Art That Looks Fluffy But It’s Not

The Future Forward Work of South African Artist Chris Soal

The SOAL Studio Team with Chris Soal bottom right
The SOAL Studio Team with Chris Soal bottom right

By Carolina Ramirez Herrera, edited by Raeann Mason on 5.10.21

As the world has finally started to take on greater social responsibility and action across various industries — from fashion to architecture to hospitality — it’s no surprise that creatives have not strayed far behind, in fact many have even led the charge. Artists from across the globe (and across mediums) are not only seeking ways to reduce the environmental footprint of their work, but in the case of South Africa’s Chris Soal, they use their work to send a greater message through the materials used to create each piece.

Aside from being an awesome human, Chris Soal is an award-winning emerging South African artist living and practicing in Johannesburg. He uses unconventionally found and recycled objects, such as toothpicks and bottle caps, in conjunction with concrete and other industrial materials. These materials provide an opportunity to reflect on the contemporary discourse he’s interested in: topics related to sustainability, value, aesthetic value, macro and microcosms of community, and working processes.

I first caught a glimpse of his work at the Cape Town art fair back in 2019 where my initial reaction was quite literally, “What IS this!? Looks fluffy…but it’s not?!” Part sea-urchin, part stroke-the-furry-wall vibes, the closer I got to the piece the quicker I realized it was in fact individual toothpicks that made up this beauty, and I have been stalking him and his art ever since. Fast forward to a year later, and Soal was the youngest artist to be participate in the Lady Dior Art #5 project, where 10 creatives from around the world reinterpreted the iconic Lady Dior bag as a unique work of art in their own style. Naturally, Soal transformed the high fashion label’s accessory with, you guessed it, repurposed toothpicks and bottle caps.

A glimpse from Chris Soal's exhibition
Chris Soal installation view from "As below so above"
Discarded beer bottle caps threaded onto electrical fencing cable and adhered to board.
Chris Soal "As below so above"

These days, despite the pandemic and the strict lockdowns in South Africa, Soal has kept himself and his team’s creative juices flowing, and their calendar busier than ever. Soal’s first solo exhibition, “As below so above,” debuted in Cape Town’s WHATIFTHEWORLD gallery earlier this year, and he just unveiled his first large scale outdoor installation and exhibition at Nirox Sculpture Park in South Africa (for New Yorkers, it’s a bit like Storm King but outside of Johannesburg). Ruin-like columns of roughly textured concrete (the texture’s suggestive of tree bark, dead coral or eroded marble) are created in actuality by pouring concrete over formed toothpicks and then pulling the toothpicks out. The presence of the absent toothpicks, and the material choice to utilize concrete, is one way the artist has attempted to engage with the Brutalist architecture of Johannesburg; simultaneously drawing out the tension with the natural environment. Works included in the exhibition will partly incorporate gold colored beer bottle tops, a commentary on the legacy of gold mining in Johannesburg.

Finally, for those in Europe, Soal’s first international show, “Sleight and Substance” is on view until the end of the month at Brussels’ Montoro12 Gallery.

Obsessed? Us too. For more, check out @Chris_Soal.

Chris Soal's
Chris Soal's "Field of Vision" Exhibit at WHATIFTHEWORLD, 2019
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