Deep in the Vaults, the tunnels under Waterloo, painter and sculptor David Breuer-Weil welcomes us into the creative world of his imagination. Down there, you’ll find a labyrinth of sculptures and large paintings produced for Project 4, the lastest of a series of projects that have spanned the last 12 years – a serious voyage of artistic discovery. With a family history that includes big topics like immigration and war as well as an an artist as a father and a mother who grew up surrounded by the Danish landscape, David has plenty to inspire his work. He’s been painting on canvas for decades and is currently working on a massive new sculpture called Alien which is soon to be released into the urban wilds of London.
Read on to find out why David chose The Vaults for his latest exhibition venue, how politics and history play a large role in his work and where you can find his favourite London discovery.
LLO: Tell us a bit about your background as an artist. What lead you to a career of visual creativity? Are you self taught or formally trained and how long have you been painting?
DB-W: I grew up with art from an early age and was very much a studio child, as my father is an artist and I have painted on canvas since the age of ten. I went to Central Saint Martin’s School of Art where I was taught by Shelley Fausset, Henry Moore’s assistant sculptor. Afterwards, I studied at Clare College Cambridge.
LLO: There is a gap of about 12 years between the exhibition of The Project and Project 4. When you look back at the whole series of four different London shows, in what ways has your style, motivation or purpose changed, if at all?
DB-W: The Project is a voyage of discovery. Project 1 was a bit of a shock to the system – both for me and the viewers – in that I wanted to stare into the heart of darkness of modern man, confronting some of his darkest issues. These have remained with me but the Project has moved from using raw, underground colours to images of great light, such as the solar system. The Project explores history, belonging and our place in the universe. Recently, I have started to think a lot about the fact that humanity exists on a small rock, one of billions in infinite space. The Project confronts the human condition and puts it in the context of a vast universe with infinite possibilities. When I started The Project, I thought that we were at the end of history but now I think we are at the beginning. My painting has become increasingly textured and varied in colour which reflects my search for new physical and psychological worlds. Art gives me the opportunity to explore internal worlds of the imagination as well and, because of this, I have also started making more sculpture.
LLO: You’re exhibiting Project 4 in the dark Vaults off of Leake Street, a well known designated graffiti area, with trains running overhead. Talk about the choice of venue and atmosphere of your latest show.
DB-W: All of the Projects have been held in vast raw urban spaces. I like the idea of the exhibition space as a metaphor for the human mind. By this I mean that the viewer walks into the tunnels and enters an inner world of the imagination – like taking a stroll in the artist’s mind. I also believe that the art establishment often presents the public with relatively sterile or facile works and environments and I try to strike a deeper note, to excavate into the darker depths of the soul (if this is possible). Our art world has become densely materialistic but I am trying to say that art can offer more; it can plumb the depths, it can be more than a fashion accessory or interior decoration and it can be more than an investment vehicle. For me, art is a way for an individual to express his or her feelings about the absurd mystery of life.
LLO: You start with the paint rather than drawing, resulting in an underpainting full of creative energy. Tell us about your approach to the canvas and your method of painting, from the conception of an idea to completion of a project.
DB-W: I believe that for a painting to be really successful it must speak through the language of paint. Although my work is very conceptual, in the sense that my images are filled with concepts and ideas, these ideas are given physical and psychological impact by the physical power of the paint. I usually paint the first layer with great violence, attacking the canvas with brute force, but I usually have an image in my mind based on an idea that I have developed in multiple sketches and drawings, and this image comes to life in the paint, almost like the painful or traumatic birth of an idea. I let that layer dry and then work up the canvas in several layers. I like the idea that the process of painting mirrors the fact that a painting can have several levels of meaning as well as several physical levels. For me, a great painting should work simultaneously on the intellect and the emotions. Otherwise, it is merely a concept or a decoration. In addition to painting in my studio, I spend a lot of time travelling when I draw a great deal in pencil. I still believe in drawing and what I look for in other artists is their draughtsmanship. There are thousands of artists, but only a small handful of great draughtsmen in any generation.
LLO: Sculpture is another medium you work with regularly and you’ve had installations in Hanover Square and Golders Hill Park. The sculptures have a sort of primal look about them. Tell us about the concept behind some of your latest pieces.
DB-W: I exhibited two large bronze pieces with Sotheby’s at Chatsworth House in 2010 and 2011 and was encouraged by the response to develop sculpture further in public spaces. One of the Chatsworth pieces was of two feet sticking out the ground (Visitor 2), as if a large person had fallen to earth from a great height. In this and other works I wanted to combine the monumentality of Stonehenge with the imagery of my two-dimensional works. I love the idea that a city like London can be a vast canvas on which to exhibit public sculptures and that the public does not need to go to a museum to engage with an artwork.
The sculptures are very primal and instinctive. I have always been inspired by the idea written in Genesis that humanity was literally born from the ground. When I make a figure in clay it reminds me of this concept, like building a man from the earth. Many of the new sculptures carry ideas from my paintings into three dimensions. My latest sculpture, 18 feet tall, is of an alien that has crash-landed on earth, the very opposite of a man born from the earth. But other than being a lot bigger, this alien is the same as all of us. I like to think that aliens are versions of ourselves but this piece is very ambiguous. My grandfather was a refugee from Nazi-occupied Vienna and when he arrived in England he was branded as an “enemy alien”. We’ll be installing this piece in London soon so do watch out – Alien isn’t easy to miss.
Emergence, which you may have seen in Hanover Square, has been included in Project 4, rising from a murky pool of water in one of the wet brick tunnels.
LLO: In a video about your show, when talking about your sculptures, you said: “Somehow just a straight portrait is no long as true as a deconstructed portrait.” Tell us a bit more about what you mean by that and how this statement relates to your own work.
DB-W: It has been said that there cannot be poetry after Auschwitz. I think that is a difficult but crucial statement because the world retains its beauty and artists want to celebrate that beauty. However, I take from Adorno’s famous statement the thought that it is no longer convincing to create a straightforward representation of a face or an object and have it speak powerfully as a modern icon. Contemporary art or poetry has to convince the viewer that it is relevant to the condition of modernity because as a species we have lost our innocence. There can still be poetry but a kind of skewed or distorted poetry. Rather, we must discover the beauty of the world by fighting through our knowledge of what our fellow human beings are capable of doing. It is a hard-won process for a contemporary artist to paint something both beautiful and relevant. Perhaps it is partly for this reason that I am thinking of other, not yet tainted, worlds like Franz Marc looked to the innocence of the animal kingdom to regenerate the art of his time.
LLO: You often work on a very large scale. Why this preference? What significance does it have for your body of work?
DB-W: I often feel the need to work on a large scale because I need to enter the world of the object I am making, as does the viewer, especially with the Project works. The compositions can be very complex and disorienting and require scale and a vast array of textures and differing emotional scales, almost like a piece of music. However, in other bodies of works I work on a far smaller scale. When I started the Project the idea was to create this massive series of large works to be installed permanently together, a kind of massive cave painting for the modern soul. I have not abandoned that idea and am still looking to install Projects 1-4 together.
LLO: What is the artist’s role in daily life, politics, history? What do you hope, on a general scale, to communicate through your body of work?
DB-W: We may not realise it at the time but art that reflects its moment in history often becomes the most significant in the long term. The best art paradoxically tends to be universal and timeless whilst being specific and of its time. For that reason, the artist often unconsciously avoids being a direct political commentator or historian but rather somebody who may reflect the strength of his or her feelings about these matters in a way that becomes symbolic. In other words, rather than being illustrative, I find it important to create archetypal images that will reflect some aspect of human nature even when times have changed. So, for example, whilst it might be possible to interpret some of my works as reflective of a historical moment, or a comment on politics, they are really about the things that lie behind. I want to show that issues such as belonging, homeland, territory, possessiveness, ancestry, the passage of the generations and of time, the difficulty of communicating with one another accurately are all major subjects. But, these are subjects that have always been and always will be there. Essentially my aim is to make people think through images.
LLO: How has your own family history influenced your work?
DB-W: The fact that both my parents were immigrants to England and have since left England is a major influence because my imagination is freed by a sense of insecurity. My mother’s father was killed by the Nazis and my father also lost many family members during World War II. Some of my earlier Project works reflect the traumas of that generation. My mother’s Danish background has been an inspiration for a lot of the landscape elements in my work. My father is from Vienna and there is an Austrian Expressionist tendency in some of my work, especially my earlier paintings. Many of the School of London painters had a similar background and sense of having come from elsewhere but having matured in this magisterial town of London, for example Auerbach and Freud.
LLO: On a different, more light-hearted topic, what is the best hidden gem you’ve discovered in London?
DB-W: I wouldn’t necessarily call it light-hearted but probably Michelangelo’s marble tondo sculpture hidden away on the top floor of the Royal Academy.
David’s work is currently on exhibition:
Venue: The Vaults, Arch 233, Leake Street, London SE1 7NN
Dates: Now through March 24, 2013
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10am – 6pm; Sunday, 12 – 4pm