Paul Edmunds

Paul Edmunds has carved a niche in South African sculpture over the last 15 years with time consuming artworks that rely on repetition, detail and scale. He makes use of everyday objects that have been re-contextualised into complex pieces and conversations. We chat to him about critical feedback and making a living from art.

DIY: How would you describe yourself and what you do?

Paul: I’m a fairly hard-working, full-time artist, living with my wife in Cape Town, where I moved in 1996. It’s difficult to describe exactly what I make because it varies quite a lot. However, what everything I make tends to have in common is that it’s labour-intensive and concerned with material, process and pattern.

In short, I have learned to trust the process.

DIY: You spent some time at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. What did you learn from that experience that you’ve subsequently implemented into your artwork? When you came back to South Africa, how did your outlook change with regards to the state of our art scene?

Paul: I was only 22 when I went there, and managed to eke out a living on the Volkskas Atelier Award prize money for 11 months. Mostly I learned about being productive, and about the self-discipline that my work demands. I often felt over-stimulated and pretty alienated there, not speaking much French, being pretty impoverished and younger than most people at the Cité, so I learned to muster my own resources. When I returned I began a Masters back in PMB where I had done my undergrad studies. It was not the liveliest environment for that, but the previous year had taught me how to sustain myself with my work and my interest in my work, and so I really thrived for two years.

I was too young and isolated in PMB to have had many ideas about the ‘art scene’. However, being exposed to contemporary and modern art in Paris in 1993 gave me confidence in my own judgment and beliefs. Over the next few years, I only felt support in the local ‘art scene’, notably from contemporaries and staff from places like the former Durban Tech. I felt some kind of mentorship from people such as Virginia MacKenny, Lola Frost, Andries Botha, Jeremy Wafer and also Andrew Verster, whom I’d met in Paris.



DIY: What do you feel is the benefit and downfall of working with so many different types of materials and textures? Does your work contain deeper sub-conversations that only a few will pick up on? Does that concern or worry you? People failing to pick up your true intention?

Paul: I don’t set out to work in different media. Somehow my process just seems to work that way. When I decide to make something, I don’t then decide what material it demands. The ideas seem to arrive almost fully formed, and what I do can only be done in that one, specific way. I do find that I sometimes only get on top of a technique some way through a work. At the moment, I’m busy with some works in media I’ve used before, partly in order to benefit from my own ‘apprenticeship’, but also in order to challenge myself in other ways. I guess that moving from medium to medium does put some sort of pressure on me to keep re-inventing myself. Lately, I’ve begun to appreciate that I have generated a lot of ‘intellectual capital’ over the 16 years of my professional career, and I’m happy to enjoy the benefit of that for a little while.

My work contains many layers. Many of these are probably not available to a viewer, but they are part of the conversation, or even argument, that I have with myself that convinces me to make something. Also, many things reveal themselves along the way. Forms, interests and processes often recur without any conscious intention on my part. In the last few years I’ve come to understand that what I set out to do is not always what I achieve. However, I do feel that there is merit in this outcome, and that I could never have predicted it either. In short, I have learned to trust the process.

A viewer sees much in my work that I don’t, and it can be vaguely disturbing that someone can misread my intentions in certain ways, but once I’ve set that work free, there’s nothing I can do about that. Fortunately, I write all of my own press releases and have written and published a number of texts about my own work over the years, and I think I write clearly there, so that is available to a viewer.



DIY: In an article you wrote for ArtThrob some years ago you mentioned that you felt that there was a lack of critical feedback on your own work. Has that changed? If so, how do you deal with critics and how they interpret your work? Do you ever find yourself being critical of your critics?

Paul: I don’t generally have strong opinions about things like the state of art criticism in the country, but my own experience is that writing about my work has almost always been very supportive. I have seldom been ‘criticised’, and while this is great for my sensitive ego, I’m not sure this general practice is of benefit to the broader art world. That said, it is a very small and fragile art world ecosystem that we have here, and that does need to be sustained. Included in this is fairly limited media coverage. Ideally, insightful critical writing, both negative and positive, should form part of that sustenance. However, I’m not sure that this ‘ecosystem’ is robust enough to support such a practice, and often when it does occur it comes across as vindictive and gives rise to petty, personal feuds. Or it did, when I last paid much attention to it.



DIY: You have mentioned in a video interview that your work is very personal to you and you use your exhibitions as means to resolve a problem in your head. Do you think your art is selfish? As in, how concerned are you about making those resolutions more accessible to the public?

Paul: I may not have expressed myself clearly. The problems I meant are not so much personal problems as technical exercises and challenges that my work often involves. Perhaps these are manifestations of deeper, personal problems but I’m not qualified to say that, and it’s not what I meant! However, I am convinced that my art practice is essential to me, as it is to many artists. I’m not sure that any of the personal ‘resolutions’ in an artist’s work are of much interest to the public in any case. I don’t really want to know how indulgent any other artist is!



DIY: Are you still exploring pattern, and is process still more your concern than depiction and realisation?

Paul: Certainly. I might understand ‘realisation’ differently from you though, as the ‘realising’ of a work is the most important thing to me. I like to think that I make things that are more interesting realised than they are as ideas alone.


DIY: Making a living, never mind a decent one, from creating art is something most budding students aspire to achieve. What are some of the steps you think they need to consider to make that dream happen? When you lived here how important was it playing the connection game in a city like Durban and country like South Africa?

Paul: I’m a little old-fashioned, in that I believe in hard work, and I believe in being responsible and reliable. In a ‘creative’ field, the last item particularly gives you a big advantage. Art school might seem like a drag sometimes, but it will be a long time before you experience the kind of space, time and resources available there, so take full advantage of that.


DIY: We are nearing the end of 2012, so what plans have you got for next year? Any new exhibitions in the making?

Paul: I have just finished a major work which we showed at the Jo’burg Art Fair. I will be working towards a one-person show at Stevenson next year, and there are some group shows earlier. I’ll be sending something to Art Basel Miami with my New York gallery RH Gallery too .

One Response to “Paul Edmunds”
  1. Matt says:

    Great article appreciate it

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