Samuel de Gunzburg
Exploring the tension of damage and repair.
Samuel de Gunzburg releases his work outside of its material and surface comfort by converting fragility into resistance, and viceversa. The artist, who works with an assemblage of painting, sculpture, and installation, is denying his own creative liberty by revising and transforming his works, and therefore, the more he pushes the work into a new medium, the more his initial creative freedom disappears. “It is a process that is hostile to itself, almost each stage is aggressive towards its preceding step.” De Gunzburg explains. “This is something I impose to myself, so in a sense, I am free not to be free, thus the torture”. Recently, both his paintings and his three-dimensional works have responded to vases, objects that provide us with research on past cultures, information, and are strong symbols of history. It’s a project which the artist has been working on for over a year, attempting to emulate ruined, deteriorated, and damaged objects; discuss their function and the relation with the viewer; and examine the curation of these within a historical context. This project has taken him to reference different cultures, materials, and periods through a non-chronological and single physical space. Fragmentation and ornamentation, recurring motifs in the artist’s work, further remark his analysis, where the artist extracts, breaks-up, and reassembles what he sources. With this, de Gunzburg’s work seems to exist between the past and the present, belonging to neither the then nor the now.
BACKGROUND & PROCESS
You recently graduated from a BA at City and Guilds. What were the strong points and limitations that you encountered there?
Being a small and tight community was great, especially because it didn’t stop at Fine Art’s, the school also offers degrees in stone carving, wood carving, and conservation, which is great for new projects, and for resolving technical problems from our fine art perspective. There is also a glass, wood, and casting workshop as well as a foundry which gave us the possibility to explore a multitude of materials, which I tried to fully take advantage of…There were no real limitations, because we were such small groups (around 20 people per year) we could go to any workshop in real-time without having to book slots in advance. Same with tutors, it was really easy to see them when we wanted to; I think we were all grateful for that. We also had individual studio spaces, which was really great.
Growing up with a ‘collecting’ heritage within your family, has living with artworks and other artefacts had an effect within your own approach?
It did, but initially what brought me to painting was graffiti, which I use to do with friends in London. When I was sixteen, we all planned to go to abandoned factories for a day, and see what we could paint there, that day I wanted to stay-in and finish a painting on canvas instead, they went and got arrested, of course we continued after that, but I saw this as a sign and started to prioritise working in my studio rather than outside. It unlocked much more possibilities for what I wanted to do. The positive aspect of my parent’s passion for art was motivational, in the sense where I knew I had their approval, although they have a very honest opinion, if they dislike a work they will be the first people to let me know. Apart from that, their collection did undoubtedly influence my aesthetic and approach, but it was always something that was mixed with graffiti in my practice.
Your process of projecting and distorting caught my attention. Is it a torturous technique?
Because the idea of ‘damage’ and ‘aggression’ is imitated, it is actually a very careful process in which aggression is effected in a very steady and calm manner. The sculptures are actually very fragile all along the process. I some times break the works, but most of the times I make them look broken. When the works are cast in bronze, the fragile aspect is no longer there, and the work transforms into this aggressive, resistant and rough artifact. In the 2D works, there is more of a direct distortion than in the sculptures, maybe these are more aggressive in the process, but they look calm and composed in the end, they are opposites of the sculptures in that sense. They are aggressive in the making because they deny the previous version – they are first drafted by hand, then revisited digitally, and then repainted, this hybridization is what I consider torturous/aggressive in the sense that they are initially very free of thought when the first version is drafted, but then the freedom, naivety, and playfulness of the first drafted version is pushed away as soon as it enters the digital realm. It is a process that is hostile to itself, almost each step is aggressive towards its preceding step. Each step is an attempt to transcribe the work into a material out of its initial comfort zone and surface. The more the image is transformed into a new medium, the more the initial creational freedom disappears to a certain extent, and consciousness/control takes over in the process. This is something I impose to myself, so in a sense, I am free not to be free, thus the torture.
With a cultural diversity involving France, Germany, Canada and the UK – how have you dealt with these culture collisions with your work?
It may have naturally affected the work in the sense where the work can sometimes be identified as a mix and match, a salad of different sources. This could potentially come from my multicultural background where I have always found that mix of cultures natural. For me they don’t collide but sit together, it is something I am trying not to be too conscious of though.
Ideas of preservation and ruins are strongly linked to your practice. What draws you towards this aggression towards usage?
I am fascinated by the idea that an object that was once mundane is now seen as a gem, it doesn’t do anything but being, its initial function is gone.
Your recent work focuses on historical vases and their contemporary significance. What do you want to question and confront with these pieces?
I see vases and containers as timeless gems of information and symbols of history. Since the 18th century, western archeologists and historians have consistently used the object as a reference point for research on past cultures, because it is an object that is so primitive that it has accompanied mankind throughout all its existence, and that fact obsesses me. The three-dimensional work is an attempt to emulate a ruined, deteriorated, and damaged object, with materials that would evidence their ‘staged’ truth as well as discussing its function and the relation with its viewer in a cultural and institutional context like museums. The paintings derive from examinations on how the vase is curated within historical spaces and museums; at moments, different cultures and periods are mixed within a single physical space. This analysis stands as a departure point to explore the idea of heterotopia, by representing a balanced group of fragmentised information… Fragments of time, from history to mass media content, making fictional cultural pathways and playing with idiosyncratic connections.
Can you explain us how you approach ideas of fragmentation and ornamentation?
I try to extract from different places, break-up, and reassemble what I source. At the end, it is all blurred together. Decorative patterns from ancient Egypt and classical antiquity are very often part of mix along with more modern material. At the moment, I am trying not to be too precise on what I reference because I want the work to be a mix of references that creates a fictional mix without making the different ingredients too obvious: time is compressed and non-chronological. Although having said that, I am planning on making some more direct and precise references in the near future.
You work with cement, bronze, and wax, amongst other materials that are often associated with sculpture making. In which ways do you make these sculptures as a painter?
When I painted impulsively, it was about making one mark that would disturb another mark, and it would be the accumulation of contrasts and mistakes that finally generated a final image that made sense as a whole. The sculptures are like that too, they aren’t afraid of being wrong.
Your studio is packed with ‘uncomfortable paintings’; in essence, the paintings that have gone wrong and therefore you re-work. Does this obsessiveness when re-working these pieces lead you to explore further possibilities for them?
It definitely does, it allows me to go beyond what I usually intend to do with my work, but it is a periodical irregular process. Some elements that are generated through these uncomfortable works are then taken into my daily process.
It’s interesting how you merge small paintings with larger ones, along with an assortment of vases in your exhibitions. Is this ‘collage of sorts’ when curating part of your identity?
100%. In my childhood, our family’s house was decorated with so many different mediums and periods at the same time; everything was in discussion, and everything that was different made more sense because it was connected, both physically and spiritually.
You often start off digitally to make a painting, and then it derives into a drawing, which might turn into a series of fragmented works. Is this contradiction within your use of mediums intentional?
I used to paint very impulsively before, that’s how I started painting, directly on the canvas, but now with the digital construction and version, it gives me the opportunity to take a step back on impulsive actions and revise them, add or replace some elements. The paintings that are made from these digitalised drafts are hybrids in the sense that they are a balance of the two, the organic and the digital, impulsive and careful.
You will delve into carving, and the use of neon and steam for your upcoming works. Can you give us a sneak-peak about these future projects?
I’m trying to find ways of glorifying the vase further. Presenting my vase sculptures as these almost godly objects.
In my recent visit, we spoke about what art can do, it’s purpose at-large, and you mentioned that you were quite conscious about art’s possibilities, and how important it was for you to reach out to a scientific or political audience. Would you like to share these ideas with us?
Ever since I have learnt about Dorothea Rockburne’s work and life, it has always been in my mind that art has limited possibilities in terms of truly impacting society. At a certain point in her career, she took a step back on art and went on to work in sociology as an uncertainty grew; art (fine art) itself could not truly impact or change society… The debate is still ongoing in my head, but if this realisation is real, then another role could be played by fine-art (which does provide change, but not as directly as its utopian ideal); it can stimulate and energise the minds of the ones which do have this positive impact on mankind; scientists and the engineers, for example. It could be one of the best things we can do today…but again, it is an ongoing thought.
Words by Vanessa Murrell
Samuel de Gunzburg