Steven Gontarski: Go east young man— to London (2000)

R.J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 27 September 2011.
This article was previously published in Sculpture, 19(10), pp. 12-3 in 2000.

Steven Gontarski

Steven Gontarski’s career has rapidly risen to promising stardom. With a one-two punch through the art world’s glass ceiling, he got into Charles Saatchi’s media-savvy New Neurotic Realism show (1999) and subsequently received representation by Jay Jopling’s towering White Cube gallery— alongside the high-profile lineup of Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Marc Quinn. I spoke with Gontarski— a native of Doylestown, Pennsylvania— as he reflected on his artwork, recent success, and why he moved from New York to London.

First, the obvious. Why go to London? “It was a reaction to New York,” says Steven Gontarski, who moved to the Big Apple after graduating from Brown University in 1994. “It’s a classic story— when you go to a Northeast college and decide to go for a career, you move to the City. And there are millions of people exactly like you. I had this job, and the art world was very strange— at the time when I left, there was very little going on for young artists, to give them a break— and little attention to young energy. I knew that if I really wanted to pursue art, I had to start over again.” And so he did. Fascinated with London’s pop culture scenes— music and fashion— Gontarski was accepted into the MA Fine Arts program at Goldsmiths’ College in 1996, and came to London, where he has since lived and worked.

Steven Gontarski is inspired by a variety of popular culture forms— the club scene, fashion and crafted sex appeal, MTV and TLC videos, movies and porn magazines. For Gontarski, “sex is an important thing,” as is gesture and pose, as well as fluidity and morphing amidst playful forms and voids; he tries “to make [the sculpture] as dynamic as possible when it’s not moving.” His earlier work included “weird animals” inspired by his time in the East Village.

About the sense of dynamism in his work, Steven Gontarski says, “I wanted to get a feeling of being at a club— so the figures are morphing and abstract, and the lighting is strange. It’s a very specialized way of looking at people— they look and pose differently in this setting.” His sculptural process emerged out of a preoccupation with sewing. In New York, he recalls, “I lived in a small apartment and came home from work; it was sculpture that I could make, and the fabric was a way of working that I could afford.” His objects have been made with transparent and white, as well as metallic, PVC, which references metal sculpture. “It gives a smooth and shiny surface. I like the comment it makes on modern sculpture, and I want to confront this a little bit more.” Gontarski is now experimenting with painted fiberglass. “It’s only after doing years of sewing bits and bobs together that I came to this— making weird animals and sculpture through fabric,” he explains. “It’s another way of working.”

Steven Gontarski mentions Arp, Miró, Brancusi, Moore, Duchamp, and Michelangelo as direct inspirations for his sewn “cover version” Lying Active (Dying Captive) (1998), as well as his fondness for contemporaries Gary Hume, Matthew Barney, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, and Cindy Sherman. When discussing influences, he states, “Obviously there’s a weird digestion— both conscious and unconscious— but the work is based on whether it looks right.” His materials and playful titles, such as Lady Godiva was a Freedom Fighter and Joan of Arc with the Lord to Guide Her (both 1999), from the theme song of Bea Arthur’s 1970s sitcom Maude— and the earlier, curiously titled Lesbians Acquiesce (1998)— certainly beg for feminist readings.

With his newfound position, is there pressure being attached to White Cube? “Basically, you are associated with their artists— Damien Hirst and Gary Hume— and you want to be as good and prolific as them. Suddenly, you’re in great company and you want to prove your worth. My main interest is making work and having less things to bother with on the side, like having to get a part-time job,” says Steven Gontarski. “It’s wonderful. Now I can do what I really want to.” He doesn’t shy away from contentious issues, including the business of artwork. “I have such a laugh when people talk about salability as if it’s compromising the art or it’s a very horrible thing— when it’s the most obvious and practical thing about being an artist.”

For younger artists, is London a better place than New York? “Yes. I honestly feel that those people who are showing in New York are fewer in number and proportion. Generally, the atmosphere isn’t as open,” says Steven Gontarski. “Here, there are a lot more possibilities. In a bad way, you could say London’s provincial— not as much a center of the international art scene as New York is— but in a good way, maybe it’s more unjaded or willing to see what’s out there. Besides, New York has become incredibly expensive and difficult to survive in, so it’s hard if your passion is to do something else.” In the U.S., he believes that Los Angeles has a vibrant art scene encouraging young artists.

Meanwhile, for him, “I can’t really say if I had stayed in New York this would have been impossible— for me, it was necessary to leave to get that new perspective.” If there’s a lesson to be learned, perhaps it’s that finding one’s audience and locating one’s tribe is crucial. According to Steven Gontarski, “No one just ‘discovers’ anybody. That just doesn’t happen.”