ELLENVILLE – Sam Tufnell, the artist whose show and accompanying installation "Gnomes on the Mountain" opened this past Saturday at Wired Gallery in High Falls, is an example of a number of different trends, some quite important for our area.
As an artist, he's operating in something of a rebel frame of mind.
"I really want to get away from dryness in conceptual art," he said in an interview in his Ellenville studio this week. "I am in rebellion against sculptural norms, the things I studied in school. I used to do steel work, and welding and a lot of fabrication, which ultimately leads to manufacturing your work."
After a period of such work he jumped to a new material. And he loves it. He now creates his sculptures using rubber molds filled with clear or colored plastic resin.
Tufnell is also operating as that relatively new thing, a "weeker" — the opposite of the weekender.
"I love working up in Ellenville. I live in the city, but I work in the country," he explained. "And I have to say, I got more done in my studio in Ellenville in two years than I did in the past five to ten years in Brooklyn. It's also great being able to step out of the studio for a breath of fresh air, instead of a city street. I want the complete opposite of the city experience. I get up in the morning and I go straight into the studio in my dressing gown. There's no commuting! And I have my dogs here and they love it and can run around. We have plenty of land to hike on, and I dug a pond so I will have plenty of frogs to listen to soon!"
Tufnell, who's originally from Los Angeles and started rising through the contemporary art fair world after getting his BFA from New York's School of Visual Arts 15 years ago, has a sculptural philosophy that he describes as "anti-monumentality"
"Part of my creative desire is to find new ways to convey traditional subject matter as well as my own childish motives to move against the art establishment. For me the figure will always be the 'original sculpture' and abstraction will always be its 'rebel child;' however both share a common thread with monumentality and public art," he explained. "It is a conflict that I am constantly challenged by and the more I try to resolve the issue between monumentality and sculpture the further my subject matter devolves into a kind of anti-monumentality. It is this concept of the anti-monument that has pervaded much of my subject matter throughout each medium I explore."
This thinking lies behind the gnomes, a series that began in bronze but are now made in plastic resin and lit from below.
"Go to Italy and you see wonderful figurative sculpture everywhere," he added. "Hard to compete with that so I went the opposite way. I would make things smaller, and the gnomes are small. Another thing is, in art, I don't believe you have a product unless it is visually appealing."
And so, the plastic resin, which is not as easy to work with as you might at first expect.
"No, it takes up to five days to cure, and you have to work with pressure to get all the air bubbles out. There are a lot of tricks to working this material," Tufnell said. "But a lot of artists now are working in plastic. I've helped quite a few with the problems that come with it. Artificial mediums, and now with 3D printers, there's another aspect to this. You see, for centuries there was nothing but marble and bronze to work with in sculpture. Now we're getting away from those, and there are these other, durable products and they offer new and exciting challenges."
Tufnell noted how the art world is usually either in a state of revolution or building up to one.
"Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are the giants today and both came out of left field," he pointed out about two controversial but well-known icons of the contemporary art world. "Koons' first piece was the vacuum cleaners, and nobody knew what the hell it was. Damien Hirst had the dead things, the shark and so on, and everybody in the art establishment rejected it. And then they became the next stars. It's always like this."
We asked: Is it an exciting time to be a working artist?
"Oh yes. Artists today are exploring new mediums... now we have artists make art with Apps," he answered with a merry laugh. "I got involved with plastic. I saw samples of it, I thought it was engaging, I liked the idea of plastic as the new bronze."
With such a clear medium, Tufnell added, there were opportunities to play with light. And so, he began illuminating the bases under his pieces and from there started lighting, and coloring them, in other ways.
"I decided I would just control light. There's a lot still to explore. I did a show in Florida at the Cornell Museum; it was a group show and it was all light-based art," he said. "Well, they had a great theater department there and we experimented with the theater lights and found some amazing effects. Really, there's no reason you can't explore in this medium with light effects."
Tufnell's plastic works are fascinating to see. The translucent plastic, gathered in assemblages of the strange objects that our culture creates and leaves behind — crumpled cans, Darth Vader heads, Batman figurines, booze bottles, a small scale bust of Marilyn Monroe — create a remarkable beauty with their tones of dayglo pink and yellow, blue and green, like some commentary on the modern world crafted in Jello.
For more on his work visit the Wired Gallery show, making sure to look around High Falls for his Gnome Mountain installations. Or just visit his website at www.samtufnell.com.