Sharing skill and admiration for materiality and traditional craftsmanship, artists Ambrosine Allen and Andreas Senoner are our second pairing in Part III of our In Conversation series. At first fooled by an exquisite attention to detail in finish and display, it is with great awe that we as viewers find these artworks to be made by hand, in paper collage and wood carving respectively. Taking these techniques to their extreme aesthetic potential for sublime detail, the artists both breathe contemporary concerns into old-world crafts and media. While Allen focuses on the urgency to face Earth’s apocalyptic potential, through devastating and captivating scenes of turbulent sea, land and skyscapes, Senoner turns a quieter and more inward look to the body as beholder of potential in nurturing a respect for our environment, incorporating natural elements into eerily lifelike bodies and body parts carved from wood. There is a subtlety and stillness to these artists’ work that requires space and time, and this is as sincere a message, and integral to, their thematic content.
Simultaneously fantastical and real, beautiful yet troubling, the collages by Allen depict a world in turmoil, landscapes of altered ecosystems that are subject to bizarre natural phenomena. Ruins sit strewn amongst unfamiliar geology, the sea invades the land as the land shifts, the sky broods and terrifying storms roll in. Informed by the science, myths and history of humanity’s interaction with the environment, the series presents us with a ‘new world’, an alternative evolution that shadows our own but is violently shaped by the power and majesty of nature and the self destructive force of mankind.
Allen makes intricate collages, meticulously created using layer upon layer of tiny paper cuttings. The cuttings come from images found in discarded books and encyclopaedias, which are broken down into fragments so small that the images are reassembled using tweezers. The subjects are landscapes, often epic in scope but with a detailed aesthetic that references 17th and 18th century engravings of a geographical nature. Each piece often takes several months to complete.
Allen completed a BA in Fine Art: Drawing at Lancaster University and MA at Wimbledon College of Art, graduating in 2005. She is now living and working in South London.
Describe your decision process when selecting books and pages to cut from.
Firstly, I’m looking for a certain quality in the paper and print. The books and encyclopaedia I use are largely produced before the 1950’s when publishing processes began to change to cope with larger production numbers. I try very hard to source discarded and disused books and find that old encyclopaedia editions are perfect as there is very little practical need for them anymore, the information is outdated and they take up a lot of space so they are often sold on or even thrown away.
When it comes to the images I source from the books, even though I’m making landscapes, I’m not actually looking for geographical images. The cuttings I use are so small that it’s the presence of marks or line and tonal contrast that are important. Photographs of cloth and hair are really useful so portraits of historical figures are a favourite of mine. Images from science journals and photos of industrial processes are often useful too.
How much planning goes into each piece of work?
I typically have a strong image in mind before I start - images that I have seen or imagined over time and have made notes and sketches of. I often end up combining one or more of these starter images into any one final piece. When I first started to work with collage, I would work completely intuitively from these compositional ideas to build and rework layers of collage as I went and I think that this was an important part of developing my process and skill. However, I soon realised that the work takes so long to complete that I need to utilise every moment of my time and I tend to do more planning now. I will carefully map out the composition on stretched paper before I begin. The whole process is long and convoluted though so there are inevitably a lot of changes both planned and unplanned from starting point to finish.
Your collages depict a world in turmoil from natural forces, what is it about this subject that appeals to you?
I grew up in rural Suffolk and I’m at my most comfortable when surrounded by nature and open space but at the same time I have always had an innate anxiety about the vastness of the natural world and of my place within it. There are reassuring and healing certainties to be
found in nature – dawn follows night and seasons pass, but for me this only makes the chaotic and destructive side of the natural world – storms, floods, shifting coastlines - all the more fascinating and terrifying. Within this eternal balance of beauty and destruction comes the ever more pervasive evidence of man’s impact on the natural order of the world, of shifting patterns and dying eco-systems - I fear nature and I fear for it too. I decided a long time ago to embrace this anxieties in my work and it’s proved to be a great resource.
You have become a mother since your last exhibition with the gallery. Has this changed your practice or how you approach your work?
I talked to other artists who are mothers about this before my son was born and it became clear that motherhood would bring gifts as well as hurdles. As an artist who has always had an intensive studio practice that can at times be all consuming, I’ve felt the impact on my time and I’ve had to make some adjustments and sacrifices elsewhere in my life. I’ve found it really important to work with people who have an understanding of this and are able to see the bigger picture because it’s also been a time of shifting perspective and great creativity that will bring its own great reward.
What is your favourite quote?
“If you meet a woman of whatever complexion who sails her life with strength and grace and assurance, talk to her! And what you will find is that there has been a suffering, that at some time she has left herself for hanging dead.” Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab’s Wife, or The Star-Gazer
Inside or outside?
Having spent the morning outside, it’s luxury to sit inside and work, to dream and then look outside again.
Senoner centers his sculptural research on a series of main themes, including metamorphosis, heritage, and stratification, in a symbolic and material level. With his sculptures, he delves into the relationships that connect the individual, the mutable context in which he resides, and the elements that contribute to that transformation. For his artworks, he selects and uses unique materials, mostly from animal and plant sources - including wood, feathers, lichens, fabric, beeswax - always keeping in mind their history and process of creation and evolution, while giving value to those factors. The preferred medium is wood, an essential natural element, a collector of memories, a material that allows us to read traces of time - before, during, and after the artistic process. Senoner recalls the traditional sculptural processes in a contemporary perspective, based on the message he needs to convey, searching a language strictly connected to the concrete nature of the chosen materials and topics narrated. He tries to establish a dialogue and induce parallelism with the memories of the viewer.
Senoner attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence and the Facultad de Bellas Artes San Carlos in Valencia, Spain. He followed classes of Performance and Sound poetry from the artist Bartolomé Ferrando. In 2006 he was granted a scholarship for Minneapolis College of Art and Design (Minneapolis, USA) where he attended sculpture classes from artist Kinji Akagawa, with whom he deepened his wood carving technique. From that moment, wood has become a permanent feature as a material of expression in his artistic practice.
You often take part in residencies. Tell us about one of your trips and what inspired you about that place?
In my artistic practice, I consider the time spent in artist residencies as a very precious moment, and I carefully research where to send my applications. Living in Florence (Italy), a city full of history and monuments, I look at residencies as a refuge in a natural landscape, a place that will offer unique beauty, suggestions, and contents, where I can temporarily pause my usual routine to reflect on new ideas - while creating contact and dialogue with the local community.
For 2021/22 I am planning two residencies - one in Iceland and one in Sweden. I chose these locations in the far north because I am interested in exploring the relationship with light, as experienced by the local populations of these two countries. I will live for two months in Sweden in the summer, when the sun sets for only a few hours during long days, and I'll be in Iceland during the winter, when it’s dark most of the time and the Northern Lights are visible. I am convinced that these two extreme and opposite scenarios will inspire me a lot and lead me to develop new aesthetics, which I will integrate with the established ones in my research.
When I spend periods of time in residency, I prioritize the goal of relating to the urban context and the local artistic community, in order to establish synergies and develop new ideas for the specific context, which will become part of my artistic production.
Feathers, among other natural materials, feature heavily in your work, what is their significance for you?
I focus my research on a series of main themes, including metamorphosis, heritage, and stratification, on a symbolic and material level. In my sculptures, I delve into the relationships that connect the individual, the mutable context in which he resides, and the elements that contribute to that transformation.
I use specific materials, mostly from animal and plant sources - including wood, feathers, lichens, fabric, beeswax - always keeping in mind their history and process of creation and evolution, while giving value to those factors.
In my works, I often create contrast through the materials I use.
Feathers have a very strong symbolism, and they are an integral part of rituals and celebrations in many cultures, where they represent lightness and freedom.
I use feathers as surface coverings or to create layers, like an intangible and delicate skin or shell that still is able to confine and shield the represented individual from the outside world, thus creating an element of contrast.
How would you like the audience to respond to your work?
Contemporary art is a powerful tool to induce reflection on our state of being, a filter that shows reality in a different light. In my perspective, making Art is to rethink and reinterpret the modern world through my research, and instead of mechanically repeating things that have already been done, commit to proposing new points of view using methods, materials, and aesthetics linked to the present and future. I do believe that the more I convey an alternative perception of reality, the more I'm able to create a dialogue with the audience.
I expect the viewer observing my works to find similarities that they can associate to their personal experience while formulating their own interpretation.
You manage to tread carefully between beauty and macabre, what inspires this balance?
For several years I have focused my artistic research on the study of themes related to nature and its evolutionary processes, and through them, I have built a visual language that allows me to investigate the present human condition.
With experience, I have realized that some elements, when properly highlighted, attract the attention of the viewer. The challenge is to find a balance between those factors in order to create harmony.
Wood is a particularly good choice for this purpose, and for the themes that I deal with, because in the perspective of expressive purposes it gives the possibility to utilize characteristics such as grain, imperfections, or parts that were eroded from external agents, that emphasize the message.
If you could exhibit alongside any artist in history (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
An artist that I really appreciate, ever since attending the Academy of Fine Arts, is Kiki Smith. I was always very fascinated and inspired by her approach to the matter, her research on the physicality of the human body, and the way she deals with themes such as sexuality, rebirth, or women's rights. Looking at her work, I perceive her necessity to manipulate matter. Like Kiki Smith, in my research I also focus my work on the human body, dwelling on its symbolic meanings and its role in the space and society that surrounds it.
In Conversation: Part III: Ambrosine Allen and Andreas Senoner