction?
Abstraction is very important to me, but the use of certain materials always has its associations, some works are obviously derived from furniture, some obviously not.
The quality of being suited to serve a purpose is mostly deprived in the domestic furniture used within your works. Is it important for you that your works aren’t functional? Would practicality change the meaning of these pieces?
Absolutely, I want to make the functional non functional. I don’t want them ever to be functional or practical. So, yes it would change the meaning. I am reassessing old domestic pieces and reconfiguring and reconstructing them towards abstraction.
You mention working within the domestic makes your work “less masculine”. Can you elaborate on this idea?
Maybe this is just how I perceive things. I have always considered bronze, stone, metal, and those common denominators within sculpture a bit too masculine. My use of domestic material seems to be a softer approach to sculpture for me, and hopefully this becomes more relatable to the viewer.
“It’s what I normally do: find a simple everyday medium and try and push it to somewhere it’s not supposed to go”
How have your pieces developed with time? How did you come across casting sausages in concrete? Do you feel these works have a more figurative approach?
In my opinion they are constantly developing. I would hate for my process to be standing still. The concrete sausages came about by experimenting. It’s what I normally do: find a simple everyday medium and try and push it to somewhere it’s not supposed to go. Concrete is usually used in a more formal way, with hard lines and edges, so I wanted to make something more tactile and perhaps a little more sensuous. There are always a lot of failures along the way, but that comes with the territory.
Your practice is in the margins between design, architecture, and bricolage. How would you define it?
I really don’t define it, I just work. I leave it to other people to define what I am doing.
How fundamental is it to have a hands-on approach to making art? Do you consider yourself a craftsman?
I am absolutely not a craftsman. Craftsmanship to me comes from making functional objects. I love using my hands, it’s something that is very satisfying and all the skills I have developed I have learnt through experimentation. For me, the enjoyment and what keeps me content is my hands on approach. On bigger projects I have had help where my skills are limited, but I always like to be involved in the making. When you see a Flavin, a Judd or a Tuazon you don’t think ‘craftsman’ just because it’s well made. I think it’s just that not many artists have skills anymore, or it’s too easy to get things fabricated and e-mail a design. I need to do it all myself.
There is a sense of temporality in your works, as some works are attached with G-clamps or bands, suggesting that current configurations may be subject to change. Is this state appealing to you?
Yes, I don’t like to make things too permanent or fixed. Quite often after a few months or a year I will repurpose a work, or take elements of it and put into another work. I am not precious, mind you I won’t go back and rework a finished work, but I will borrow elements from it.
“It provides a tension and a signal that implies a lack of permanence that it may collapse at any time”
Your pieces also defy gravity, sometimes balancing precariously, and other times seeming to fall. What is the importance of this tension?
Yes, I like them to be precarious or fragile. As you said, it provides a tension and a signal that implies a lack of permanence that it may collapse at any time. I also use this device in the way I combine materials, like with the glass and concrete constructions I have made recently. Combining something heavy with something extremely fragile.
Your work incorporates a variety of contrasts. From graphic works to very fluid ones, or from works that are built in many layers, to works that are made in a “three movements” phase. Why are you interested in such contrasts and in placing limitations to yourself as and artist?
It is very simple; each painting informs the next one. I always want to challenge myself and keep things interesting for me: I sometimes make rules up for myself before I make a painting. I love a good hard edge, but I won’t use tape to make it, instead I use my breath. Making paintings is really a life long conversation with yourself and others from the past and present. It’s all up for grabs and you are chasing the next thing.
You are interested in working with quick and direct configurations, yet many have a very elaborate feeling attached to them. Are you trying to confuse the viewer within your simplicity of working?
Not at all. I think I confuse myself as I am always trying to achieve a ‘less is more’ approach. So, what appears to you to be elaborate is to me a reduction of the work over a period of time.
Could you develop on how modernism or constructivism has fed your practice? What are your influences?
I am not conscious of any influences at all. I tend not to over think things and rely on some intuition. Of course other people always see certain influences, but I like to think its coincidence. I am always trying to present a unique visual language, but what I see in the work will always be interpreted differently by another viewer.
Do you have any future plans you would like to share with us?
I am about to start work on a huge work, probably 8 meters long or longer. It is for an exhibition called “Ngorongoro” which opens at Lehderstrasse 34 in Berlin over Berlin Gallery weekend. As the work will be so large, I will make it in components, as it won’t fit in my studio. I will only see it all together when it gets to the exhibition and I reconstruct it. I like to work this way, to finish things at the last moment. I don’t want to know what the end result is before I start. There’s no point. I like some fluidity.
Words by Vanessa Murrell