Engels the Artist in his studio.
Engels the Artist did not get into art, art got into him. Endowed with a magnetic presence and energy, I was first introduced to Engels as he was standing in front of a portrait painted in his likeness, composed by the artist Patrik Graham at his solo show: Bagels and Other Portraits @ The American Scandinavian Society in late March of this year. Recently, this same portrait was featured in London’s National Gallery for the annual summer BP National Portrait Award, a prized annual exhibition which is now on tour around the UK, with the portrait of Engels as a dominant guiding force.
(From left to right) Curators Anita Alvin Nilert and Elfi Von Kantzow Alvin, Engels the Artist, and Patrik Graham. Photo Courtesy of: The American Scandinavian Society
Not only is this soulful personality a compelling force most gravitate towards and enjoy to paint and photograph, but he is also a gifted artist and enigmatic figure who embodies the word: Journey. Although he has been living and working in New York for 25 years, he has remained close to his Haitian and French roots. Inspired by murals he would see as a young Engels the Artist painted on the walls of the Holy Trinity Church (an iconic church for the people of Haiti, one which was recently destroyed by the an earthquake in 2010) his steadfast obedience and discipline learned whilst growing up in a third world country also taught him the importance in understanding the value of wasting NOT.
“Je Sais Comment”, oil and Chinese ink on canvas and linen with paper, staples, wood, photographs, and a ceramic flower, 2011.
“Splash“, oil on canvas, linen, and rice bag, and oil on stretcher bars, wood, and tree branch with vintage, illustration, bottle, string, wire and faux pearls, 2014.
A disciple of the spiritual, his conceptual and multifaceted compositions directly incorporate his mystic roots and Haitian origins, which he has deeply honed and enabled to evolve whilst living and working in NYC. A brilliant mind, to say the least, Engels is relentless with his philosophical and literal explorations, utilizing all found objects, anything from old wood, pieces of glass, rocks, frayed rope, vintage doll’s heads, and torn articles of clothing. He then, seamlessly incorporates these elements, taking each component into deep methodical consideration. While sitting back and leaning in, he listens, detaches, and builds. Eloquently weaving and braiding his self-educated voice and techniques of painting and photography into the breath of each unique canvas, thus, articulately summoning his viewers to understand and identify with the journey he endured whilst creating these abstract manifestations.
“Screen”, oil on screen with wood, staples, and business cards, 2012. Photo courtesy: of the artist.
On a calm summer Sunday afternoon, I graciously received yet another opportunity to meet with Engels, but on this occasion we were to meet in his Brooklyn studio. Upon immediate entrance, ego’s were silenced as breezes blew through windows like slippery shadows dancing within the warmth of slivers of the sun. While an eloquently curated mix of 1950’s French Jazz melodically stirred in the background, our meeting of the minds were enticed to set sail towards a synchronized discussion. As we were solemnly led in and around the halls of his caramel-colored wood floor studio, snapping countless photos of the corners and crevices which play a major role in the production of his work, Engels the artist generously unfolded…
If you were not an artist, what would you be instead?
ETA: I would not be anything else. I am an artist.
If you could title your artistic process like an author would a book, poem, or a song what would the title be?
ETA: Someway, Somehow
Where specifically do you normally find your materials, and how often do you go on these journeys of collection- or is it all incredibly organic?
ETA: Each piece has its own story. I never go out looking to find material. I find remarkable things in unexpected places. Something might catch my eye when I am taking a walk. My friend Nicole Desrosiers came to my door at 2 am with a torn landscape painting in a dusty, broken gold frame. It looked like it had been in someone’s garage for 20 years. She was so excited to give it to me that she could not wait until dawn. The tattered landscape became Bien Sure.
“Bien Sure”, Oil on canvas with watermark, ink, staples, and tassel, 2013.
It is important for an artist to have a community in which to bounce ideas around. Who would you say is part of your community?
ETA: I am self-taught. I work in solitude with my music, French and Haitian music from the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is less important for me to have a group to bounce ideas off of than to do the work. Ideas can come to me from anywhere, even from “nothing” —a white wall. No idea is original. It is for me to take the idea and push it until it speaks in a signature way.
What is your relationship with other Haitian artists working in the NYC art scene?
ETA: We know each other. Jean Dominique Volcy is a Haitian painter and we have been friends for so many years. He is family to me.
Recently your portrait was painted by the artist Patrick Smith, which was recently hanging in London’s National Portrait Gallery ‘BP Portrait Award 2014’ and is now on tour throughout the UK. How has this unique opportunity re-positioned the way you view yourself and your own art?
Photo Courtesy of: Cindy Millin.
ETA: I have a unique appearance. I get stopped on the street every day for photos. I have always thought of my image as a persona, something to be consumed. Yet, when I saw my image on the banner of the museum—the nobility of it—the importance of my image in view of history, race and identity struck me.
Best show you have seen in Manhattan recently? Best show you have seen in Brooklyn?
ETA:Whether in the City or Brooklyn, many of the new shows have disappointed me. The shows are over-thought. I feel like I am walking on to the sets of plays rather than into art galleries. There is a big sense of narrative, a need to comment on social problems or to make a statement about the environment, and it comes at the expense of an eye…use enough glue and rehash the ideas from the 70’s, and you have “art.” The Jason Rhoades exhibit is the cleverest and most skillful example of what I am talking about–lots of glue in a set where no play will happen. I left the gallery wondering why I came. I want to see gutsy, challenging work. I want the work to take my breath away. The same way I want it to take someone’s breath away 100 years from now. Jennifer Wynne Reeves’ work is like that. It is playful and has a lot of surprise.
Which galleries/museums would you like to see your work hanging?
ETA: MOMA, of course and a New York gallery that refuses to stand behind anyone else and a gallery or two in Europe, London or Paris.
Any artist (dead or alive), any bar, any drink: Who, Where, What, and WHY?
ETA: I am going to change the game. I will drink red wine because I like it. I have drunk enough red wine with artists. I am going to choose a critic with strong words— Roberta Smith. We will be in my studio because I am at my happiest there, my work is there, and there is no closing time.
Big Boss, Oil on door with fabric, cement, tiles, beans and spool of thread, 2013.
And finally, what does Engels have in common with Barack Obama, David Lynch, and Sheryl Crow? Each of these lovely peeps have been speaking freely with Dennis Raimondi.Go here to listen: www.kruufm.com
*All photos courtesy of Dorien Porter unless otherwise noted.
To see more of Engels work visit: engelstheartist.com