Christopher Gulick is a brilliant, formidable artist who lives in Wichita, Kansas. His mobiles http://christophergulick.com/ are deceptively simple things of beauty and complexity. He’s really a 3D painter. Here’s my cool chat with him…
“My main artist statement phrase is, ‘It is my intention to bring to view, Negative Space.’”
MICHAEL: Hello Christopher, Mobile and kinetic sculpture always makes me consider and reconsider possibilities. It must be the 3D nature and the inherent movement of disparate objects within the same piece. How do you view this? I mean, do you create these pieces to just hang within a space and encourage no thought at all?
CHRISTOPHER: Hi Michael, first, may I say thank you for the opportunity for this conversation. Well, I do indeed concur with that first statement. As opposed to the majority of sculpture, whether figurative or abstract, the definition is often established by the artist, at the very least by the title. Kinetics in general encourage a conversation and as you stated, possibilities. Similar to staring at the clouds, we search for shapes or simply revel in the fluidity. In my designs, either purposeful or accidental in the execution, I prefer to stick with non-objectivity. I wish for the viewer to have his/her own vision, their own, as you say, possibilities.
MICHAEL: Some of your works look like little galaxies unto themselves. I see an expression of order, balance and harmony in them ... similar to celestial creation. No?
CHRISTOPHER: I like that analogy. Not only do lines and shapes need to literally balance, but the symmetrical or asymmetrical visual aesthetic must balance as well for the work, in my mind to be what I consider, successful.
Each project, each design is a stand-alone group of thought. Each piece is a new adventure with a unique set of problems to sort out as well as a new set of triumphs. There have been many times when I do not like the original design sketch, but end up really enjoying the piece. Then, the opposite is equally true where I am very excited to start on a cool new design and the work becomes a disaster and I scrap it.
MICHAEL: What types of materials do you use? I would think that after sketching out ideas, certain materials work better in the actual execution than others. Can you mix materials for the same work?
CHRISTOPHER: There are typically, three basic stages that result in the final work. First, as you mentioned, the sketches. This is how I "think out loud," where the initial creativity occurs.
Next is the maquette stage. I build a small version, usually one to three feet in diameter. The materials for the maquette stage, "Negative Space" armatures (or rods) range from six gauge copper wire, wire clothes hangers and the 1/8 inch wire used for acoustic ceiling grids. These are all soft and simple to manipulate. That way I can work out real-life problems quickly.
Continuing on the maquette, for the "Positive Space" or solid parts, such as panels, I use cardboard, coroplast, thin sheet metal and thin plastic sheet. Again, to work quickly and to find out whether the "sketch" can indeed "fly." After a certain satisfaction with the maquette is obtained (after, often many changes), a little math is applied to enlarge the work to the desired girth. At the full size, materials are any and all metals, bronze, stainless steel, hot or cold rolled steel, brass and aluminum. Rods and sheet for negative or positive space are used. I also use acrylic and other plastics for the "positive" panels.
I'd like to point out that I do not weld or use a cutting torch. All of my projects at the small, medium and large scale are hand cut, hand hammered, hand bent ... cold. The rods are bent and curled with specially fabricated vise-grips and a standard bench vise. The texture (or repouse') on the sheet metal is all hand-hammered using a variety of auto-body repair hammers. Only the plastics are heated in order to shape. I use a convection oven and or heat gun for these tasks.
Now ... moving onto large-to-monumental does require the assistance of a fabricator shop, such as the recent commission for the Kansas Leadership Center last fall. He (Joe) ran the heating torch and I bent the 1/2 rods.
Yes, I mixed any and all of the above materials. If relevant to the design, I will make use of found materials, especially junk I find on the street.
MICHAEL: What have you learned as a result of working with found materials from the street?
CHRISTOPHER: To keep it simple, these items have a beautiful and accidental patina that can only be achieved by circumstance and therefore can never be repeated. To get heady and ethereal, such items have a tendency to dictate a change in direction of the original design of a work.
For instance, I had a piece of driftwood that I tried to clear from my workbench for ten years. Days later, it came back. One day, the missing parts came to the studio. In ten minutes (AND 10 years), the sculpture was complete. Currently, there are three small rectangles of 16-gauge copper sheet that are chromed on one side that have been staring at me from the shelf three feet from my bench. They are stunning in color. They were the corner support brackets for a Trans-Pacific bamboo shipping crate used to crate jet airplane engines to Boeing. They've been creeping closer for weeks now. Something's going to happen soon I believe.
MICHAEL: Your process sounds like you're constantly piecing together puzzles. This process of creation, is it more intellectual, emotional, spiritual or intuitive? Also, how do you know when a piece is done?
CHRISTOPHER: Probably more intuitive. Yeah, being as they say, "autodidactic," I am relying on the intuition aspect. My personal spirituality depends on my intellect staying calm and waiting to see what is revealed by the client, the space and/or the materials. Often when sketching, I close my eyes and randomly scribble all over the paper, whether drawing paper or in design magazines, right on the photographs. Then I sit and stare at the chaos waiting for lines and shapes to come forth. My "inner child" really digs that process, so I suppose that is where then, the emotional element is most ... happy.
MICHAEL: Fascinating. Is your work more about art or design? What's the difference for you? I ask because the creative process is so mysterious and we really have to respect the process. No?
CHRISTOPHER: Well now, there is a good example of ying/yang. I'm of the personal mindset that art needs a good design and design needs an artistic execution. Otherwise, the art alone tends to be a frivolous and vain excursion. Likewise, design alone will be and often is, dry, stale and overtly utilitarian. I mean, everyone loves a beautiful automobile or even an attractive, red and shapely blender. We also love a child’s refrigerator art gallery. The child’s art needs to continue the evolution of that artist and viewers as an art loving society. The intellectual approach to the design of said art accomplishes that sophistication, that evolution.
MICHAEL: I was born in Wichita and my mom's side of the family is from there. However, I must say Kansas doesn't strike me as a hotbed of culture or artistic acceptance let alone activity. Am I wrong? Shouldn't you be in New York or LA or at least Chicago or Minneapolis? Am I wrong?
CHRISTOPHER: Well, I've been telling lots of folks that most everyone on the planet is tied to Wichita somehow. Think about it, aircraft, medicine, engineering, camping gear, pizza. Anyway, I think it's cool you hail from the ICT. And I'm flattered by the confidence. Politically and as far as the mainstream media would know, we are "fly over country." Hell, pick any small city in any state, the issues would be the same.
MICHAEL: Yes, that’s true.
CHRISTOPHER: Okay, contemporary art history lesson. I am a member of the "Famous Dead Artists" (co-op, co-lab, whatever you want to call it). Twenty years ago, we (the FDA) and about a half-dozen galleries and studios all in the same block, actually the same building, began a "Gallery Crawl" night called "Final Friday." It was a response to primary metros that have a “First Thursday (or Friday)”. The evening has become a cultural jewel. Every First Friday, hundreds of the art-minded cruise around the core and several extremities in the city. It did take a while to encourage mass participation. Now, several museums, every university and a few dozen galleries, studios and art-supportive businesses are open on "Final Friday."
Yet, the caveat is, while the diversity of Wichita (for a small secondary metro of only 400k) is indeed somewhat wide, the "conservative" attitude is very much in play when it comes to money. Most of the art collecting is done by artists. There are several affluent people who generously support all the arts in a variety of fashion. Thank goodness for every one of them. I myself have benefitted well. YET ... there are still only 400k people here, so the pond gets fished out quickly. So, all the aforementioned means that, as an artist, this is a great town to live in and work out of. I have to, for business sake, broaden my horizons to other locations. Therefore I, being a mostly self-representing artist, have taken myself to Kansas City, Chicago, New York, Miami and Berlin. I have (through purchase agents) achieved commissions in all the above as well as Singapore and St. Petersburg, Russia. All artists must work hard at making noise. Eventually the audience will hear and see us.
MICHAEL: Given all of that, how do you think the art world is changing? Is this change positive? What would you change if you could?
CHRISTOPHER: In MY perception, changes now are similar to past decades, centuries in that the steady flow of evolution in art is still in motion. The water runs down the stream, sometimes water and sludge carve out a new stream at the bank, sometimes it stalls, sometimes it floods.
The current teenagers, twenty and thirty-somethings are reacting and responding to their environments, physically, mentally and spiritually. Just the same as ever. I'm one to believe humans have NOT changed much at all in 100k years. But ... our technology has. Therefore our reactions, our responses are in constantly flux. Currently, young contemporary artists are regurgitating, this point in history's, overload of advertising. Their narrative is parroting what we told them to do, buy, touch, taste and feel. Some voices are beautiful, some are ugly, but ALL are always revealing. Not so much as my age bracket of 50-70 has romanticized the advertising and product imagery of the 40's through the 60's. No, I mean these folks are puking the massive amounts of shit shoved down their throats, eyes and ears. Most of the resulting work is schlock, as has always been, YET...
the truly talented, dedicated and personally introspective artists are sorting out the chaos and the deafening noise in order to find the beauty, serenity and order, at least for themselves, in the detritus.
There are many stunning paintings, sculptures, installations and performance pieces birthed from these processes. It is comical watching some curators, galleries, agents and show promoters attempting to keep up. They are simply trying to "herd cats." Hence, why so many exhibition fairs are reported as having a "lack of curatorial focus.”
You cannot curate a demolition derby.
I laugh when I hear my contemporaries say crap like, "The kids these days..." I usually remind them that I was at the parties they were and I know how they first met their spouses and partners. I am rather proud to be present with the recent contemporary works. There is, again in my perspective, nothing to change. I think the artists are doing just fine being "True to thine own selves."
MICHAEL: Sculpture seems to be the least accessible of all art forms. It's so expensive, it takes up space and not everyone relates to it unless it's in a public installation space. What role does sculpture or even 3D art play in society today?
CHRISTOPHER: I understand your point and can relate, yet I would like to suggest an additional perspective. We humans demand the luxury of living WITH and IN sculpture. Our homes, our vehicles, our clothing, our hairstyles, the make-up worn, the accessories of domestic or personal use ... ALL these things are sculpture of the highest contemporary importance. We may say we bought that car for the mileage, however I believe the deal maker was how the vehicle appeases the buyers' visual aesthetic.
We even buy a specific bottle of water because of the sculpted design of the bottle. Manufacturers bank on our demand for ART in our lives. Even in the poorest of countries, art, and most notably sculpture, is firmly a part of daily life. In Haiti, I've met the family of twelve that lives in the stick hut with a dirt floor. Their clothing is superb and they dress themselves with great care and dignity. 3D work is surrounding the culture every bit as much as 2D.
That is one perspective I suggest to also consider. Yet to more specifically comment on your perspective, the shear cost to produce most sculpture does indeed place it outside of the budget of even affluent collectors, let alone the working class. That consideration tends to explain the "collectors" of THINGS. Toys, jewelry, statuettes, antiques, coffee cups, funny shapes driftwood, you get the point. These are all sculptural objects in that the person obtains these items for their personal visual imagery pleasure.
They may not say, "This is ART," as opposed to a painting they own, yet the reason for possessing the antique lamp is indeed the same as possessing the painting. So, all in all, I believe now as much as any point in history, perhaps more, that sculpture is very important to all of us, even to "unaware of the fact, John Q. Public."
MICHAEL: Most of the things that you've named also have a practical use in our daily lives. The utilitarian and practical nature of those beautiful things help people justify buying them. What's the practical, everyday use of contemporary art?
CHRISTOPHER: Practical every day use. I suppose that might be the million dollar question. I know for myself, in my own collection, it has an abundance of use, that being predominantly as companionship. The works in my home and studio keep me company. They keep present an unstated conversation of current historical and local events. I am reminded of family, friends, their own adventures and trials. The state of the human condition and the world's issues and successes are constantly being on display, worked out in public, if you will, at contemporary art exhibitions whether it be at private, avant garde studios and galleries or at fairs and museums. Perhaps that is where I'm going. Contemporary art is a news report, a current events documentary "short" if you will. Contemporary art tells us where we "are." Yes ... THAT'S the practical aspect, that's the "use."
MICHAEL: I hate to mention other artists during these interviews, but I must ask the obvious. How big an influence is Alexander Calder for you? Not many artists are doing your type of work. Not this well anyway...
CHRISTOPHER: While I have few specific influences, such as Lissitzky, Mondrian and children’s refrigerator art, it would be fair to say that Calder's influence would be obvious enough. After acknowledging that, the effect of the influence becomes a more elaborate tail.
Wichita is one of the few secondary metros that actually has a monumental Calder sculpture. "Collapsible Elements" is listed as having been commissioned in 1975. Unfortunately, Sandy Calder passed in 1976 before the work was finally installed. He never saw it in place. I have always loved that work. It occupies four stories inside a 13-story atrium of a building on the main avenue of Wichita.
Fast forward to 1989 - a year of many personal epiphanies. I was driving by the art department of Friends University here in Wichita. Near the door of the art dept, a large elm tree had a large bough hanging straight out for about 10 feet and about eight feet off the ground. One of the art students had hung six steel round gears, each 12 inches in diameter in a straight, horizontal line. All the gears were painted primary and secondary colors.
It was a rainbow floating in air. The image made such a dynamic impact on my psyche that I went home that very night and began to build mobiles. 25 years later, here we are conversing on the subject.
Calder’s work and its appeal to the eye of the general public, seems to generally focus on the positive space, the solid parts if you will. Everyone sees the red, the black, the bright yellow and orange moving and dancing.
However, the invention of the “mobile” as a sculpture form brings to light the potential for sculpture to capitalize on natures simplest wonders, in this case, balance, that battle between gravity and inertia. I am fascinated by the mechanism, the machine itself, the “Mobile.”
While always being aware of Calder and many of the works, I never knew much of the life and history of him and his work. The more I study work, listen to interviews, read on the background, I relate very much to many aspects of his background and his attitude toward life. The guy did what and how he wanted. Calder's visit to friend Piet Mondrian started Sandy on the road to "mobiles" (and Duchamp coined the term). He was quoted as saying, "He that imitates me does not flatter me." I certainly hope he would have approved of my efforts. I have so many ideas and sketches for concepts that I could work on for decades and not exhaust the list. Most all artists are motivated by something and someone. Early and mid-20th century works are my key reference material. My main "artist statement phrase" is, "It is my intention to bring to view, Negative Space."
By the way, my commission work, "KLC1-13 (Moving in Stereo) 2013” is hanging in the Kansas Leadership Center directly across the street from the aforementioned Calder masterpiece. My work gets to live next door to a personal hero. I am indeed grateful.
MICHAEL: Now, that’s cool. Congratulations. Christopher, I could go on with you, but I'll make this the last question. Would you prefer to be lauded by art historians as one of the most important artists of the 21st Century and not understood by the general public OR adored by the general public which buys your work like hotcakes and yet be despised by the critics (like Thomas Kinkade)? Yes, this is a silly, yet fun question.
CHRISTOPHER: Ha! What is funny is I've actually had to think of that. Well, since "lauded" very rarely pays the bills and critics usually die unknown, oh and hindsight history is typically much kinder than predictions, I'll go with the public enjoying my work, which is truly all it is for and supporting me to continue. Thanks Michael, this has been fun. I am honored to be selected for your project.
MICHAEL: Thanks Christopher. Great chat.
CHRISTOPHER: Take care man!
Check out Christopher Gulick at http://christophergulick.com/.