Planet Notion

Piers Secunda: A Retrospective

Piers Secunda’s solo exhibition at Uptown Gallery was featured in Planet Notion:

In the pouring rain, I wait outside the tall iron gates of East London’s Triangle Studios (SPACE), Piers Secunda appears beside a puddle and waves me over. Formal introductions are quickly concluded as we climb a flight of stairs, littered with forgotten scraps of artistic inventions, where both material fragments and imperceptible ideas are detectable. Entering his studio, my eyes instantly drift over to a large scale sculpture that hangs from the wall with a defiant volatility, literally screaming out into the middle of the room as it extends across and into all visible dimensions.

Turning to offer me a drink, Secunda notices my staring. “I don’t know how much you know about my work,” he begins, grinning, “but that’s made from paint.” I gaze around the rest of the studio, the floor bespattered with paint, and spin a full 360 degrees firmly rooted to my chosen point. There’s a lot to take in; all around me, I’m surrounded by creativity in a constant state of development. Before I even ask a question, Secunda begins to speak animatedly. “Yes, that’s paint. All these sculptures,” – he gestures towards several walls – “are primarily made from a custom manufactured industrial paint. I spent a long time working out how to get it to work the way I wanted it to.”

The sight of these paintings – in the most unconventional sense of the word – from the large, extravagant sculptures and assemblages to the far more intricate Chinese puzzle ball (above), creates a conflict between our understanding and senses, our assumptions and reasoning. The appearance of these objects is so unlike our expectations of paint’s use in art, that it almost becomes crucial to constantly remind yourself of the medium.

By removing paint from the traditional surface of a canvas, Secunda creates three-dimensional works that are simultaneously a surface and a medium, a backdrop and an instrument. Bothered by the limitations of a canvas, he chose to push paint beyond its traditional boundaries. “I wanted to create something gritty, physical, something raw with texture. I spent years experimenting with paint, sculpting it, hammering it, assembling it, painting over the sculpture of paint. And then I went to China.”

Following a residency is Shanghai in 2009, Secunda developed this 17-year-long manipulation of paint for its use as a sculptural medium into works of social and political confrontations. “When I was out there, I wanted to find people who had shot someone,” he says with a frankness that takes me by surprise. But before a question has even assembled in my mind, he goes on – “What I mean is, I wanted to find to find a serious, dramatic situation. Something poignant that happened at a specific moment.” This reporter-esque approach to art led Secunda to an army firing range, whereby, with the help of a friend, he left with sheets of paint shot through with bullet holes.

This was the beginning of a collection of works surrounding bullet holes, and, wanting to develop it further, Secunda left for Afghanistan in 2010. The works from Kabul are casted from bullet holes made by Taliban gunfire. Following a vivid account of Taliban violence, Secunda begins to talk of the notorious drug lord ‘Mr Coke’. Following the massacre of both buildings and people in Jamaica’s Tivoli Gardens (see above) where Coke was residing, Secunda again went to gather moulds of the bullet- worn street. It’s easy to see how, within this branch of work, Secunda taps into the confusing human interest in fatality – just as you slow down to watch a car crash, staring at a tragic documentation of
violence and death triggers an unnerving fascination, a trembling curiosity, a compelling wonder.

Secunda goes on to discuss a series of silkscreen oil prints that portray the history of the oil industry. Interestingly, some works are incorporated into the shot works (see below). “The majority of human activity is today facilitated by crude oil, and so it becomes the ultimate artist’s material,” he explains.

“Oil continues to engineer and develop the Western World. What’s fundamental to remember is that
there is little we can do now – except breathe – that isn’t facilitated by the oil business. It’s that far

It might be easy to assume that, given the governmental tensions surrounding the trade of oil, Secunda is making a political statement, But he insists, “I have no political position here. I’m simply making records. I want to document human activity as it stands today – the best and the worst of it – and what people are doing is ultimately dictated by oil.” For each work, Secunda explores photo archives for an image that perfectly captures the most important moments of oil industrialization from across the world – and years. Dammam No. 7 Blowing In (2011, above), for instance, is an image of the well head that became a landmark of the birth of Middle Eastern Oil. Secunda then collects oil from the places shown in each image and, with the help of solvents and varnish, creates prints in the oil itself on industrial paint. As it currently stands, there are around 100 works, with Secunda’s plan to continue to compile a chronological collection of the petrochemical age.

With most projects on-going, it perhaps seems unusual that a retrospective of his work is now taking place at Updown Gallery. Nevertheless, it is ten years of work that is rich in forgotten history and current geopolitical references that need to be confronted. The meaning that drives his compositions is reflected both in the content of his work and in the medium itself, creating varied series’ that nevertheless remain rooted in portraying the world as it stands today. Towards the end of the interview, he condenses the essence of his work – and in someways, our interview – into a single phrase: “The most important thing an artist can do, is to document something at the time you’re alive.”

Piers Secunda – “A Retrospective” is open at  Updown Gallery, Kent , until July 27.
– Charlie Clarkson