The Mutation of Material, by Javier Torras
Javier Torras’ body of work consists of a series of thoughtful and thought-provoking compositions. Gently strung together, and delicately balanced, are assemblies that seem to pause time and trigger reflection in the viewer.
Rope, brass, steel, plaster, fabric–these are among the materials whose objects and forms make up Javier’s sculptural compositions and installations. Embedded within this mix, is a new, mutated material –reminiscent of both dark metal, and light porcelain, at once. Invented by Javier, this entity is soft, malleable clay encased in a skin of wax, resulting in a surprisingly hard material, with unexpected visual qualities.
From being the materials that have only played a supporting role in the making of timeless brass sculptures, and have later been discarded, in Javier's work, the duo of clay and wax together form a new mutated substance that IS the primary material for sculpture. This material lends itself to twisted organic forms in Javier's work and entirely unique surface qualities.
Beyond this material exploration and material innovation, Javier’s work is most deeply representative of human interaction with objects, and materials. He is drawn both to the impact of humans on our environment, and the making of objects and tools with our hands, and conversely, with the impact the environment and materials have on us.
These interactions and the gestures born from them are at the heart of Javier’s work.
In a recent conversation with Javier, as part of our ongoing Surface Innovation Series, the artist tells us about his motivations and interests, his signature techniques and way of mutating material.
MD: Javier you have transformed clay–a material that is pliable (when wet) and brittle (when dry)–into a hard, robust material. How did you arrive at your technique of coating clay with wax?
Javier: Wax and clay are very basic materials that have long been used as part of the process of making sculpture. They would eventually be cast in bronze or another more ‘noble material’, so to speak.
My fascination for techniques associated with these materials come from my interest in Roman art from the 17th century. Some Baroque art such as Bernini’s canopy and many of his statuary works in Rome gave me an incredible understanding of the materiality of those artworks.
When I was working with bronze for the first time, it came naturally to me to use clay and wax–as if the three materials were somehow ontologically connected. The lost-wax casting technique is thousands of years old, and this fact has probably perpetrated a strong relationship between the three materials in the human imagination.
I remember being in my studio, completely absorbed with the material qualities of clay, and how faithful they were to the gestures and traces left on it. But I knew that once the clay dried, it would lose some of that vivacity and power. It occurred to me then that wax could seal the clay, protecting it, as well as returning some of the effervescent sparkle that it had before losing its malleability. The result was fascinating–an exquisitely smooth surface emerged, and the materiality of the clay was exposed in its own natural condition, without being hidden in external colors.
The interesting shapes that evolved from this process suggested not only organic forms but also a natural tendency, as it were, to become or mutate into bronze while always making visible the reactions of combining clay and wax.
MD: What fuelled this interest in materiality for you?
Javier: I cannot separate this interest from my passion, and my academic background in art history, especially sculpture. I asked myself how the great masters of sculpture could take materials to unexpected paths of exploration–how could bronze or marble look like skin, or wood, or fabric even. It required both, a perfect understanding of the possibilities of the material, as well as a courageous spirit to achieve successfully what the artist had intended.
This fascination for sculpture brought me to work with my hands, and with different materials. This was aimed not only to comprehend the mysterious ways in which artists had worked with ancient techniques, with their intrusion and exploration of materials, but also to satisfy a personal need to express myself, to touch with my hands what they had been longing to.
MD: You work expresses an interest in the interaction of materials and objects with the human body, and human action or gestures. Why is this core to your work?
Javier: My conceptual interests originate from trying to understand how humans have shaped the world–what we know as a culture, society, etc. While that can be approached in many ways, I have focused on how human action has created circumstances which need to be looked at in a biological and anthropological framework. I have sought to understand the mutual exchange between the environment and humans–how we shaped the world, but also how the world shaped us. The answer (in trying to understand this exchange) lay in my hands.
For example, in human evolution, the appearance of the opposite thumb made possible the ability to grab and hold objects, which was essential to the tool-making process. This proved to be a turning point for humanity, and the evolution of our kind when being compared to other creatures. Human action had an effect upon different materials, transforming them for various purposes.
This cooperation of hands and brain allowed humans to interact with each other, and that improved their chances of survival. This could only have been possible by developing the capacities of speech, which brings us again to hands. The same gestures or movements to manipulate materials were embedded symbolically with ideas and concepts when a spoken form emerged. It should not be forgotten that we still accompany many of our words with gestures, broadly recognized as an efficient way to convey a message and to catch people’s attention.
MD: Having created a unique way of ‘evolving’ material, in ways that nature might over the passage of time, what applications do you envisage for this process and its results?
Javier: It is true that there is something very fragile about my sculptures, and time will have an effect on them sooner or later. Wax is a container of clay and dust–sealing a brittle object in time–protecting it from external agents. A really thin coat of wax contains evolving matter inside it, which is perpetrated over time until that skin disappears–evaporating or melting.
Such sculptures or installations have an innate performative role, which is aimed to contribute both to the creation of knowledge, in visual terms, and to create a temporal experience of a piece of art. If you think about this latter aspect, it is not that different from humans, a tissue called skin contains our organs, and our lives are as fragile as one of my clay lumps. Time has an impact on us, and so it is for my artworks.
MD: Tell us a little about your work Balanced Tension.
Javier: Balanced Tension is one of my latest sculptures and probably the most accomplished one amongst them. When I look at it, I feel ‘it makes sense!’
It is functional and aesthetically coherent–the interaction of objects is really present there–no 'hands' are necessary to explain the conceptual ideas I developed in my artistic research. Here my gestures shaped bone-like objects, which are suspended in space, in positions that suggest a continuous and dynamic turmoil around them. They hang on a rope which is completely outweighed by a large iron sphere, and which connects and charges with power each of the elements. At the same time, the individual elements find ways to relate to each other, full of earthy and organic qualities that remind us of human nature, its origins and place of belonging.
MD: Tell us a little bit about Matter Mutation, which was most recently exhibited at Charlie Smith London, as part of the show ‘Young Gods.'
Javier: In this work, what works in a very efficient way, is the material connection amongst the different objects. The ropes help the viewer to see the links created between gestures and matter; Matter that has been shaped by human action.
The result obtained remind us of totemic forms–with creatures or humans in the process of being represented, in lumps made of wet dust, what we define as clay. But beyond the human or figurative references that our minds can imagine in these objects, they also seem to respond to the bronze and steel, from a steel bar or tube, gradually mutating into black steel.
MD: What are you working on currently?
Javier: I am working on new installations and paintings. For my sculptural works, I will be using some industrial remains from factories close to a studio I have in Sabadell, near Barcelona. I am trying to incorporate glass as well–I believe that it will offer me new ways to further my interests in materials and the links that are possible to find in their different hybrid qualities.
I am also collaborating with a theater designer right now, on the subjects of painting and dance. We presented our work through a seminar at Chelsea College (UAL), to both students and professional dancers. We also held an exhibition in which I was able to present one of my recent paintings which showed the ideas developed during the seminar.
MD: What materials and methods would like to explore in the future?
Javier: Apart from incorporating objects made of glass, I would love to make glass objects myself. I want to combine or blend them with clay, iron, and bronze. Marble is another material I have in mind. I have the tools ready, but I need to build further on my learning how to work with this material.