Musician and visual artist Givan Lötz is described by his music publisher as “a shape shifter, an aural savant whose sound projects operate exterior to expectations”. The same can be said of his ability with fine art materials, be they digital or his newly established relationship with encaustic wax, while creating atmospheric, otherworldly abstract “mind” landscapes in which to escape. Gary Cotterell chatted to him at the opening of his show at the Association for Visual Arts Gallery (AVA) in Cape Town.
Givan, let’s start with your fascinating new medium. While just as atmospheric and layered, your “wax paintings” seem more organic, like artefacts, and worlds apart from your earlier works created using digital technology. Tell us about encaustic and what drew you to this ancient medium.
Encaustic — also called hot-wax painting — is from a Greek word meaning “to heat” or “burn in”. That is not so much about the wax as it is about the fusing of layers. There is heat involved in making the work. The substance itself is a purified beeswax that gets pigments added to it and is hardened or tempered with dammar resin (a tree sap), which is then boiled up and that raises the melting temperature of the wax. It’s not like a candle that is just going to drip away on a hot day. It’s much more stable than that.
There are a couple of reasons I like this medium. One of them relates to the subject matter in that there is this dual property. On the one hand, the wax is like a preservation layer - it’s protecting and moisture repellent and the colours will stay like this for a 100 years or more, so things aren’t going to fade or yellow. But it is also wax, so it is kind of fragile in the sense that if you hit it hard enough it will get gouged out and, if you apply extreme heat, it is still fluid enough to get broken down. That kind of dualism between its preservation and vulnerability is kind of like nature for me, where it has this prowess but, as we have seen, it’s is also very vulnerable.
The ancient Greeks used it precisely for the preservation aspect to it. Some of the oldest works are the Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits from around 100 to 300AD that have survived without any fading.
But there is a common thread in both media. In both instances there is certain amount of openness or generativeness, if I can call it that. In the digital works there are parameters that get set, ingredients get fed in, something gets customised for a surprise at the end. The wax is just more analogue and I’m doing it with my hands. The approach is similar but the end result is obviously quite different.
How much are you in control of the digital works and how much is generated by algorithms?
The algorithm is aiding the process. I’m tweaking it and telling it what to do but, essentially, I’m not going in there and placing every little shape. I’m deciding what the parameters of that world are and I’m feeding in an ingredient and giving it an instruction to generate. In my mind there is a similar process except with the new medium I am the computer.
One of your bigger works Lucian Lift looks like burning bush or forest. With nature up in flames around the world, and although you do allude to the current state of environmental affairs, this is not the sole theme of your show Unearthly: Landscape as Mindstate.
What’s important is the duality that’s in place. The fragile nature of things, as well the power to reclaim, regrow and rewild. Nature may lose the battle but will win the war eventually, is the hope that I have, and that it will surpass this thing that we are doing to it.
To touch on encaustic again, the idea of “burning in” and the molten state of the wax, there is a lot of allusion to that in some of the titles as well, there are a lot of things burning, but there are equally things growing. So, there is this to and fro, a tension between the two poles. The other thing that’s important about the technique is that the big idea is that each work is a trace of a natural scene to a certain extent
The starting point for this thinking is that when you’re a child and you have a piece of paper and a pencil, and you make a rubbing of a leaf or a texture, you’re tracing an aspect of nature. This, for me, is a similar kind of process but here the medium is tracing itself and I’m steering the paint rather than overly contriving or trying to control it too much. It is, naturally, in a fractal manner, echoing those natural organic forms and processes, whether they be organic and living, or more geological, like rocks, or fluid types of surfaces.
As an artist, you need to intervene or have an intension, an idea …
Absolutely, it’s more like parameters that I’m tweaking. I don’t believe that great paintings are planned. You can sketch away and have a rough idea but, at some point, you need to be proficient in your technique for it to surpass all of those very conscious things and sublimate into a work. Beyond the talk and concepts, the work at some point is just made.
I know you through your early digital works and your music. Which came first?
As a small child, I was always drawing and early on had a penchant for making music. My one grandmother was an artist, the other a pianist. That is where the early pull came from and they ran parallel. I had classic music training at school on trumpet and guitar and theory, as well as what they call finger-style guitar playing, so a fair amount of technique that I’ve learned but consequently unlearned to temper myself. But I studied design instead as a kind of side-door to a more fine arts approach, eventually. It’s been a long, gradual process towards working with my hands in a more traditional fine arts way, where I started out in digital visual innovation.
The thread is very similar, though. When I think about my early digital works of triangular shards or circles they are also quite scenic, existential caves which you could escape into or through, like portals. The same thing was important — small ingredients building up a larger whole. The idea of the ingredient building and accumulating and something building from that is still present.
Although you say your music is separate from your art, your work is almost a visualisation of your musical compositions, of what a soundscape might look like. Is this how things work in your head?
It is always about an atmosphere, so the music itself is also atmospheric. I could also say that the music is the aural version of this sort of thing because I don’t like making music that feels too clean or separated from a setting. I always like to nest it in a world, so that it sounds like it’s in a very specific place. That atmosphere or ambience is always present in the music. There is definitely a common ground there but they run in parallel and are not integrated.
How would you describe your genre of music?
For a long time I thought of it as a kind of folk music, not in the traditional sense, but in the Leonard Cohen singer-songwriter sense, and then a little left of centre of that. I guess it’s experimental, singer-songwriter, ambient folk. Ambient, back to that atmosphere … it’s not clean song writing.
Back to the new work. Did the shift in media happen during your residency in Helsinki?
The shift came for me when I had a hiatus in making visual work and I was very much involved in making music. You had this question about which came first — it kind of oscillates. For a long time, about five years ago, I was writing and putting out records [through Other Electricities, an experimental label in Miami. I wanted to get back to making visuals and I had this offer to attend a residency programme in Finland.
I was interested in it because the theme of the residency was quite existential — “Silence, Awareness, Existence”. There were days of silence and meditation — no wi-fi days, which is really important for focus. But, interestingly, I had originally embarked on this with the idea of making more music as the project I’d originally proposed, and what secured me the invitation, was using the atmosphere of the area and translating it into sound, which I did as well. But finding myself in a place where I had an actual art studio space, I allowed myself to get back into making with my hands.
I completed the sound project in parallel to this opportunity that presented itself. I spent the first two weeks just drawing; getting back to basics with charcoal. And then I adjusted a simple monotype printing technique that didn’t require any special printing paraphernalia. This was the initial seed for the idea of the trace of a world or a landscape. I then started experimenting with the effects of different oils and papers.
The landscape there was very stark, as it was winter, very snowy and cold, so I concentrated just on form, black and white. That’s where I discovered the form of the thing, the granular “noise” that binds this physical world I’m talking about.
That led to another residency in upstate New York, where I was presented with colourful springtime and now I had to interrogate the colour part of it as well. Again, this thing that I am filtering — what’s around me in the landscape — and tracing it and capturing it to some degree in the work. Background, foreground, macro and micro are loudly present simultaneously. That’s where colour came into the mono prints.
While I was there, I ran out of a specific oil-paint bar that I’d been using to make marks, or interference layers, as I call it. It just so happens that R&F Handmade Paints, the company that makes that paint, was across the river in Kingston. I visited them and discovered the encaustic wax. I did a workshop to find out how encaustic works and immediately understood that, to translate my smaller prints into larger works and make paintings on canvas with oils, I could do that so much more immediately and gesturally with the wax process.
How does it feel to work with encaustic?
It doesn’t function like other paint mediums. You’re heating it on a palette. It’s hard and cold, then it’s warm and essentially a liquid and, as it hits the surface, it’s already starting to dry, so you are forced to work gesturally and fast. Especially at large scales. You can, of course, heat the panel to rework it. I’m heating implements and dragging them over the surface, I’m scrapping things back. And adding more sediment. It’s a very physical process. That’s important to me. It’s this little petri dish, micro world that has its own physics that echoes the outside world.
Does its unique physics and mimicking of the outside world fascinate you?
Absolutely. I think it’s the really physical mode that you have to work into. You are not rendering every little leaf or blade of grass, being meticulous with a brush. You are allowing the physics of this technique to echo something. You have to build a proficiency in its language, on its terms. I now have enough control so that it’s not random. It can be an absolute disaster if you are not conscious of how it works.
• Lötz will be conducting a walkabout and discussion of his new work during the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, which runs from February 14 to 16. For details contact the AVA.
• Unearthly: Landscape as Mindstate runs until February 27 at the AVA Gallery, 35 Church Street, Cape Town. 021-424-7436 or firstname.lastname@example.org.