In the Studio with Portland-Based Sculptor David Wien
Sometimes the simplest art can be the most compelling. Materials can shine when unencumbered as they gleam in minimal glory. By stripping art down to core concepts like form, composition, and color, work can speak on a more immediate, direct level. On that note, we'd like to simply introduce you to Portland-based artist David Wien.
Wien has delved into other mediums, including printmaking, painting and paper mache, but as of late, his work has been stripped down to one element – wood. His subtractive sculptures evoke a naive style, but executed with craftsmanship and heart. By slowly carving away at a single round of wood, Wien transforms raw material into meaning. Sculpting and wood-carving via traditional techniques, Wien’s subjects vary from aquatic creatures and masks to warrior women, all fitting to the ancient material in which they were formed.
I sat down with him this summer, as part of our #westcoaststudiotour to talk about everything from surfing to the inevitable learning curve of working with wood. Take a look below.
Being partially self-taught, how did you initially begin woodworking? When did you know you were onto something?
Well, I went to art school – I studied painting, sculpture, and printmaking. But I started teaching myself woodcarving about 10 years ago. True story, I had been working with paper mache for several years. I became well versed with the material, but my process wasn't archival. Something started happening to all the paper mache pieces. Tiny dots started forming on the painted surface, which then, in time, became thousands of little holes, then more holes – until nothing was left of the piece but the wire armature. Very few of the paper mache pieces have survived. I knew I needed to find another sculpture medium.
I was seduced the moment I first explored below the surface of a piece of wood.
Having been on the West Coast for some time, how do you think Portland plays into your work, and what do you love about the city?
I'd have to say that I don't see my work as a reflection of Portland. That said, I'm sure my physical surroundings have a tremendous impact on me.
I've always said my favorite thing about Portland is getting out of town. I spend a good portion of my time getting out, usually to the coast. But Portland can be a nice place to live. My studio is the center of my world, and it's comfortable and inspiring. I live with a couple of awesome roommates who are basically my best friends, and enrich my life a great deal. There are lots of fun places to skate, and I have a mellow job waiting tables at a killer pizza shop. I love all these things about Portland, and the great friends I have here.
Your work alludes ancient, pre-historical imagery. Do you think working in such a traditional art form with those sort of influences is inherent to the medium?
Yeah, that's interesting, I think you may be onto something. I have definitely been drawn towards really old art lately. It could be just because that's the kind of art I'm looking at and thinking about right now. But also, I think it's possible the medium feels old; it's certainly not futuristic.
What sort of challenges do you face working from a solid block of wood? What's your favorite part of the process and why?
There are a lot of technical wood-related challenges that I'm still learning about. It can crack, check, break, or just be rotten. Certain types of wood are more stable than others. Also understanding the grain, and the direction the rings are going and what portion of the tree it comes from, as well as the drying/curing process, is important. Some people work with the wood when it's green, which is something I would like to try. Aside from technicalities of wood, I like the limitations of the "block". You can't add anything to it. Everything you are trying to do has to be inside that block.
I'd say I love each part of the process almost equally, except sanding. I usually start with a drawing, and sometimes you can get into a groove where you don't want to stop just doodling. Then larger pieces start with a chainsaw. This part is fun for obvious reasons. I then move onto hand saws and the mallet with a chisel or gouge. This is my favorite part of the process because you get into a rhythm and it becomes rather trance-like. I'm not creating the piece at this point – meaning I'm not making decisions or editing choices because there is already a blueprint. You feel like a machine that is just removing the excess material. The creative part happens mostly with the initial drawing; then carving the wood is basically a remedial task I find therapeutic and meditative. The next step usually involves a knife and/or rasps and files. Then on to sandpaper. I don't like this part because I don't like dust and it can be hard on the body. But, of course, I do like this step too, I get to indulge my OCD.
Since you seem to really enjoy the learning process of sculpture, have you considered working in other materials?
Definitely. I really want to work with stone. Ceramics would be fun. I've also been thinking about faster methods like maybe foam or assemblage.
What are you listening in the studio these days? Is there a studio soundtrack of the moment?
Oh man, a lot of weird stuff. About 50% podcasts, Reply All is my favorite podcast and a lot of news and current events. And my music taste is super eclectic. The best shows are Melted Radio and Chances With Wolves on Xray FM. My favorite two bands that I've had on repeat this summer are the Dur Dur Band and Chuck Senrick.
Fuck, marry, kill? Cedar, redwood, walnut?
Ha ha ha! C'mon every tree is sacred. Walnut is beautiful and sexy but pretty hard to work with. She's basically out of my league. Cedar can be sort of basic, easy, but there are some interesting varieties I'm learning about. Sometimes smells pungent, sometimes floral, ha ha. Redwood is definitely my fiance. If you can get your hands on a section of old-growth, you can see and feel the history. Those trees are so ancient and powerful. The way they grow boggles the mind. The amount of material one tree provides, and how long that material lasts – using a whale as a metaphor falls short of doing justice to their splendor. The wood is easy to work with and super stable, and I happen to like the color.
Moving from painting to sculpture, form clearly takes center stage. How does it feel to relinquish control of color and focus solely on the physicality of a piece?
It feels really refreshing. I can be majorly indecisive, and painting seemed only to exacerbate it. The last painting I made, I must have changed the colors close to a dozen times. There are too many options when it comes to painting. It hurts my brain. Working within the limitations of form has been good for me. I don't feel indecisive anymore. Painting started to feel like I was trying to reinvent the wheel every time. I would tend to think my brain into knots. Sculpture feels liberating, and the options feel limitless but in a good way. Every cut is final, you can't erase or gesso over.
What's coming up for you, and where can we see more of your work?
Awe, I dunno. I'm looking to book more shows. But I'm mostly just focused on having a thriving practice. I used to be in a pattern of slacking off until I had a show booked, then procrastinate a bunch and work in a stressed out fevered pitch. I began to question why I was making art if it was only if I had a "show", but doesn't that seem backward? I used to feel jealous of artists who just worked contently on their own, devoid of deadlines. Now it feels great. I’m just making things because I want to, without stress or pressure in the picture. I don't need an institution to give me a show in order to feel validated. I'm just trying to keep myself entertained.