SLEIGHT AND SUBSTANCE



MONTORO12
SOLO EXHIBITION
28 APRIL - 29 MAY 2021
Installation view of Sleight and Substance, 2021

Montoro 12 is pleased to present Chris Soal’s solo exhibition, Sleight and Substance.

Text by Ursula Hawlitschka

Chris Soal works in a variety of media, but is currently best known for his signature style abstract wall sculptures made from unconventional found objects, such as toothpicks and bottle tops. The works he created for his first solo exhibition in Europe, Sleight and Substance, include wall sculptures made of toothpicks – “unaltered” as well as partially burned, hanging free, framed or set in cement – as well as abstract wall sculptures created with bottle tops and hy­brid sculptures containing both toothpicks and bottle tops.

On first viewing Chris Soal’s wall sculptures made from amassed quantities of bamboo or birch wood toothpicks, one is immediately reminded of something organic, a sort of natural growth as one can see in a fungus, lichen or moss (the horizontal pieces) or a bizarre creature, a hybrid of plant and animal (the vertical pieces). From far away viewers are often puzzled by the tex­ture of the artworks, assuming the work to be made from textile, pelt or fur, a surface that appeals to our sense of touch, soft and sensual. Only when we examine the works up close do we recognize the deceptively sharp contours of the toothpicks, now evoking the skin of hedgehogs and porcupines. Once we realize what we are looking at, we wonder how it is pos­sible to hold thousands of toothpicks in place in such an organic way; they seem to form groups leaning left and right, creating circles and movement, light and shadow, as if wind was blowing through fur. In fact, the toothpicks are somewhat movable, but firmly anchored in polyurethane sealant on ripstop fabric and timber board, a creation process that requires tre­mendous skill and considerable practice.

The artist does indeed acknowledge an association of these works with pelt, fur and flayed skin. The sharp edges of an entire “skin” of toothpicks function like a protective cover and could be read as a metaphor for the protective walls we build around ourselves. While animals like the hedgehog use sharp spines to protect their bodies, humans use “walls” to protect their inner selves, their minds, souls and feelings. These walls are the result of socialization, conditionings and patterns that hide our authentic selves. Once we have been hurt, the wall (or spines) gets thicker and the skin becomes less and less penetrable.

The large hanging toothpick work Hide quite literally refers to animal skin, but also alludes to “hiding” in a crowd. One of Soal’s first reflections on his use of toothpicks were about the in­dividual in relation to the collective. Masses of toothpicks hide the individual... an easy feat in such a large crowd. Western contemporary society places much importance on individualism, the challenge to stand out, to make one’s voice heard, but often neglects the fact that we are all connected and exist as parts of a whole. Balance is created when we realize the value of both individual and collective: one cannot exist without the other.

Once the artist recognized his works’ resemblance to fur skins and pelts, he realized that they represent our dependence on, but also our domination of nature. Toothpicks are mostly made of wood from trees that give us oxygen, yet they are used and discarded without much thought.

While one could argue that Soal’s works recall animal more than human skin, they also remind us of human flaying.

Flayed skin is a prominent topic in the history of art – best known through depictions of the mythical satyr Marsyas, who was skinned alive after he lost a musical contest with the god Apollo, and the biblical story of Saint Bartholomew, the martyred apostle who was flayed for his faith. Marsyas was punished for challenging a god; today, humans think they are superior, they can challenge nature­ only to be faced with the “punishment” of another earthquake, hurricane, fire or other natural calamity.

Scathe takes on a shape similar to Hide, but here the artist altered the color of some of the toothpicks by increasingly burning them toward the lower part of the sculpture. Both these works evoke creatures with movable, bulging extremities, but in the burned version the vio­lence not only of flaying but also of burning becomes evident. The skin/body is burned and scathed, the “scars” visible on the surface: the light and dark contrast gives this work an asto­nishing depth. While burning the toothpicks clearly speaks of violence, the actual act of bur­ning the work requires much care and precision so as to get the exact amount of black on the toothpicks.
The titles of the works are intriguing, add insights and hint at possible interpretations. The wall sculpture Corpus literally indicates a body, (dead) human or animal, or a social, political or ecological body. But a corpus can also refer to a collection or compilation. We can think of the debris of discarded toothpicks, an admonition against hoarding and overconsumption. The works elicit attraction and repulsion, a duality originating in the many associations they evoke in the viewer for the simple fact that in the end, the works are abstract. They do not represent just one reality; they are open to a myriad of readings.

The Judge is simply named after a song by Twenty One Pilots, but the work recalls another hi­storic parable: The “Judgement of Cambyses”, which, for example, is represented in Gerard David’s oil on wood painting from 1498, depicting the arrest and flaying of the corrupt Persian judge Sisamnes on the order of the Persian king Cambyses, based on Herodotus’ Histories. The flayed judge’s skin was spread over the seat of judgment, which his son was eventually installed on in the role of judge. Soal here contemplates judgement of self and others – goals we fail to reach, ideals we cannot achieve or taking the seat of the “father” to rectify a situa­tion.

Parable is one of the few combo pieces Soal has made from both toothpicks and bottle caps. It is an astonishing work, exhibiting flowing rows of black and “golden” bottle caps that sur­round the inner toothpick work. The overall drooping form of the work reminds us of Miche­langelo’s portrait of Saint Bartholomew (or better, his attribute, his flayed skin) in his Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. However, Michelangelo’s portrait of the apostle who was skin­ned alive shows him holding the flayed skin not of a curly man with a beard (Saint Bartholo­mew), but of Michelangelo, the artist himself.

Living and working in Johannesburg, a city of tension, as Soal calls it, has had a great impact on his work, as it is often about locating oneself in that space, both as a response and a criti­que. Through the use of discarded items in conjunction with cement, rebar, tar and other in­dustrial materials, Soal reflects on living in an urban environment. The use of bottle caps recalls Johannesburg’s nickname “The City of Gold” as the city was founded next to the largest gold deposit in the world.

Thousands of “golden” beer bottle caps threaded together exist simultaneously between order and chaos, rigid forms unraveling into snakelike piles occupying both the wall and the floor – the nuanced attention paid to the material’s properties takes the work Surrounding all my Surroundings into a phenomenological dialogue with the viewers, encouraging movement, agency and spatial awareness. Horizontal layers recall geological formations, while vertical in­tersections cascade unto the floor like waterfalls. The viewer will experience a trompe l’oeil when moving around the work: the color of the sculpture changes depending on your view­point. Only when seen from the front do the bottle caps all show the same color. This pheno­menon is due to the change of direction from which the bottle tops are threaded.

The framed toothpick works, such as The Prestige, Relinquish and Weighting on You show the artist/magician revealing his tricks: here you can see splashes of the glue holding the too­thpicks in place, the ripstop fabric stretched like an animal skin over the frame and the violent act of burning both the fabric and the toothpicks. The Prestige refers to Christopher Nolan’s thriller by the same name featuring two rival magicians. Relinquish alludes to surrendering to the material (and the material surrendering to the artist): not only does the artist work intui­tively, there is always an element of chance in the final work that he cannot control. Weighting on You suggests a more personal reference, but also alludes to the effect of gravity in the work – here the toothpicks “fall” or grow out of the frame, out of the box.

In the only concrete piece of the exhibition, The Audacity!!, the toothpicks again take on the notion of growth and the power of nature – like tree roots growing through cement in the streets, they represent plant growth defeating and reclaiming manmade structures. Slow and steady, nature asserts its strength and victory in the end.

The power of Chris Soal’s sculptures lies not only in their great visceral impact on the viewer: fascinating and thought­provoking, they engage the viewer by questioning our perception, causing us to reflect on the individual‘s place in society, sustainability and the power of na­ture.

Surrounding all my surroundings, 2021
Discarded Beer Bottle Caps threaded onto Electric Fencing Cable, held in Polyurethane Sealant on Board
230 x 185 x 70 cm
Parable, 2021
Discarded Beer Bottle Caps threaded onto Electric Fencing Cable with Burnt and Unburnt BambooToothpicks held in Polyurethane Sealant on Ripstop Fabric and Board
190 x 47 x 30 cm
Scathe, 2021
Burnt and Unburnt Bamboo Toothpicks, held in Polyurethane Sealant on Ripstop Fabric and Board
135 x 75 x 20 cm
Relinquish, 2021
Burnt and Unburnt Bamboo Toothpicks, held in Polyurethane Sealant on Ripstop Fabric, stretched on Obeche Wood Stretcher
101 x 130 x 25 cm
Hide, 2020
Bamboo Toothpicks, held in Polyurethane Sealant on Ripstop Fabric and Board
190 x 120 x 20 cm
Corpus, 2020
Bamboo Toothpicks, held in Polyurethane Sealant on Ripstop Fabric and Board
145 x 190 x 10 cm
Shroud, 2020
Bamboo Toothpicks, held in Polyurethane Sealant on Ripstop Fabric and Board
135 x 75 x 20 cm
The Audacity!!, 2021
Concrete and Rebar, with Birch Wood and Bamboo Toothpicks held in Polyurethane Sealant on Ripstop Fabric
130 x 110 x 10 cm
The Judge, 2021
Bamboo and Birch Wood Toothpicks, held in Polyurethane Sealant on Ripstop Fabric and Board
125 x 135 x 10 cm

︎ INTERVIEW on Artland by Adam Hencz