I met David briefly at the Trafalgar Hotel last month where his work was on show as part of a jottaContemporary exhibition called Into the Wilde which featured pieces that drew inspiration from Oscar Wilde’s work. He was hanging about like any normal graduate, drinking a beer with friends, happy to chat about his work. It’s surreal, perverse, playful, sometimes disturbing and full of energy.
And it’s been given quite a lot of attention lately, particularly due to his position as a finalist for the Catlin Prize this year. With an MA from Chelsea College of Art on his already impressive CV, David’s sculptures have been featured in Art Review, Spoonfed.co.uk, The Independent, Elle, The Guardian and BBC, among others. Perhaps it’s the bizarre materials he chooses or the narrative popping out of each piece or how quickly his mind churns out intriguing new ideas. Whatever it is, props to David for his long list of gallery exhibitions, commissions, awards and relentless ambition.
For this week’s London Art Spot, David talks us about experimenting with shark teeth and treacle, digs into his experience to reveal a bit of advice to recent art graduates and shares a story about his grandfather’s cane.
LLO: This being a London blog, which aspects of London life most influence your creativity?
DS: It’s an obvious answer but the Galleries and exhibitions that, if you were so inclined, could keep you busy with show openings and visits all week long. Although I do love, that even in this city, you’re never too far from a bit of greenery, a park or something similar to wander into. I need a little bit of nature close by as it helps me work and London has plenty of these wonderful areas a stone’s throw from the busy streets.
LLO: What’s the most unusual material you’ve used so far to create a piece of art? Is there a story behind it?
DS: I would say Shark teeth have been the most unusual material although I did do a project with a fellow student at Chelsea where we created a pool on the floor out of black treacle. We projected an image against it of two studious looking men and made it look as though they were sinking in the pool. It took 16 cans of treacle!
I have also just completed a piece which used a resin foetus skull. I re-worked the skull so that the jaw could hold a machete in its mouth then the whole piece was covered with a rich purple flock.
LLO: Anything particular objects you have in mind to experiment with in the near future?
DS: I have just acquired a resin bust form of a black bear. It’s going to be another light piece and a lot of work but I’ve been excited about starting on it since I drew the plan out in my sketchbook. I also have a resin cat skeleton that I’ve had in my studio for a while and I think now is the time to progress with this piece too.
LLO: It’s been said your work shows a “macabre sense of humour”. Would you agree? If so, give us a good example of a piece that best represents this part of your personality.
DS: I would agree there is something slightly humorous about some of the works I make. Shuck was piece that had a dark streak to it yet kept some humour around it. It was a skeletal dog form I had finished with black gloss paint. I positioned the piece in the corner of a room, and inside its rib cage leading out of its mouth I had threaded electroluminescent wire that piled up on the floor beneath. It really grabbed the viewers’ attention when they entered the space, despite its small stature. It was an irradiated guard dog for my exhibition space, happily ingesting this radioactive looking wire in spite of it leading to its current appearance as nothing more than blackened bones. It became somewhat disturbing but also endearing as a creature that really shouldn’t be there, and wasn’t alive, but still had something life like and charged about its presence.
LLO: Share a piece of work with the most interesting story behind it and tell us about it.
DS: It’s perhaps not really an interesting story but it means a lot to me. After my Grandfather died I got hold of one of his walking sticks. I wanted to do something with it as it was such a beautiful wooden form but I also wanted to preserve the memory I had of him, protect it in some way. After much decision making I used the piece, and placed human teeth made from resin all around the handle of the cane. It made the Cane obsolete to any other potential user as the teeth defended the cane from the grasp of another. It’s a very personal piece and I don’t think I’ll ever let it go.
LLO: Animals (including skulls of dead animals) and neon lights both play a huge role in your work. Where does your fascination with these two elements stem from?
DS: I grew up always being encouraged to look at and understand nature. There is always something new to learn and that’s the interesting part. Growing up in a more rural setting you get a firm grasp of the fragility of creatures in their natural habitat, and that death is something very close by. I use skulls because they show the fragile form of a creature. There seems to be a something divine about these forms, be it the way antlers have developed on roe deer skull or the way the teeth in a tiger skull are designed specifically for its hunting prowess. Light is something I came to late in my MA so I feel I’ve got a lot of experimenting to do. I like using light as it makes you work harder when creating sculpture; there’s a lot more to consider in relation to reflection and shadow. Importantly, the effects I can get from it are precisely what I am looking for particularly when I use Electroluminescent Wire.
LLO: Each piece seems to hint at a story. How important is narrative to you and do you think about this before you begin or does it unfold as you work?
DS: Narrative is quite important in my work but my practice has begun to steer further away from a deep reliance on it and more towards referencing specific areas of animals as omens and their apparitions as bearers of news. I have a way of working that begins with one idea and soon gathers pace including other areas of my research quite quickly. It’s always nice to see what ideas and thoughts you can have when you start working but some ideas tend to be quite tenacious and once I begin with them I get a little obsessive about seeing them through to a specific conclusion I have in my mind.
LLO: Having recently graduated with your MA, you’ve been exhibiting constantly, getting a good amount of press attention and positive feedback. Do you have any solid practical advice for other artists about to face the real world?
DS: I have been more than pleasantly surprised at all the interest my work has generated; it’s been fantastic. The best piece of advice I can give is keep in touch with your fellow graduates if you can, and if you got on with them! Moving out of your college studio space is one thing but when you leave you also lose you peer group and these people are the ones that have been around you and know your work well. Keep these friendships and opportunities for mutual feedback strong. It’s always good to know what others are up to. It can keep you going, help keep things positive. Also if you sell any work from your degree show to collectors, then keep them in the loop about what you do next, what work you make next.
LLO: Which other London-based artists do you admire?
DS: There are quite a few, so, in no particular order: Alex Virji, Sîan Hislop, Blue Curry, Jeremy Willett, Sam Zealey, Aidan Doherty, Matt Clark, Amy Moffatt, Luke Drozd, David Cochrane, Abigail Box, Adam Dix, Lindsey Bull, James Capper, Tianzhuo Chen, Tim Ellis, this list could go on and on…
LLO: What are you working on now and where can we next see your work?
DS: I currently have two commissions that I am working on at the moment that will keep my summer fairly busy but unfortunately both pieces are going into private collections so won’t be seen too widely. The next shows being mooted are in September after that I have a solo show in November, at the Yarrow Gallery, which has been pencilled in for a while now. I have also been approached by a gallery in Los Angeles but that’s a future possibility at the moment and still needs some discussion. I always try and keep something in my diary to work towards, it helps keep me motivated and dedicated to improving.
For more about David and his work, see his website: www.davidasmithart.co.uk
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