David Horton

David Horton’s devotion to form and space in light developed early. His uncompromising work is mainly assemblage, his processes are sometimes rapid and sometimes contemplative, depending on his emotional urge at the time. ARTIST PROFILE spoke to him at his home in Stanwell Tops, NSW.

Your move into art came very early?
I won art prizes throughout school. I’d always wanted to be at art school. Leaving school at year 10, I went for a greenkeeping trade, but throughout that time I was interested in becoming an artist. When I finished greenkeeping, I thought “right, now I’ll do this”. So art always nagged at me.

What makes you want to know how something works?
I don’t know, it’s an impulse, the thing that shouldn’t need an explanation. It’s not mechanical things, it’s more emotional or felt things like music, art or cooking. Once you demystify something it lessens its mystery, it’s like learning how the magic trick works.

“Teaching is a parallel love to making art,” you said; how separate are they?
They’re different. Teaching art is a great privilege, generally I get to teach people I like something that I love. I try to get onto the wavelength of a student, suggesting things to progress their work. When the suggestions bear fruit, that’s the joy. Teaching gives me insights into my own creative process. You’re expressing opinions, the students take it on or not, that’s something I’ve always tried to make clear.

At Sydney Grammar School, I mentor in the three major conventions of sculpture – modelling, carving and assemblage. John Vallance, the Principal, provided a space for me to work and exhibit. The value I add is having an extensive knowledge of the field. I see where a boy is going; I mention a relatable artist or a direction or how to edit their work. I also get them to critique my work. It’s more a conversational than a didactic experience. We make sculptures together.

The support for the National Art School must give you confidence.
It does. I can’t believe the School would be in danger. Our cultural and economic contribution is recognised by the public. The School’s approach to art counterbalances the over-intellectualisation of art, from the majority of other schools. We teach students to make things, how to use their hands, in an intelligent and informed way. What you make has to stand up visually. This is the School’s valuable contribution.

Your titles reflect experiences and memories …
I always title after the work is made. The titles are from a desire to not call something untitled, not to be arbitrary. If you’re working with abstraction, the work will have a mood to it; that mood might remind you of a past experience.

How has Islamic art inspired you?
Firstly it’s the love and care, their love of their spiritual practice that the makers imbued into the work and places of worships. The patternisation not relying on human ornamentation. So, it’s the decorative parts coming together, the macro and micro. The decorative reveals as much beauty up close as from afar. Form and proportion are mathematically sublime. It’s a culture interested in beauty, it’s impossible to ignore. The objects they make, calligraphy and miniatures are some of the best examples of paintings produced by humans, ever. The scale is so right.

What about the human scale in your work?
I find all scales very different, idiosyncratic and intriguing. As I don’t work from my size, I have to consider the sculpture’s character in relation to its scale. They have their own aesthetic requirements. A smaller sculpture is more intimate, quieter than on a heroic scale.

Why is drawing architectural spaces so important?
Architecture is the symbiotic art form of sculpture. They’re about formed space in light, or in my work they’re about form and space in light. It’s contemplative, you’re there in the space as opposed to just walking through and gazing, looking at its superficial beauty. If drawn well, you feel closely linked to that space.

What about speed of construction?
The speed of the process is why I make assemblages out of steel. Generally, I don’t like steel, it’s dark, heavy and dirty, and you need an industrial space and heavy equipment. Welding is the only sculptural process that allows you to be so intuitive with steel. It has the same directness as drawing. All the other processes are slow. I can attach steel in a matter of seconds, then make the next decision, and end up with a sculpture where the rhythm reflects those decisions. It’s also the poisoned chalice, you can end up becoming quite indulgent. So there has to be a stepping back and an editing process to make it work.

Most of the steel shapes are off-cuts, by preference or necessity?
I like not being in control of the shapes, it works as collage, incorporating something with a particular property into a composition. It doesn’t feel unconquerable and predetermined.

Paper: is the process similar?
It is. This is the material I have an affinity with, the process of arranging these found things is very similar to the steel assemblage processes, except you’re arranging on a picture plane. It’s the ubiquitous resource, I can find paper almost anywhere. However, ink is very different. The ink is rapid. I can consider steel or collage, with ink I’m stuck with it. The ink is from calligraphy, the process of freeing yourself up to make an unconscious mark, you’re trying to forget to make a work of art. The gesture engages your body. All three processes – steel, collage and ink – are about my body, it’s not cerebral. Physicality drives all my creative practices.

What do you mean by “rearranging”?
It’s when I no longer find a work interesting, I have to reinvent it in some way, “rearranging” the composition, like chopping it in half, changing its orientation. Trying to get the next piece to go on with. That can be very curious, because I might need to live with the work for about a month while I make that judgement. Sculpture has a “chewing gum” effect. It’s fabulous when you start chewing it and after a while it loses flavour. That’s what I’m trying to avoid. I want my work to have holding power.

The artist Phillip George has been working with the aesthetic of acheiropoieta – “icons made without hands” – are you?
That’s the ultimate goal, where it doesn’t feel as though it’s been made by a person, it just exists, transcending authorship. You see that with artists like Matisse, you can’t even analyse why they’re good. They just are. It’s incredibly difficult and I’m not the artist to have achieved that goal yet, but works I’ve made have aspects where it doesn’t feel like anyone’s in charge.

Do you sometimes feel issues creep into your work?
Never. I want my work to be opinion-free. I have strong views, but I don’t want my art to be about those opinions. Ben Quilty was saying that art was the vehicle to express the ills of the world. And I agree there are real problems. I don’t imbue an artwork with any sort of solution. I’m suspicious of that happening in an artwork.

What about music?
The way I respond to music is be to think about its characteristics, then see if I can imbue a sculpture with the same character. In music you’ve got aspects that relate to sculpture. With sculpture, it’s temporal, because as you move around the sculpture it’s like a moving image. So you have to engage in that temporal sensation and make it link in with the sequential unfolding of music. I love music’s abstract programmatic elements. These abstract parts often remind us of our emotions. That’s very tangible. I try to do that in sculpture.

Do you have a central point with the sculptures or collages?
I try not to have a dominant move to the middle of anything unless that is space. Asymmetry is one of those great contributions of modernism, to take symmetry out of work. My aim is for balance through asymmetry. Symmetry is often too balanced and deadening.

What about preconceived views about sculpture?
I dislike prescribed views on sculpture. I don’t ever want to have that sense of “oh that’s a sculpture, that’s not a sculpture”; that restricts me being able to get on a student’s wavelength. There is one thing that often gets argued – a piece of machinery as a sculpture. Well, it’s not, it has sculptural qualities, but it’s ultimately a machine with a function. Essentially art’s power comes through the fact it has no function.

You want the Gestalt principle to apply to your work?
Yes. To satisfy my hunger for something complete, unified and right. Where you’re not reading individual parts. When it hits that point, I’m really satisfied, and that generally happens in the last five to 10 per cent of the making process. The whole reason why I engage in art.

Courtesy the artist and Janet Clayton Gallery, Sydney.

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