I recently heard a story from several years ago about someone salvaging a set of beautifully painted wooden panels from a construction site that bore the signature “Paul Senyol”. These panels have been lost in time, but the artist responsible for them has gone on from painting street corners to become a full-time artist.
Yet the city and the street remain a prominent inspiration and influence for Cape Town artist, Paul Senyol. Working from photos, notes and anecdotes that he compiles daily on his interactions and movements through the city, Paul’s colourful abstract artworks delve into these fragmented moments to explore the sum of their parts – line, colour, and form. Now ten years into his art career, Paul’s visual language of shapes, symbols and colours defines his style. His first solo exhibition in Johannesburg, Every Idle Word, opened on the weekend and continues his meditation on habitat, juxtaposing natural and built environments. The large colourful canvases, while for the most part abstract, resemble fractured landscapes and exploded vistas.
How, when and why did you first start making art?
I have been painting since my mid-teens. I was first drawn into making art through skateboarding. Skateboarding was my gateway into a world of creativity, and often the skateboarding magazines would have features on artists and designers. I also really enjoyed some of the board graphics that I saw in catalogues and in the magazines. Skateboarding broadened my thinking in terms of space and objects, and finding new uses for them. I started drawing and painting on found objects like wood and cardboard before ever even thinking of working on canvas. This led me to painting on the streets and walls around the neighbourhood where I grew up.
Please tell us a little about your journey as an artist thus far, finding your artistic voice and navigating the art world as an ‘untrained’ artist.
Well, I never trained as an artist, never did art class in high school… so everything I learnt has been through a process of observation, questions, experimentation, mistakes and spending lots of time at the library. I have been painting full time now for about 10 years, and have enjoyed every moment. Time is the true test of any artist, to keep on working, even when your work is not recognised, or selling. I started painting because I enjoy it, and I believe this passion has had a lot to do with my work ethic. I have never had the sense of being hedged in by any sort of formal training or education. Recently, my work was chosen as a finalist in the Barclays L’Atelier competition, and as part of the award we were sent on an arts professionalism course for three days. The course was very informative and insightful, and I found that much of what we were being taught I had already learnt over the years.
How has your style changed over the years and what has driven these developments?
I would say that over the years my work has started to mature more in regards to its depth and concept. With each new work, I am always pushing myself to create better work than I did previously. I can honestly say that in my work I do not always succeed in this goal. But it is something that I strive for. With each new work I incorporate things from previous works, and try new things.
At the moment I am pushing my work in a bolder, more colourful and abstract direction. Exploring line, shape, from, and colour all really excite me.
What mediums do you use in your mixed media works and why?
At the moment I am mostly making use of water based paints such as acrylics, watercolor pencils, inks, oil pastels, crayons, and spray paint.
I like to use different materials, as each one is able to function and create a certain effect within a work. I enjoy having multiple options at my disposal when creating a work.
For the past couple years I painted almost exclusively on paper, but over the past year and a half I have started to paint on wood as well as a few canvas pieces. Each of these has a certain quality of grain and texture. Towards the end of this year I have plans to explore a new medium which I think will change my work quite significantly.
How does colour figure in your work?
Colour is one of the most important aspects of my work. I draw inspiration from colours and textures that I see around me on a daily basis. At the moment I am really enjoying colour and all the possibilities it holds.
While your work is primarily abstract, the title of each work is quite specific and descriptive. Can you tell us more about this interplay?
Usually I will have a list of titles that have been inspired by something I have read, heard or seen. The title of a work is quite important to me, not only on its own, but in its relation to other works within a body of work, or a certain time period. When I sit down to plan a series of new works, I already have titles for the pieces, and they set the context and concept for those works. I like to think of the title as the viewer’s first point of reference when viewing a work.
Please tell us about your process, and how you know when a work is complete.
Along with a list of titles comes a series of sketches. These sketches often overlap and inform each other. I first take a few days to plan my sketches before starting on a series of paintings. These sketches form my basis for the composition of the works. They help me visualize the finished work, although at any given time the sketch can be changed if a certain part is not working well with the overall composition of the painting. The sketches help me with the layering of a work, and the process from start to finish, functioning as a good reference point as the work progresses. I usually know a work is finished when it most resembles the idea I had in mind at first and all the elements from the sketch have been executed.
Can you tell us about your influences, and how these translate into your artworks?
My first influences were from street art and skateboarding greats when I was a teenager. Names like Mark Gonzales, Ed Templeton, Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Shepherd Fairey… these were the people who I saw in the skateboard magazines, they opened up my eyes to the art world. Over the years I have been influenced to varying degrees by many great artists such as Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly, Keith Haring, Robert Rauschenberg, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, the list goes on and on.These all do find their way into my works, either by means of their approach to their work, conceptually, or by means of technique, or colour, energy, or simply beauty and admiration.
You say on your website that your work “celebrates the abstract moments of the image”. Can you tell us more about these ‘images’ or the ‘subject’ of your work?
I am often drawn to the details and close-ups of everyday life. The accidental drops of paint in the street, the buff markings over graffiti, the colours and textures. I extract these details and compose them as mentioned above into sketches. I take photos and make notes as I travel through the city and nature. These moments seem ingrained into my conscious thoughts. They eventually find their way into my works in some way or another. At the moment I am quite interested in the natural and built environments, and how we find ourselves within the context of these.
The artworks in your new show, Every Idle Word, have a landscape quality to them. Please tell us about the themes in this show.
For this body of work, I have been inspired by the natural and built environments. My movement between the two has been my most significant inspiration. I have drawn inspiration from mark-making, hand painted signage, the conversations of passers by, people, places, objects. The outskirts and margins of these spaces. Every Idle Word expresses my feelings towards these concrete habitats which we build and destroy and eventually replace. We all have conversations within and with these spaces.
Are there any forms, symbols or hues that recur in your work? If so can you tell us a bit about these?
The mark-making elements within my work at the moment are quite prominent, especially for this exhibition, where I have interpreted certain marks I have come across on the streets. I would say that the palette for this exhibition has progressed from hard to soft, and certain works are far more bold than others. In doing so I have sought to bring attention to certain areas of particular works. Some are very busy, while others have a far calmer atmosphere. There have been some new techniques I have been exploring with spray paint within a number of the works. This has been fun and these experimental strokes are quite refreshing for me at the moment.
Anything else you would like to add?
Of course a big thank you to the creator of all things, to my beautiful wife, to my family, to my friends, to Monique and Nina at salon91, to Glynis at gallery 2, to the RVCA ANP, as well as all those who support and enjoy my work.
Every Idle Word is on at Gallery2 in association with Salon 91 until 10 October 2015.
All images courtesy of Paul Senyol and Salon 91