I saw Wayne Chisnall’s work online www.waynechisnall.blogspot.com and found it very intriguing. This British artist sculpts and paints with a somewhat dark yet humorous insight. He’s also a cool dude. Here’s our chat…
MICHAEL: Hey Wayne, First off, your wood sculptural work is very intriguing. The pieces are mechanical and organic at the same time. Some look robotic and somewhat human. What inspires you to create these works?
WAYNE: Hi there, Michael. I've always been fascinated by the pure functionality of organic structures and the elegant forms that nature throws up. As a youngster, I would endlessly draw and paint vines and root systems, trying to authentically capture the flow and form of something that has grown rather than been man-made. And when I moved from being a 2D artist to a 3D one, I suppose that this love of the organic crept into my sculptural work. Even though a lot of my work incorporates very geometric structures (boxes and towers etc.), I like to construct them with an organic aesthetic or at least incorporate organic elements. And there are times that I might deliberately leave out anything that has the flow of an organic structure because I like the visual dichotomy of a piece with a rectilinear, 'boxy' look, but that mimics a mechanism from nature. A prime example of this would be my 'Crutch and Tumour Box' sculpture which is inspired by the rogue cell-producing properties of a cancerous mass and has a mutated, yet still geometric, appearance.
Apart from some of my earlier fiberglass pieces and my more recent Pharos Cyclops sculptures, I hadn't seen myself as a figurative sculptor, even though a lot of my work will incorporate small elements from the figure; maybe an eye here, or some teeth there etc. But saying that, because of my anthropomorphic side, I do tend to imbue, or at least imagine, some of my works with human personality traits. And I guess that some of my artist friends must share similar sensibilities as one of them saw my 'Orifice Tower' sculpture at a recently exhibition and said that she saw it as a humorous self portrait. I love it when people see stuff in my work that I didn't. Just because I'm the creator of my work, I don't believe that mine should be the definitive explanation or interpretation of it.
MICHAEL: Most of us take wood for granted and don't think much about it. Yet you work with it all of the time. What have you learned about wood as a result?
WAYNE: Oddly enough, I was dreaming about pieces of wood this morning. If you hadn't asked me that question, I'm sure that I would have soon forgotten about it. It wasn't a very interesting dream. From what I can vaguely remember, I was anxiously trying to find a small strip of wood for a certain job. Wood is such a beautiful and versatile material. I don't have any traditional carpentry skills, but after working with the material for so long, you tend to develop a feel for its strengths and weaknesses and how far you can push it. Some of my wooden structures might look a little ramshackle in construction, but if you look closely, you'll notice that the vast majority of the joints are interlocked in a way that, even without having been glued, they are strongly held together. I'm a bit obsessive when it comes to the little details in my work; lots of my wooden sculptures will contain box structures with internal passageways or details that are hidden from view. But I enjoy the fact that I know that they are there, even if no-one can see them.
Yet it's not just the feel and versatility of wood that I love. It's the appearance and the patina that can from old wood over years of interaction with people or the environment. I find it hard to walk past an old bit of wood and not drag it back to my studio for potential use. As a result, my studio is starting to fill up with piles of wood and other found materials – to the point where my work space is now being encroached upon.
MICHAEL: So you work with wood that you find on the street. Do you get it from anywhere else?
WAYNE: I work part-time at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and have managed to source quite a bit of wonderful-looking old wood from there; mostly the backboards of old frames and early/mid 20th Century packing crates that were destined for the skip. With wood like this, you get a real feel of its personal history – the dust, stains, evidence of wear, old labels, archaic styles of handwriting etc.
MICHAEL: I find it so interesting that you also work in a great museum. That explains the elaborate and intricate nature of your work. What's it like for you to be around all of that great work of the past and yet create cool contemporary work of your own?
WAYNE: The V&A is a unique place to work. A lot of people forget that it's a museum of design (probably the biggest one in the world), so its collection and exhibitions cover both ancient and modern items. And it's with the museum's contemporary collections and exhibitions that I most enjoy working. Although I get to handle some of the most amazing treasures and objects, both from the V&A's collection and lent by museums and collections from all around the world (one of my highlights having been getting to hold a couple of da Vinci sketchbooks), I don't think that the museum environment influences my work as much as you might think. Obviously, the recycled materials (from the museum) that I use in my work have a bearing on the visual appearance of my sculptures, and some of the knowledge that I've picked up regarding the archival nature of certain materials has influenced what I will and won't use in my work, but in general, my influences lie outside of the museum's collection. I'm probably just as likely to find inspiration in a piece of debris that I find lying in the street as I am from anything by the great masters.
MICHAEL: Your work also seems to have a diabolical, mad hatter vibe to it (in a good way). The end result of your sculptures and paintings make me think you've just emerged from your foggy laboratory where you've just completed your latest concoction of disparate items that mean nothing alone, but when combined with other things, they make one wicked stew. HAHAHAHA!
WAYNE: Thank you, that means a lot to me. I'm a firm believer in trying to ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – although you still have to choose your parts carefully. I sometimes wonder what people must think when they visit my flat or my studio for the first time. I'm just so used to massing odd items and materials that I collect, for use in my work, that I no-longer question it. It's only when your guests have left that you suddenly think 'oh, maybe that birdcage full of bones, the pile of dismembered dolls, the human skull and all those drawers labeled 'insects, teeth, hair, and dead things' might seem a bit of an odd thing for a normal human being to have in their living space.’ I remember once having a friend come to visit and he stayed overnight in a spare room that I was using as a temporary work space. He said that he didn't sleep a wink because it was like trying to sleep in a museum of the macabre. But I think he was exaggerating.
MICHAEL: You can find out if he was exaggerating by inviting him back. Somehow, I think he did not sleep a wink. LOL. You know, whenever I chat with artists who work with found objects, it always reminds me that everything retains a sense of nobility even after it has been discarded. This is especially true of human beings, No?
WAYNE: That's interesting. I'd not really thought about it as a sense of nobility before. But I totally get where you're coming from. I find these bits of detritus and can't help but see them as having an essence that they've somehow picked up along the way – either through age and interaction with their environments or through human contact. I suppose that this resonance is more obviously felt with natural materials; especially something like bone or hair.
MICHAEL: What's with the doll heads and skulls? I'm choosing to believe this is more about fun and not your "dark side."
WAYNE: Maybe it's a bit of both. I've been told that I have a dark sense of humour. But I think that that's a very normal English trait anyway.
The doll parts were originally leftover pieces from a doll version of the life-size model kit sculpture, 'And When I'm a Man,’ that I made of myself. But I have been collecting more doll parts for two new sculptures that were intended for the windows of a restored Anglican chapel in Nunhead Cemetery, in South London. The project was due for installation this September, however the curator was unsure of how the more conservative residents of the area, might view the subject matter, so I've decided to pull out of the project rather than submit a watered-down version. When I was selected for the project, I was asked to chose an existing stained glass window as an inspiration for my installation. I chose Herod's 'Massacre of the Innocents.’ Ironically, all the historical stained glass windows (in old churches and cathedrals throughout Europe), depicting this biblical subject, tend to be incredibly graphic and violent, whereas my piece would have had none of that.
As for the human skull - it's to be the crowning glory of a new tower sculpture that I'm planning; not too dissimilar to my recent Orifice Tower piece, but hopefully even more intricate and detailed. I'm actually working on a 2D piece at the moment that was intended to be a large working drawing in preparation for the sculpture, but I got a bit carried away and it's now become a painting. I came by the skull through quite a nice piece of serendipity. A researcher for Channel 4 asked me if I'd be interested in letting them feature one of my sculptures on the latest series of their TV show, ‘Four Rooms.’ I said yes and when I was in the green room of their studio, I got chatting to an antiques dealer who also had a piece in the show. We both got talking about what we do and I mentioned that I'd been looking for a real human skull for one of my sculptural projects. He told me that he had one that he'd picked up from a medical auction and promised to send me pictures of it once he got home. True to his word, he did. However, when I saw it, I realised that its upper and lower jaws were missing, which meant that it wouldn't be suitable for what I had planned. But as is often the case with interesting finds, the image of the skull took root in my mind and the idea for Skull Tower germinated. But I'm still on the lookout for a complete human skull for the original project, so if any of your readers out there know of one, please let me know. Sorry – thought I'd just get that in, because you never know...
MICHAEL: How is the sculpting process different from painting for you? I know that they're both about expression, but how do you determine which you will do on any given day?
WAYNE: My flitting between 2D and 3D works is usually dependent upon when a deadline for one project or other is coming up or simply because of what I feel like working on next. If I've been working for a long time on sculptural pieces, I sometimes feels like having a break by switching to something 2D. Nowadays, most of my time is divided between sculpting and drawing. I think that when I first discovered my love of sculpting, I lost some of my interest in the painterly aspect of painting and a lot of my proceeding paintings became quite graphic and less tonal – probably little more than coloured drawings.
MICHAEL: Finally Wayne, what's the point of art? Don't we have more important things to talk about like healthcare and the homeless? What difference does art make in today's world?
WAYNE: I think that art is the most and least important thing in the world. As an optimistic nihilist, I realise that everything is impermanent and ultimately pointless unless seen as something that should just be enjoyed for what it is and for the brief time that it exists. So I say do what makes you happy or fulfilled. For me, that is art. I can't say what difference art makes in today's world, but I'm not sure that I'd like to live in a world without it. Some years ago, a friend once asked me something similar. He asked, “What's the point in art?” Oddly enough, he now has quite a collection of my work; most of it up on his living room wall.
MICHAEL: Mission accomplished! Thanks Wayne, this has been great.
Check out Wayne Chisnall at www.waynechisnall.blogspot.com.