The first time I saw a work by the young Joburg-based artist Chris Soal, at the Joburg Art Fair last year, I stopped in my tracks. At first, I couldn’t make out what it was – a wall-hanging of sorts, its strange organic patterns looked like thick, dense animal fur, but larger. Or a field of long grass when the wind blows through it, but smaller. Or even some sort of spiky undersea organism. It was only when I was right up close that I realised its whorls and waves were thousands of toothpicks leaning this way and that, sculpted as if they were a unified medium, rather than individual objects!
I recently had the opportunity to visit his studio (his parents’ garage), where he was preparing works for a booth in the Tomorrows/Today section of the Cape Town Art Fair, and to chat about his work. (He won the PPC Imaginarium, a prestigious art and design competition, last year.) Variations on that toothpick sculpture in various stages of completion – and pushed in new directions – are being prepared for the fair, and there are other experimental works in progress dotted about, as well as older works and half-complete experiments. There’s an undeniable tactile energy about these sculptures, as well as a strong physicality. The sense of movement and the artist’s presence as he shapes them are palpable.
Soal explained how he took a cellphone snap of a box of toothpicks in a restaurant some years ago, when he noticed the pattern they’d naturally fallen into, for future reference. The pic lay dormant on his phone for two years, however, before he began experimenting with the idea of using toothpicks to create an artwork. It wasn’t until a South African Foundation of Contemporary Art residency gave him the chance to spend six weeks with artist Minnette Vári in Knysna at the beginning of last year that he really pushed the idea – with spectacular results.