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Interviews: Heath West

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Heath West is a Houston-based practicing architect and artist that has recently been included in Tumblr's 2014 Year in Review Artists to Watch list. With a background in art history and master's in Science of Advanced Architectural Design at Columbia University, his 'wall-works' or 'non-paintings' often use architectural concepts and theories in art production, focusing on the structure and transformation of space. On January 15th, Castor Gallery in New York will be introducing his latest series of algorithmic paintings that combine digitally-inspired patterns with abstract traditions, using folding, screens, framing, layers, transparency, as a "painting" technique. We recently had a chance to take a look inside West's studio in Houston and talk with him about the new series of works, about his process, connection between philosophy and his art, and to hear about his plans and ideas for the future... heath_west13 Arrested Motion (AM): How would you describe the artworks that you are making? Heath West (HW): Lately, I’ve been calling them ‘non-paintings’—because that’s a literal thing itself—there’s no paint involved whatsoever. There is staining, but not painting. I also favor ‘wall-works’, as that’s another literal reading, which favors the Cartesian Z-axis, and their architectural nature is inspired by wall sections, with the layering of different materials for spatial effects. AM: The works you've been creating so far varies a lot in mediums, concept, techniques, etc. What is the connection between all of them, if there is one?! HW: The concept is the same throughout, in fact. The philosophical driving force is to frame the spatial relationships of material properties. How one views the work, from varying points of view, the image in the picture will shift as one moves around it. The idea of a distance/light/movement relationship between the viewer and the work, weaves through every piece. heath_west11 AM: Your formal education is mostly architecturally focused - how did you end up making art?! HW: I arrived at architecture from art history. I took numerous studio and art history courses in school, but it was never my sole focus. I eventually decided to go for an M.Arch (when I graduated in 2009, in the heart of the recession, I wondered why I did this), but studying art never went away. I always studied it as a release from architecture. Architecture is a very difficult, slow-moving profession. Art moves fast. To put it another way - it’s a lot quicker to make something under the umbrella of Art, than it is under the one of Architecture. To have both in operation is to keep the visual ideas within a personal balance. Le Corbusier was adamant about this. Sol Le Witt worked as draftsman for I.M. Pei before branching off into art, and today there are people like Oscar Tuazon and Nick van Woert who have a background in architecture, which is quite visible and human about their work. heath_west10 AM: How much of your producing process is constructing, planning, building, and how much involves classic art making methods? HW: It’s safe to say that I use zero classic art making methods. Planning is a major part of the process, indeed, but making is my favorite, for sure. Once all the materials are gathered and ready, and when it’s time to construct and build—that’s the best part—thinking through materials. AM: What are your weapons of choice, tools you are using when creating works? HW: Electric drill, hammer, staple gun, pliers, various fabrics, stains, and hardware. heath_west12 AM: Are you present in every step of the creating process, or do you just give out your directions to people that do the work? HW: I’m present in every step. The pine stretcher bars are off-the-shelf, and I send my designs to the printer for the grids on fabrics, but I’m there every step of the way, from beginning to end. AM: If yes, that requires a lot of craftsmanship, when did you master all those skills? HW: Architecture school. Making models of all sorts, construction details to urban sites, with woods, metals, foams, papers…trial and error. A lot of errors, in fact, which seems to be the best way to learn anything. heath_west05 AM: The works you created for this show are pretty similar in concept but quite diverse with their final appearance. What were the main ideas behind these works? HW: How layering various materials, fabrics, metallic mylar, plastic screening (which I associate as a heavy-fabric) can achieve the same material-based philosophy, that light and space (and time!) are principals of experiencing the work. AM: We noticed you like to play with the framing of the works. Where did you come up with this idea? HW: For obvious reasons, when starting a new piece, I found myself starting with the frame. But then I started to think how could the frame be the work itself, or a prominent compositional element of the work. And who else is activating this is contemporary art, and how are they doing it? People like Rebecca Ward, Antoine Donzeaud, and Alex Hubbard among others, all visually activate the structural frame of the work. As did Sigmar Polke, and the Support/Surfaces group. So the point of departure was a nod to both history and the contemporary, in the direction of forming my own language with the material components. heath_west08 AM: Do you print your own fabrics used for these works? HW: I am designing and printing my own fabrics, but I also shop at the local giant fabric store, where you’re spoiled for choice. But I stay within generic, ubiquitous grids. There’s one fabric that’s a black grid on a polyester/spandex blend, which I’ve been meaning to go get more of, the stretch of it is great, you really feel the tension in the material. AM: What is the usual sequence of creating one of these pieces? Do you sketch everything first, or does it depend on the materials, fabrics you have access to? HW: Planning, organizing, and sourcing materials takes a lot time. I’ll sketch out some color combinations before applying the stain onto the wood. But in general, I like to dive into the work and make it happen. Sure, mistakes happen, but that’s part of the process. I don’t want to the work to be too polished, or too perfect, because then it’ll lose some of the human aspect of it. Like a beauty mark, blemishes of process can be charming. heath_west07 AM: Some of the works are more about their construction than the actual image or appearance, what is your view on those works? HW: The frame pieces question the materiality of the frame itself as a means of expression. If I stay within the constraint of ‘not painting’, what can I do to it? I use a brand of stain that comes in every color of the rainbow, some of them being incredibly bright, and I love how they accentuate the grains of the pine, emphasizing properties of the material. I also don’t use any glue, making hardware the clear choice for attaching the pieces together. Coming from architecture, I love the tectonics of a building, where you can see how it’s put together. This is my approach to making the frame pieces, to make each one a tectonic space, as opposed to any foregrounded image. AM: Your work symbolize some interesting theories about enframing, screens, folds, etc, could you tell us more about it? HW: These ideas come from philosophy, from Martin Heidegger, and more specifically, from Gilles Deleuze. Heidegger used the term enframing as means “to reveal the real,” and Deleuze used the frame in his reading of film, as a means of spatial composition, a geometric way of balancing the picture. Deleuze also wrote about the fold, but without needing to recite or quote of his works, his ideas are incredibly influential to me personally, and if we include ’screens’ in both their material, literal sense, and in their subjective, selective sense, we see how each term in an anecdote for action. Another book which I’ve been reading is titled Thought in the Act, by Erin Manning and Brian Massumi. In addition to his own books, Massumi was also the translator of A Thousand Plateaus, by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, from French into English, so there is a lot of Deleuzian thought to his writing. Thought in the Act is about the artistic process, how it’s visual philosophy, and how thinking through material or through movements of the body, as in dance, have resounding impacts on meaning, and reading. Deleuze’s books on cinema are similar, where he describes the psychology of camera angles, making the image or the characters ominous or distorted. So, by my reading, I incorporate these concepts when working. I’m not a writer (my dad is), I’ve always been drawn to the visual language. heath_west14 AM: Do you have any major concepts you're planning for the future? HW: To keep making, to keep my work moving forward. To refine construction techniques, and material selections. AM: What are your plans for the coming year? HW: To invest in some new hardware. I’m pricing a few saws right now, and I’ve already located the materials for the next works I want to make. They’ll be variations on the same themes that I’m working with, but with some minor tweaks here and there. Photo credit: Michael Bhichitkul.

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