Updated: Apr 20, 2020
We recently got to chat with artist Andrew Wapinski about his process, intriguing use of material and his artistic journey. Wapinski allows the material to very much dictate what happens in the work, whether it’s letting pigmented ice melt and form shape over top of contrasting fields of black and white or grinding coal into the surface of the panel to formulate depth and texture. With either of these techniques, he achieves these marvelous contrasts that pull your eye in and out of the field, all around the surface, creating a depth and texture that is so vivid you can imagine running your hand over the surface and feeling the ridges (but don’t do that). The Philadelphia based artist just launched his ninth solo show, and first in New York, that shows off his Compression series for the first time! Wapinski was a great interview and we think you’ll really enjoy the insight he gives on his work, enjoy!
1.First things first, tell us a little about your background. What got you into art? Where did you go to school? What led you to become the artist you are today?
I was fortunate that my high school had a very solid art program so I suppose that was the actual beginning of my interest in art. I then went to Kutztown University in PA to pursue a degree in Art Education but as soon as I took my first painting class, I switched my major to painting. This is definitely when I got serious and began to think about art as a career. After graduating from Kutztown with a BFA in painting I took a year off to focus on building a portfolio and then attended University of Delaware to continue my studies in painting and get my MFA. Without question the professors that I studied with namely George Sorrels at Kutztown and Hilton Brown at UD set the foundation for the artist I have become.
2. You work with some interesting materials, like anthracite coal and pigmented ice, what significance does material hold in your work? And what inspired you to work outside of the typical material realm?
I have always been interested in the history of artist materials and the esoteric processes that accompany them. I was able to closely study traditional materials and techniques of painting as well as color theory and conservation with professor Hilton Brown while pursuing my MFA at University of Delaware. Having a solid understanding of traditional processes in painting allowed me to develop my own processes over time.
I never set out to work with materials or processes that were out of the typical realm. It is something that happened organically over a long period of time as I was asking questions of the work and beginning to build a narrative. Material is significant in my work because it is closely tied to the subject-matter and content.
In my Transmutation series ice is used as a metaphor for the passage of time as well as geological process. It is also a material that changes state from a solid to a liquid throughout the painting process. I believe this is significant in addressing the potential of natural material and anticipating that it can be shaped and reshaped indefinitely.
In my Compression series coal is used to explore the significance of a material in relation to sense of place. I am using anthracite coal as it is specific to the region and town in Pennsylvania where I grew up.
3. I'm interested to hear about your process, How does your work come to be? Everything feels so naturally occurring yet refined at the same time, so what is the process of that like? (Don't worry, you don't have to give too many spoilers haha)
When the material is such an important part of the painting as it is in my work, I always feel it is best to allow it to do what it will do naturally. As an artist my intent is to maintain the integrity of the materials I choose and coax them into balance with my subject-matter and content.
When using ice in the Transmutation series I am allowing blocks of pigmented ice to melt on the surface of the panels which I have prepared. Once the ice has melted and dried, I then rework the surface by layering with additional gesso as well as removing surface material by way of sanding. I will melt multiple blocks of Ice over different layers in a single painting and remove an extensive amount of material through sanding. What the viewer experiences in the finished work is the result of the image / form evolving over time.
When using coal in my Compression series I am grinding the coal into the surface of the panel with a glass muller that you would normally use for grinding pigment and making paint. Once the surface is covered in coal I will layer again with a thin coat of gesso and then begin the grinding process again. This succession will go on for as many as 20-40 layers where I am working the entire surface each time. There is intermittent sanding and material removal taking place in this process throughout selective layers.
4. Your Series Transmutation is comprised of work done over several years, how would you describe this series of work? (Both artistically and personally) And do you think this series has reached an end or will you come back to it?
My Transmutation series is still ongoing. In fact I have two large pieces I am working on in the studio right now. I would say this is my first mature body of work where I was able to develop a connection among process, material, subject-matter and content. This series allowed me to begin a narrative involving the interaction of man and nature and the effects on continually shifting environments which has become the baseline for everything that is happening in my studio at the moment. I will continue to work both series concurrently as they are both still evolving.
5. Moving on from there, what led into your new series, Compression? How does this series of work differ from your older stuff?
I don’t actually think of these two series in terms of old or new as they are two different avenues for exploring similar themes and both are ongoing series. The difference between them is that in the Transmutation series I am using form to address the content and in the Compression series I am using material to address content.
The Compression series has been developing for a few years. It took a long time to figure out the process of using the coal in a meaningful way. In this series the material itself becomes the vehicle for exploring themes of memory and sense of place. Form here is secondary to the weight and volume of material. The final aesthetic in this series is the outcome of the literal compressing of layers in the painting process. I felt it necessary to try and achieve an all over image with a static quality that does not project time and would allow the viewer to contemplate past, present or future.
6. Do these 2 series interact in any way or are they totally separate?
That is a great question and thank you for asking it! These two series are definitely meant to interact. The underlying narrative behind all of my work is the interaction of man and nature and the shaping of material with intent. It was the manmade alterations to the landscape surrounding my hometown via the mining industry that first got me thinking about how and why we use natural materials.
The Transmutation series additionally addresses cycles of construction and deconstruction through changing forms. The Compression series additionally address the manipulation of a single material as related to a specific place and my personal experiences with that place.
7. How does being in Philly and that art scene affect your work and your ability to show?
First and foremost it is certainly an affordable place to live and work as a full time artist. I think that you have to work incredibly hard to show no matter where you live. It is mostly about where and how the work fits for both you as the artist and the gallery that is showing the work. There is actually too much to name specifically but there are some great galleries here doing fairs and keeping Philly on the national and international stage. The museums as well as the university galleries and programs in the area are also doing great things.
8. You've shown across several states, just launched your first New York solo show, and are continually growing, any advice for students or artists new to the professional world on how to get into the gallery scene? Or just in general?
Compression at Mark Borghi Fine Art was actually my ninth solo exhibition but my first in New York and my first with this body of work. It felt great to get that one on the books. I would say the first key is to have a solid body of work that is well documented. Then it is a matter of getting it out there. The art world can be a much smaller place than it appears from the outside. Visiting galleries is a must. You have to go to openings and visit galleries consistently and build a relationship with other artists as well as the dealers and gallery directors. Apply to juried shows as well if you are just starting out. Build your exhibition resume. No one is going to find you or your work if you are just sitting in your studio.
9. Lastly, where can people find you? Any new projects you're excited about? Plug yourself!
Work from my Compression series will be available to view at Mark Borghi Fine Art in Bridgehampton, NY in July and August this summer. For a behind the scenes look at my day to day studio practice follow my Instagram @andrewwapinskistudio. To stay up to date on upcoming exhibitions please sign up for my mailing list at www.andrewwapinski.com.
We hope that enjoyed reading this interview! Andrew was amazing to work with and we're big fans of his work, hopefully from what you've read you are now too. If you're in the neighborhood, check out his New York Solo show or keep an eye for him in your area. We hope to get to work with Andrew again in the future to show you even more of his awesome processes and work.