In city environments, where so much of our material encounters are made up of metal, concrete, barbed wire and more, taking the time to slow down and focus on our personal relationships with those around us can be a challenging thing. In Chris Soal’s debut solo exhibition, he reminds us to do just that.
Titled Orbits of Relating and currently on show at No End Contemporary Gallery, Soal’s body of work features – amongst other things – works comprised of toothpicks, bottletops, and chunks of charred wood. Working with the idea of ‘manufactured debris’, Soal ties together ideas of singularity and plurality – the individual and the communal. And that’s all you’ll get out of the artist if you ask him about his body of work – the rest is up to you.
‘I don’t like talking about my own understandings and intentions when it comes to my work,’ Soal explains over coffee a few hours before the exhibition opening. ‘I really enjoy hearing the viewer’s own interpretations of the work and what it possibly means to them when they first view it.’
To me, the works in Orbits of Relating could be abstract takes on animal furs, or they could put forward discussions on co-dependency under the guise of fungus-ridden tree stumps. Works like ‘You threw sand into the wind, and the wind blew it back’ are like slow, contemplative walks through open fields, while his ‘Orbit’ series bring to life an innate curiosity for the inexplicable – crop circles, lonely planets, and deep, open craters. Then there is ‘Wounds that inhibit a deeper realm of communication’ which, through a burnt piece of wood dragged down the white walls of the gallery space, seem to speak to ideas of productivity and process, and the frustration and fatigue that accompany both. But those are my interpretations. It helps if you know a bit about the time Soal spent making these works.
‘I was on a six-week residency in Knysna, sponsored by SAFFCA, and I was out of the city, where there are all these things that usually influence my work – concrete and rebar (steel supports in concrete), bottletops and broken glass – and without forcing it, I was sort of drawn to these wooden pieces,’ he explains. ‘I actually found the burnt pieces of wood on the farm I was staying at, leftover from the fires a year ago.’
While Soal says he tried to put the 2017 fires out of his mind during the process of creating the works, the resultant materials – charred wood and yellowed landscapes – did contribute to what he describes as a ‘formal language in the works.’
‘I’m using materials such as toothpicks, which can allow for a lot of texture, but I found that all the works had the same colour,’ he says. ‘I don’t enjoy superficiality, I don’t enjoy imposing things onto my work, so I thought ‘How can I add colour here?’ and that’s how the burnt elements came about.’
Soal also cites the natural curiosity and playfulness he’s had since a child as an ever-present influence on his practice. Growing up without a television in the house meant that he was always poring over books or playing sports outside with friends. These early years can be seen in his recent work ‘Imposed Structure (Deflated)’. The precarious wire and cement work, which sees a deflated and worn soccer ball impaled with (or supported by) rebar, saw Soal take home this year’s PPC Imaginarium Overall Award. Similarly, his earlier works – comprising strung-together bottletop sculptures – came from a walk through the city.
‘I was walking through Braamfontein and I saw something gold glinting at me from the other side of the road. My first thought was that it was a ring or a piece of jewellery that someone had dropped, but once I got closer, I found out it was just a gold bottletop that you’d get from a bottle of beer. That initial impression of the material sort of provided me with the basis for that body of work,’ explains Soal.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Soal’s works – both old and new – is the material simplicity in all of them. Toothpicks, bottletops, glass, and concrete are, by themselves, not complex items. They’re manufactured to serve a single purpose before being discarded or left to wear down. But through a ‘repetition of the singular’ as Soal puts it, they take on a certain harmony where form and meaning can be seen primarily through the way each item exists in relation to the other. Toothpicks, then, can become fields and bottletops can become creatures, depending on how you view them.
What’s next for Soal? Among the works in his current show, you’ll see a group of framed drawings that were made using the same materials he used in his other works – polyurethane and toothpicks. Soal explains how after working with drawing as a means of conceptualising his sculptural works, he’s starting to view the medium as something that can now become part of the works itself.
‘I’ve always done a lot of drawing, but the drawings have always been tangential to my work, so I wanted to try something new with these. I tried not to be too conscious of the drawings, it was more a case of seeing where the glue fell on the page and then using the toothpicks as activators of sorts,’ he says with a smile. ‘It’s new, man. It’s fun.’
Orbits of Relating is on show at No End Contemporary in Linden until 23 June.
Dave Mann is a Johannesburg-based writer and editor, co-founder and publisher of Ja. magazine. He has recently started contributing to House and Leisure.